Sadequain at AICON, New York

Josheen Oberoi visits AICON Gallery’s expansive Sadequain exhibition

New York: It’s been a quiet month in the New York art world. With half the community decamping to Art Basel and the rest distracted by the blessed warm weather (we had a tough winter here!); interesting shows have been relatively thin on the ground. Not for South Asian art, thankfully. AICON Gallery is showing a mini retrospective of the Pakistani artist Syed Sadequain (1930-1987) and I was excited to see it not only for the quality of art but also the rarity of having access to such a body of work.

Occupying the entire expansive space of AICON’s Lower East Side gallery, this exhibit shows the gamut of Sadequain’s oeuvre. One of Pakistan’s most celebrated modernist artists, Sadequain was born in 1930 in Amroha, east of Delhi, in a family of calligraphers. He subsequently moved to Pakistan after his graduation from Agra University in 1948. He shot to fame at the young age of 31, when his work won recognition at the 1961 Paris Biennale.

A self-taught artist, he is most commonly identified with the development of a uniquely idiomatic calligraphic aesthetic. However, his visual language is in fact one of the most variegated and complex of the South Asian modernists working post 1947. He simultaneously worked through a variety of calligraphic, narrative, abstract registers, with artistic influences that ranged from multiple mediums; poetry, Western and South Asian historical artistic traditions. His compatriot, collaborator and famed poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz stated about his work, “In spite of his considerable pre-occupation with the solution of technical formal problems, Sadequain has never been purely a formal painter. Recordist, abstractionist, social critic, emotional visionary, within a few short years, Sadequain has sped from one role or compulsion to another with equal impetuosity.”

Three standing figures

Three Standing Figures, 1966, Oil on canvas, 72 x 48 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Sadequain’s engagement with language was seminal to his work and this is visible in this exhibition. Comprising twenty seven paintings and three drawings, the show is dominated by a collection of paintings from the 1960s, when Sadequain lived and worked in Paris. Titled The Lost Exhibition, this set of eight paintings are dancing figures of calligraphy; lyrical despite their scale. These works are considered examples of what the artist called “Calligraphic Cubism”. Employing the scratched surface technique on the background, the texture produces volume and three- dimensionality. Seemingly caught in action, the elongated movement of the script along the vertical axis make these works appear monumental in viewing. Sadequain described himself as a figurative painter and the dramatic execution of the Arabic Kufic script in these works, the ensuing conversations that are taking place on the canvas, did bring home that idea to me. These are the strongest works in the exhibit and definitely worth a dekko.

Man with Dagger, Oil on canvas, 54 x 30 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery

Man with Dagger, Oil on canvas, 54 x 30 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery

Some of Sadequain’s formally figurative works are also part of this exhibition and these underline the remarkable range of his visual vernacular. Line, form, perspective – I was hard won to find a singly unifying element among these paintings. One of the more striking of these was Man With Dagger, showing a man holding a dagger in one hand and a head that resembles his own in the other, accompanied by a smaller figure of a woman holding a leaf. These muscular renderings, so different from The Lost Exhibition, are echoed in another set of calligraphic paintings in the exhibition, Untitled (Abstract Formation I and II). Interestingly, the image of a severed head is repeated in one of the works on paper, Untitled, Headless Self-Portrait. It clearly shows the headless artist in a studio, with a work of calligraphy in the background.

Untitled, Abstract Formation 1, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 16 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Abstract Formation 1, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 25.5 x 16 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Headless Self Portrait, 1967, Ink on Paper, 28 x 20 inches Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

Untitled, Headless Self Portrait, 1967, Ink on Paper, 28 x 20 inches
Image courtesy: AICON Gallery, New York

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1962, an edition of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro rightly noted, “Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact in plastic.” He shifted the paradigms of calligraphy, especially in his realization of its abstracted and stylized forms. This post cannot effectively capture the entire spectrum of his languages and so I would strongly recommend a trip down to the gallery to see them yourself if you’re in New York.

You can learn more about Sadequain at the Sadequain Foundation website (co sponsor of this exhibition) and from this article by art historian Iftikhar Dadi.

