Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart revisits one of the most ground breaking exhibitions of contemporary Pakistani Art
London: The Urdu word ‘Karkhana’ refers to the miniature painting workshops supported by Mughal Emperors who ruled over the lands of present-day India and Pakistan between the 16th and 17th centuries. In these workshops, several artists would work together on the same painting under the direction of one ‘ustad’ or master.
Following the steps of these predecessors, six Pakistani artists undertook a collaborative project in 2003 under the guidance of Imran Qureshi. The artist contacted the other five Pakistani artists who, like him, had studied at the National College of Arts in Lahore, and who, at the time, were based in different parts of the world. The artists included in the project were: Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mehmood, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore and Saira Wasim.
As part of the project, each of them had to start two works on wasli and pass them to the other artists who would add further layers of imagery and significance to the original work. Five more works created individually by the artists were added to the project’s exhibition to show their personal characters and styles.
The project aimed to show the influence shared by the artists, their individual reactions to an already painted surface, and their ways in which their idioms spoke to each other. It also aspired to highlight the revival of miniature painting as an important aspect of contemporary Pakistani art, which entailed a comingling of tradition and modernity in fine and meaningful images.
Karkhana was an extremely innovative show, both because of the concept behind the project, and for its affirmation of contemporary Pakistani art in South Asia and the West. In fact, the project culminated in a travelling exhibition, first held in Rochdale in 2003-04, then at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, in 2005-06, and finally at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 2006.
Hammad Nassar, founder of Green Cardamom, independent curator and writer, noted in the exhibition catalogue: “The nature of the Karkhana project is vast and multi-faceted. It explores the possibilities of collaborative practice and political resistance, the reinvention of a ‘tradition’, and the expression of diasporic identity. It also raises broader questions about globalization and political and marginalization…Karkhana, relying as it does on ‘traditional’ fields of representation, and on the institutionalized art world to arrange exhibitions, fund catalogues, and even to pay the courier bills for its actualization, is not an activist demonstration but rather, a work of art. It is from this position, in fact, that it derives its political power- subverting elite institutions from within. It updates a historical form (the ‘traditional’ miniature), which served one empire, in order to confront another. In their refusal to surrender the aesthetic in their art, the Karkhana artists use the very desire that their meticulously crafted and highly encoded paintings elicit to inject themselves into arenas where they would not ordinarily be granted access. At the hearts of the project is a challenge to commonly-understood notions of democracy and the collective.”