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Beyond the Page – Hammad Nasar on Contemporary Pakistani Art

Jan. 12, 2008

From issue 10 of Naked Punch Review

Juliana Cerqueira Leite: Peter Weibel has described the curator as a ‘producer’  –defined here by the producer’s role in film: commissioning writers, actors and directors to realize an idea. [“A cinema producer says ‘I have an idea but I need a scriptwriter, I need a director, I need an actor.’ So a curator can say, ‘according to my knowledge, according to my expertise, I think we have to develop something new.’ And then he can look around and see whom the people are who do this. A curator then is not someone who takes care of an existing work but a producer commissioning a new work.”] Do you see your relationship with curating in a similar way or is there a better description for what you do? Why?

Hammad Nasar: This is a specific, and I feel ‘heroic’, reading of curating. I don’t see my role in those terms. To me curating is an unspecified and poorly defined discipline engaged in moderated conversations about art. They are critical conversations, and if done well, can be as useful in uncovering new ways of looking at old material, as they can of developing new material. But like any conversation they need more than one person to be engaged, otherwise they are soliloquies.

Let me relate this to personal examples. Karkhana was a full-fledged exhibition conceived and organised by the artist Imran Qureshi when I first came across it. To my eyes the process that led up to creating the twelve collaborative paintings was at least as important as the finished works, and I wanted to capture that process in a book. That discussion then set off a collaborative project between museums, academics, artists and curators which led to a different type of exhibition — Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration — that, to my mind, used the existing work to tell a richer story.

On the other hand, Beyond the Page — a UK exhibition that argued that miniature was not just a technique but also an attitude — was an argument developed in conversation with artists Imran Qureshi, Rashid Rana and Hamra Abbas and the academic Anna Sloan among others. And it gave the opportunity to invite artists to create new work in two different spaces.  

JCL: Does curating South Asian art require playing a different role to a curator who deals only with works from the Western canon? Do you feel the need to provide historical background for the Western viewer for instance or is this not a problem in a globalized world. 

HN: The idea of a globalized world is over-cooked — at least in contemporary art. Let me give you an example. Last weekend I saw the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at Tate Modern, where the notes on herPersonages sculptures were quick to reference Brancusi but did not even mention African nail fetish sculptures, despite one work looking as if it had just walked over from the British Museum’s African galleries.

Showing cultural work of any nature in a different cultural context will usually require effort to set the scene. As South Asian culture becomes a bigger force, both from a market and critical perspective, perhaps the need for explanations will reduce.

But an equally significant difference in roles is the need for curators to be entrepreneurial. Securing exhibition venues, publication sponsorships and even ways to fund your own work need creative solutions, especially as South Asia itself does not yet have the art infrastructure in place to sustain these activities.

JCL: With the ascendancy of conceptual art, are the differences between works originating from the East, West, North or South only cultural or do you see distinctions in regional canons today? Have these so-called ‘canons’ become anachronistic, historical styles that artists from any geographical or cultural tradition can draw on for their work?

HN: Both the art market and art practice have become very good at absorbing anachronisms without disturbing the order of things. Love them or hate them, the idea of canons is deeply embedded in the structure of how art and art history are taught, discussed and absorbed. But canon making has remained a largely Euro-American activity, driven by the museum-dealer-academy nexus that ascribes value to art. And until we get to the stage that there are alternative canons, hence challenging the very notion of the canon, this importance will persist.

JCL: What would be your current theoretical framework for developing projects at Green Cardamom? 

HN: Green Cardamom works both as a commercial gallery and as an organisation creating public projects in partnership with museums, galleries, academic institutions and artists. Too often, ‘international’ is used to describe a Euro-American viewpoint hovering somewhere mid-Atlantic. We are trying to help forge a different meaning of international for the art world — with its centre in the Indian Ocean.

Within that very broad rubric, the projects we take on are determined by interests shared between our team and their concerns: Anna Sloan in the US is an academic teaching and researching both Islamic Art and Contemporary art history at the University of Michigan; Leyla Fakhr is a London-based Iranian curator, who also works with Tate Britain and carries out independent projects in Iran; Nada Raza has organised shows in Dubai (with the Third Line gallery) and was one of the co-founders of Quintessentially Art (a London art advisory company); Louise Sunderland has worked on education projects with the Tate and the Whitechapel galleries; Vipul Sangoi runs his own design and photography practice; Kaif Ghaznavi is a Lahore-based artist, lecturer and curator, and co-founder Anita Dawood has edited a number of publications in the UK, Switzerland and Pakistan. 

Some of the thematic platforms we have done projects around include: contemporary miniature (exhibitions, essays, publications, talks and even a study-day at Tate Britain); pop in the vernacular (exhibitions on desi pop and the aesthetics of the film poster); and, faith and identity (a symposium, various articles and two exhibitions). 