Seher Shah in Huffington Post’s “10 International Artists to Watch in 2013”

Manjari Sihare shares details of Seher Shah’s mention in Huffington Post’s List of Ten International Artists to Watch in 2013

Seher Shah_Radiant Lines-X Block

Seher Shah
Capitol Complex: X-Block
Collage on paper, 11 x 14 inches, 2012
Image courtesy of Nature Morte Berlin

New York: Contemporary art in Pakistan is finally receiving much deserved international recognition after bordering along the shadows of art from India. Last week, the Huffington Post listed Seher Shah in its take on international artists to watch out for in the coming year. New York based artist of Pakistani origin, Seher Shah has lived in different parts of the world  including Pakistan, the United Kingdom, Belgium, and now the United States. Most recently, Seher’s has been in the news for her work in a current exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art, Radical Terrain which celebrated the genre of modern Indian landscape painting juxtaposed with new work by younger contemporary artists. Watch the blog for more on this exhibit in the coming weeks.

Over the past 5 years, contemporary Pakistani artists have gained major international recognition. Among these are Rashid Rana who is well known for commanding high prices for his photomontages in global auctions. In November last year, the Deutsche Bank conferred Imran Qureshi with their “Artist of the Year” award. Similarly Shazia Sikander, a graduate of Lahore’s National College of the Arts, now based in the US,  has long been popular across the globe, receiving attention  and place in the collection of avid art collectors such as Bill Gates. In November, Saffronart held its inaugural auction of Pakistani Contemporary Art, which featured a total of seventy lots and represented an eclectic overview of the genre. Read more about some geniuses of Pakistani contemporary art in this article.

Imran Qureshi is Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year 2013”

Imran Qureshi
Moderate Enlightenment
2007
Gouache on Wasli
8.5 x 6.5 in
From: Saffronart’s 24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan, Lot 31
Exhibited and published: Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, 2009-10

Manjari Sihare of Saffronart shares details about Deutsche Bank’s 2013 Artist of the Year Award conferred to Pakistani contemporary artist Imran Qureshi

New York: Deutsche Bank has presented its fourth “Artist of the Year” award to leading Pakistani contemporary artist Imran Qureshi. The selection was made on the recommendation of internationally renowned curators including Okwui Enwezor, Hou Hanru, Udo Kittelmann, and Victoria Noorthoorn, who comprise the Deutsche Bank Global Art Advisory Council. This award was instituted in 201o to honor an international contemporary artist who has already amassed an unmistakable and extraordinary oeuvre working with the paper medium or photography,  the two focal points of the celebrated Deutsche Bank Art Collection.

The Deutsche Bank Collection is  one of the most comprehensive corporate art collections in the world, featuring over 55,000 photographs, prints and drawings worldwide. The Collection started with early acquisitions of significant German-speaking artists such as George Baselitz, Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Pölke. As the Bank has grew globally, so did the size and interactive nature of their art collection, which was directed to reflect today’s diverse contemporary art world and an international point of view. Hence works of German artists were juxtaposed with works by master artists from respective host countries. The bank’s art collection is strategically headquartered in New York City to take advantage the city’s vibrant contemporary art environment and the international profile of the people who work in and visit the bank daily.

The award is not based on a financial reward, but positioned as an integral part of Deutsche Bank’s art program through its  substantial collection, exhibitions, and its joint projects with partners. For the past three years, since its inception, the reward included a solo exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin accompanied with a comprehensive catalogue, an exclusive edition designed by the artist and acquisition of the artist awardee’s select works on paper for the Deutsche Bank Collection. This year, the announcement coincided with another important disclosure by the Bank. On Monday, November 12th, 2012, the Deutsche Bank announced the space which currently holds the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin will be converted into the German capital’s newest kunsthalle in Spring 2013. This announcement was a follow up of the news that broke out early this year of the Guggenheim closing its Berlin premises at the end of 2012.  This space will mark the end of the bank’s 15-year collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. In its press release, the bank declared that “the Kunsthalle is conceptualized as a place where young, promising talent can be seen first. Its inaugural exhibition in April 2013 will feature the work of Imran Qureshi, one of the most important figures on Pakistan’s art scene today.” Read more.