Others we are developing include: partitions as the way nations get made (the subject of a research fellowship I am doing at Goldsmiths, and a series of events and exhibitions called Lines of Control); the notions of paradise in popular culture, and drawing as a process.

They continue the theme of conversation that I referred to earlier. These are open, ongoing conversations that will probably keep going is some form as long as there are people interested in engaging with us.

JCL: Several key figures and young artists in Pakistan have studied art in Europe or the United States, some now live abroad. In light of the increasing interest by the Western art world in Asian art and considering that these artists must be aware of the exoticizing of their work by international galleries, how self-conscious or artificially rushed has the production of an identity for contemporary post-modern Pakistani art become?

HN: Pakistani art has been consumed by considerations of identity ever since the birth of the nation in 1947. And given Pakistan’s propensity to lurch from one existential crisis into another, I don’t see much respite from the issues just yet. Having said that, I feel there is a difference in the approach of the current generation of artists who have had the luxury of history; of being born Pakistani, and thus not wrestling with the notion of creating a visual identity.  

The issue of exoticisation is a live one. Not only in the sense that it is perceived as an easy way to market the “other”, but also in that the art world is alive to this issue, and is equally likely to not engage with the exotic out of fear of being identified with this exoticisation. This is interesting when you look at the work of people like Nusra Latif Qureshi, who very consciously and critically uses the element of visual seduction in her artistic interrogation of how history leaves its marks. Her work, in a paradoxical way, appeals to both highly informed professionals equipped with the references that help them unravel the multiple layers (e.g. her work is in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery) and to lay audiences who can look at the work as pure eye-candy. The folks in the middle are left unsure of quite what road to take.   

JCL: Politics in and of Pakistan, because of its effects on ordinary life – i.e. the recent declaration of emergency – dominates the intellectual space in places like Lahore and Karachi where a lot of artists such as Sophie Ernst and Saira Wasim live. How does this affect Pakistani and South Asian contemporary art practice?

HN: In a major way of course. How could it not? I realised the full extent of this, not by studying current reactions in Pakistan, but out of seeing the impact of the communal violence (in Gujarat and beyond) on visual artists in India, specifically the work of people like Nalini Malani, Amar Kanwar, Shilpa Gupta, Anita Dube and Navjot Altaf. The political and social tension opened up a way for a new generation of Indian artists to explore the trauma of partition. Which has largely been suppressed in both countries.

JCL: Do you find that the international success of art work that literally engages with politics and gender relations becomes something that limits the expression of other subjects in art since anything that does not engage with these issues can be perceived as accepting or indifferent to the current political situation? What do you see as the dangers, or the advantages, to an artist who becomes involved in a practice that is driven and inspired by political concerns? 

HN: Some of the most vital international art of every epoch has been political in nature, whether it’s the grand gesture of Picasso’s Guernica or Martha Rosler’s more modest Bringing the War Home. There are dangers with artists consciously going out to change the world in that they can easily end up producing didactic art. Which is a turn-off. Besides, art can rarely, if ever, change the world. At best, it can encourage people to ask better questions.

JCL: The oppression of the female is a constant theme when discussing Islamic societies, yet Pakistan’s art world and art schools appears to be largely female-dominated. In essence this fact should challenge the notion of the oppressed Muslim woman who is not allowed expression yet the art made by these women often confirms the view that this oppression exists by denouncing it. Can you explain a bit about how these two realities co-exist? 

HN: This is a South Asian specialty. It is a place where the first and third worlds live cheek by jowl. We have female presidents and prime ministers, but most of them reached their positions through dynastic politics that seem closer to monarchies.

The dominance of women in Pakistan’s art establishment is also a reflection of how the arts were deemed an acceptable area of study in previous generations. In fact, the first department of art established in the Punjab University had the specific aim of offering a subject for women, so that they don’t take up valuable places in the science departments. 

And given that the notion of the professional artist, who survives on their art, is still fairly new, I think this will change. I have great hope for men in the future. 

JCL: Since the 1980s there has been a separate Miniature Painting programme at the National College of Art in Lahore. Can the resurgence of Miniature painting in contemporary Pakistani art be defined simply as an attempt to find a unique national visual language or is it perhaps also reflexive of a desire to engage visually with the body and narrative, both subjects that have been censored by regimes in the recent past. Precisely what are the reasons behind the resurgence of the miniature?   Do you see this as a positive development?

HN: Miniature painting has been taught at what is now the National College of Art since before the creation of Pakistan. You have to remember that this is what art was in the sub-continent before the Raj. There is no word for miniature in Urdu, and a miniature painter is simply musawwair or artist. And I would argue that every artist in the subcontinent has absorbed the influence of miniature in some form or the other, as much as any Western-trained artist has been influenced by work from the European Renaissance.