To learn more about Imran Qureshi, click here.

The Art of Imran Qureshi

Guest blogger, Sayantan Mukhopadhyay reflects on Imran Qureshi’s Moderate Enlightenment series of paintings

Imran Qureshi
Moderate Enlightenment
2007
Gouache on Wasli
8.5 x 6.5 in
From: Saffronart’s 24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan, Lot 31
Exhibited and published: Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, 2009-10

New York: As contemporary art hurtles further into its characteristic world of postmodern diffusion – where national categories give way to dissolving borders and trans-regional connections – potent markers of heritage serve as reminders of mooring and place.

Imran Qureshi has stated the importance belonging plays in his art and his Moderate Enlightenment series reveals a keen interest in re-pitching a distinctly South Asian artistic vernacular, paying homage to tradition and the importance of history in visual storytelling. The miniature – an art form that has been devoted exclusively to portraiture and the human form – is an encounter with an individual. In its historical use, important imperial or divine figureheads would be richly painted and ornamented with gold leaf, allowing inquisitive eyes a point of access into the court or the heavens.

Qureshi paints intimate portraits of religious men and finds a quiet anxiety with contemporary Pakistan therein: seemingly mundane images of men turn into hidden symbols of social unrest. These post-9/11 treatises search to understand how perceptions of zealotry can be influenced by fashion and posture. In his use of the miniature, he highlights the issue as a South Asian one, fixed at once to geography and culture, but also one that is fiercely contemporary. Here, Orientalist fantasies of Pakistan cede to modern concerns and pressing international affairs.

Qureshi’s dexterous mastery over the miniature is a testament to his need to find a global voice laden with legacy. In a painstaking process that requires deft use of fine brushes, miniatures must be held close to the artist’s eyes to ensure accurate detailing. The artist’s inestimable skill earned him a place in the Asia Society’s iconic exhibit of contemporary Pakistani art, “Hanging Fire,” in 2009/10. He later went on to win the Sharjah Art Prize in 2011, establishing him as one of Pakistan’s most important stars today. Refusing to be titled reductively as a ‘Miniature Painter,’ he has shown himself to be a versatile artist, his large-scale installation pieces proving him comfortable with media either big or small. An artist to watch and to follow, Qureshi lets us catch glimpses of a Pakistan through visions grounded there but equally aware of the world at large.

Sayantan Mukhopadhyay is an Associate at Aicon Gallery, New York’s leading gallery dedicated to South Asian contemporary art. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Art History and Comparative Literature from Williams College and has spent time with the Indian & Southeast Asian art department at Sotheby’s New York.

The Geniuses of Art in Pakistan

Guest blogger, Ali Adil Khan reflects on geniuses of Pakistani modern and contemporary art

Toronto: Over the last few years, I have often pondered on who could be considered young geniuses amongst the modern and contemporary artists of Pakistan. I have thought long and hard, and researched and discussed my reasoning with fellow art critics and collectors.

Finally, I have settled on a list. My assessment is in no way conclusive and the list is not meant to be exclusive. The result is simply my conclusion based on my definition of a genius in art practice as “someone who invents a new way of looking at or creating art, one who is ahead of their time, creates a following and movement, and is admired by fellow artists, locally and internationally.”

As geniuses are revealed at a young age, among important artists there are young geniuses who tend to be conceptual thinkers and often create iconic individual works. Then there are old masters who make equally important contributions to art forms and movements and produce their greatest work when they are older. Think of Picasso as a young genius and Cezanne as an old master. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which he painted at 26, appears in more than 90 percent of art history textbooks published in the past 30 years. Similarly, Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte,” which he finished at 27, appears in more than 70 percent. For old masters, on the other hand, discoveries evolve over years instead of exploding onto the scene in a single masterpiece. Thus no single painting by Cézanne or his friend Claude Monet appears in even half of art history textbooks. Yet no one would question their place among the greats.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Zainul Abedin, Sadequain, Ismail Gulgee, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander and Hamra Abbas proved their geniuses at a young age. Shakir Ali, Zubaida Agha, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Bashir Mirza, Jamil Naqsh and Colin David are old masters. The differences between these artists’ creative life cycles are not accidental. Precocious young geniuses make bold and dramatic innovations – think of Picasso’s cubism – and their work often expresses their ideas or feelings. Wise old masters, on the other hand, are experimental thinkers who proceed by trial and error.

Even before Pakistan came into existence, Chughtai had already proven his mantel and established himself internationally as the pre-eminent artist of the subcontinent.

Below is my list of the young geniuses of modern art in the history of Pakistan.

Chughtai (1897-1975) fused miniature paintings from India with a Persian style of painting, and romanticised it to invent a personal style that was later known as Chughtai art or the Lahore School of Painting. As they say, “It takes a diamond to recognise a diamond,” and Dr Mohammad Iqbal acknowledged Chughtai’s genius in the foreword he wrote for the Muraqqa-e-Chughtai, a compilation of Chughtai’s drawings and paintings on Dewan-e-Ghalib in 1928. Iqbal wrote: “He [Chughtai] is only twenty-nine yet. What his art will become when he reaches the mature age of forty, the future alone will disclose. Meanwhile all those who are interested in his work will keenly watch his forward movement.”

Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) played a pioneering role in the modern art movement of Pakistan. Although now legitimately claimed by Bangladesh as Shilpacharya, or father of modern art, Zainul Abedin was instrumental in establishing the first art institute in Dhaka and charting a trajectory for a future generation of artists. His dedication and contribution in establishing and nurturing the art institute and the Dhaka Artists Group is of major importance. His genius as an artist was revealed through his drawings of the 1943 famine in Bengal when he sketched over 2,000 drawings using the barest economy of line with Indian ink and brush on ordinary pieces of brown wrapping paper. His images were so powerful and moving that even if seen today, as I did recently at the National Museum of Bangladesh, they remind us of his extraordinary ability to generate an enormous emotional response.

Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi
Untitled (Acrobats)
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

Sadequain (1930-1987) undoubtedly is the greatest contemporary artist that South Asia has produced. His genius was exposed early on in his career when he was declared Laureate Biennale de Paris when he participated in the 1961 Paris Biennale at the age of 31. Sadequain is single-handedly responsible for the renaissance of calligraphy in South Asia and the Middle East. He was able to accomplish a lot in a short period of time and was able to evolve a unique art form based on the cactus and the Urdu letter alif. Dr Akbar Naqvi writes in his book Image and Identity, “In November 1968, which was Ramadan, his calligraphy of Quranic verses was exhibited in a celebrated exhibition at the Karachi Arts Council. For the first time art touched the underprivileged people of the city, who came in droves to see the exhibition and made Sadequain an Awami [national] painter overnight. Art had broken the class barrier and bridged Lalu Khet with KDA Scheme-1.” Naqvi further says, “As early as 1961, he [Sadequain] invented the style, either in Paris or in Karachi, which was a distinguished contribution to Cubism. Sadequain’s style was, if we must have a name, Calligraphic Cubism.” Furthermore, Sadequain’s phenomenal murals in Pakistan, India and parts of Europe defy Michelangelo. While Sadequain’s figurative work had strong social commentary and criticisms, his paintings also looked into the future.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Farman
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999) has been credited with the revival of miniature paintings, initially in Pakistan and later globally. It was at the behest of Zahoor in the early 1980s, who was then the head of fine arts at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, a separate curriculum was designed for students to specialise in miniature painting. Moreover, he sought to insert an element of experimentation in the practise, which challenged the students to look beyond the borders of traditional miniatures. As a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art in London, Zahoor was greatly influenced by his encounters with the Indian miniature collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was immensely fascinated by the entire collection, and in particular the masterpiece titled “Three Young Sons of Shahjahan” executed in reverse perspective by Balchand, circa 1635. Zahoor started rethinking and deconstructing the miniature. He later recreated the “Three Princes” in a minimalist style, which was exhibited as part of “Pakistan: Another Vision” in London in 2000. An exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan at the Asia Society in New York in 2009, entitled “Hanging Fire,” started from Zahoor, underlining the importance and overarching influence of Zahoor on avant-garde artists such as Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana and Hamra Abbas, to name a few, who were all his students. Salima Hashmi in her lead essay for “Hanging Fire” says, “Zahoor’s ability to synthesize innovation and cultural context enabled the generation after him to make work as world citizens.” Or as Rashid Rana explains, “He has made it easy for us.”