Lots of artists from a previous generation, from Jamil Naqsh to Anwar Jalal Shemza, to Bashir Mirza, studied miniature painting and were influenced by it. What happened in the 1980s was the vision of one artist and teacher, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, to activate the largely dormant potential of miniature painting as a living framework for creating contemporary art. He did this partly through his own practice, but also by elevating the miniature department to the same status as Western painting, printmaking and sculpture.

Up until then miniature was a convenient visual language for successive Pakistani regimes looking at ‘national art’. But the last two decades has seen a wealth of extraordinary talent coming out of this department: Imran Qureshi, Shahzia Sikander, Aisha Khalid, Nusra Latif Qureshi and more recently Muhammad Zeeshan and Khadim Ali. These artists have taken miniature well beyond the page, but as with anything, success brings its own dangers. The miniature department, once the least popular department in the fine arts faculty, has now become the most popular. And it is now in danger of becoming a brand, like the YBAs — which art history may not remember as fondly as the dealers and collectors who used it for financial gain.   

JCL: This new interest in miniature painting requires that the artist develop skills presently out of fashion in Western contemporary art education such as copying old masters and respecting traditional techniques. Does this trend separate artists from the region into those leaning towards Western techniques and a conceptual practice and those whose work is more traditional?  Or is there some movement towards an integration of the traditional skills into projects that also use varied and modern media? 

HN: Thankfully this is not a binary opposition. There are artists who can draw and think. If we take the example of Hamra Abbas, an infinitely creative artist who has interrogated the forms and frameworks of miniature through sculpture, installations, ceramics, lenticular prints, videos and even drawings. Her life-sized amorous couples in Plasticene at the 10th Istanbul Biennial referenced Indian miniatures, and she combined paintings with a three channel video projection for a work she produced while artist-at-residence at the V&A and Gasworks in London.

At the end of the day the medium and the techniques will always be subservient to the artistic imagination. 

JCL: To what extent do contemporary Pakistani artists engage with other traditions of South Asia? I have noticed a lack of engagement with the Hindu and Buddhist traditions?  Would I be right to notice this and if so are the reasons to do with Pakistan being ‘divorced’ from its tradition due to the nationalist propaganda defining the country as a Muslim nation? Are Pakistani artists making compromises to gain an audience in the West? 

HN: I am not sure I fully agree with that. The art history (at least pre-partition) is the same for India and Pakistan, and I can bore you with examples of Indian artists like Anita Dube referencing Muslim jalis or Pakistani artists like Hamra Abbas reinterpreting Hindu mythology, for example of Krishna and the gopis. And right in the car park of the National College of Art is Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq’s modernist interpretation of the Starving Buddha sculpture.  

But you also need to remember that lived Islam in South Asia is very different from that in the Gulf or the Maghreb. Many supposedly Muslim cultural practices in South Asia are not religious but cultural and hence shared.

Am I allowed to disagree and agree with you? Because I still do feel that there has been, for a long time, a reluctance to accept ‘non-Muslim’ cultural heroes, as if doing so would somehow negate the reason for Pakistan’s creation as a Muslim homeland for South Asian Muslims. This has, in fact, been the subject of a wonderful project by Bani Abidi, The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing, in which she has looked at how, under General Zia’s rule, there was an attempt to arabize Pakistan’s culture.

JCL: At the recent opening of the National Gallery in Islamabad president Musharraf is quoted as saying that “it’s vital to project a soft, peaceful, tolerant image of Pakistan.” Critics fear that the gallery will become a tool of political propaganda instead of a space for reflecting the true spectrum of Pakistani art. As a curator are you positive about the future of this institution?

(quote from the NBC News World Blog website

HN: It depends on the length of time you use to define the future. The National Gallery is certainly a marker for a greater recognition for the visual arts in the Pakistani government’s agenda, and something that would have seemed unthinkable under General Zia’s rule. My concern is that not everyone seems to be alive to the difference between a building and an institution.  And the National Art Gallery has been developed as a building first. To my mind, the building should be last thing an institution needs. What goes inside it, why it goes inside it, how is it updated and who makes these decisions are the bigger questions for a national gallery. 

I would like to highlight the approach adopted by a non-government initiative in Karachi, the Foundation for the Museum of Modern Art (FOMMA) which I think is more promising. They have opened an art historical research centre, a small temporary exhibition space and venue for lectures and discussions, and initiated a publications programme in preparation for taking on a big building. I am much more optimistic about initiatives such as these and the programme run by the foundation-backed VM Art Gallery to set up the infrastructure that will do justice to the full breadth of Pakistani art.


Hammad Nasar: Curator and co-founder of Green Cardamom. Also co-founder of Asal Partners, an art advisory company.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite: Is an artist and art section writer at NP.

All images Copyrights to Green Cadamon.

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