Gulgee (1926-2007) invented abstract calligraphy based on action painting popularised by Jackson Pollock in the USA in the 1950s. Gulgee was completely self-taught and began painting while studying engineering at Columbia and Harvard Universities in the US. Early on in his artistic career, he focused on portraiture and excelled in it. He was commissioned to paint the portrait of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (1959), Prince Karim Aga Khan (1961), Zhou Enlai (1964), Queen Farah Diba of Iran (1965) and President Ayub Khan of Pakistan (1968). He then turned to making portraits from marble mosaic and semi-precious stones, a technique that he developed in Kabul using Lapis Lazuli. In the late 60s and early 70s, he reinvented himself by working in abstract styles using broad brush and bold colours and incorporating local materials such as coloured beads, small pieces of mirrors, and gold and silver leaf. During this period, Gulgee produced some of the most spectacular works of modern art ever seen in Pakistan. In the late 70s and early 80s, Gulgee started experimenting again, this time combining action painting with calligraphy. By this time, he had already mastered all major styles of calligraphy, and completely modernized it to invent a distinct and unique style, never seen before in and outside of Pakistan. He was very prolific in the 90s and until his tragic death in 2007. He leaves behind a large body of paintings and sculptures for future generations to decipher.

Lot 33: Rashid Rana, Ommatidia II (Salman Khan), 2004
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

Rashid Rana (b. 1968) is one of the most sought after contemporary artist from South Asia. His recent exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris and major collections at the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi are a testament to his genius. His creations in C-print + DIASEC, such as the “Red Carpet” exhibited at the Asia Society in 2009 and “Desperately Seeking Paradise” first exhibited at Art Dubai in 2008 are masterpieces that have no equal.

Lot 30 – Shazia Sikander, Let It Ride # 3, 1987
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969) at age 36 was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship (also generally referred to as the genius award) which provides unrestricted use of US$500,000 to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Shahzia was the first to breakaway from the miniature tradition, and has been instrumental in the rediscovery, re-infusion, and re-contextualisation of Indo-Persian miniature painting, which has helped establish an art form that is now known and recognised as contemporary miniature, or neo-miniature. She has now entered the mainstream of contemporary art internationally and is a recognised superstar.

Hamra Abbas (b. 1976) left a lasting impression on me when I first saw her sculptures titled “Lessons on Love,” a set of life-size works based on erotic miniature paintings from the Kama Sutra, and in particular, one that showed a man and a woman seated facing each other on a Howdah (an elephant or horse back mount), embraced in love and engaged in a hunting scene. This brilliant composition and a transformation of miniature into a life-size sculpture captured my attention, as I fully comprehended Hamra’s creative expression of a paradoxical relationship between sex and violence. Last year when I saw her masterpiece titled ‘Buraq’ at the “Hanging Fire” exhibition in New York, it further confirmed Hamra’s exceptional talent and genius. Hamra’s versatile practice straddles a wide range of media, as she questions widely accepted traditions and uses culturally loaded imagery and iconography in creating new platforms from which to view notions of culture, tradition and exchange. Hamra’s research on madrassahs [Islamic seminaries] after her return to Pakistan in 2007, resulted in creation of exceptional works: an installation titled ‘Read,’ which was exhibited first at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad and then at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the 99 faces of children in the madrassahs, which was awarded the Jury Prize at the Sharjah Biennale in 2009. Hamra is the recipient of the 2011 Abraaj Capital Art Prize and currently doing a residency in New York.

Read another article by Adil Ali Khan on Miniature Art from Pakistan and follow his top ten picks in the current auction.

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