An Introduction to Curating in the Pakistani Public Sphere
Focus Case: National Art Gallery (NAG) opening exhibition, 2007
Paper by Saira Ansari
The Pakistani art market and artists are evolving rapidly to match the constant and radical transformations of the international community. Art institutes, teachers, students, galleries and curators are already in the process of incorporating theoretical models and new media tools into their respective practices. There has also been an increase in cultural exchange between Pakistan and the world in the shape of travelling exhibitions, artist-in-residency programmes and global print and electronic media coverage. Artists across the board have embraced this, with both traditionalist and new-media experimenters having found a niche for themselves in different quarters and markets of the world.
Appreciation in the form of enormous financial success, for the new and established, has also been a relatively new phenomenon. Many Pakistani/Diaspora artists like ShahziaSikander, Rashid Rana, BaniAbidi, Hamra Abbas, Imran Qureshi, Ayesha Khalid and others are now internationally sought after names.
With this intensifying need to internationalise and contextualise Pakistani art –and connect the right work to the right audience – the significance of players other than the creators, buyers and sellers has escalated. This has meant that the role of the Curator has increased manifold, more so than any other player. Many in the Pakistani art community are beginning to understand the true depth of this field and are being educated on the function of this profession. To a large extent now, gallerists are no longer referred to as curators automatically, and neither is physically putting up a show misinterpreted as curation. Students too arebeginning todelve deeper into the history and theory of intelligent curation.
There are many disagreements within the artist’s community in Pakistan on the level of importance being assigned to curators, but very few will disagree on how much influence they hold on the way contemporary Pakistani art is seen locally and internationally.
Curators mostly work independently and collaborate with an extensive range of people and galleries. The nature of their work and the implementation of their proposals depend upon the resources available to them – conditional circumstances such as the kind of space to exhibit in, the artists working with them, and most importantly financial and logistical support form decisive factors.
In Pakistan, independent curators mostly associate themselves with private galleries owing to better working conditions. There is more money on hand and relatively little to none censorship issues due to an exclusive audience. The exhibition spaces are designed to display all kinds and sizes of work and are mostly equipped with proper lighting and digital paraphernalia for new media exhibits. Many writers and critics also seem to favour doing the rounds and writing about these galleries, affiliating themselves with their preferred curators.
However, this does not imply that there have been no independent exhibitions curated outside the private sphere. This has been so on many occasions, yet these have been few and far between. Thisessay looks into one such example, where a panel of fifteen got together to a curate amonumentalsurvey show in 2007: ‘Moving Ahead:Inaugural Exhibition’, National Art Gallery (NAG).
Rashid Rana made history as being the highest selling Pakistani artist when his digital print, ‘A Day in the Life of Landscape’, sold for 133,000 USD at a Christie’s Auction of ‘South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art’ in 2007. ‘A Day in the Life of Landscape’
Figure 1 - Clash of Civilizations, IftikharDadi and Elizabeth Dadi, 2002; Print on Flex, 213cm x 640cm
National Art Gallery -Background
The National Art Gallery (NAG) has a tumultuous history with controversies surrounding design, location and budgetary constraints. The original proposal for the gallery was conceived more than three decadesbefore its actual completion. The go ahead for the construction of NAG in Islamabad was given as early as 1981-82 and Rs. 5 million were allotted towards its realization. The next many years were wasted in controversy surrounding the selection of an architectural team to design the premises. Following this interruption in schedule was the decision of the PNCA and CDA to relocate from the originally allocated site (next to the National Library), which had already been paid for. The newer site was allotted in 1994 and the project kicked off in 1996, a full seven years later than initially intended. By this time estimated costs of construction and annual expenditure had stretched so far beyond what was decided at the outset, that the project was deemed as unviable.
However, the government at the time decided to pursue it anyway and have the site ready in time for its inaugural show for Pakistan’s 60 years of independence – starting on August 14, 2006 and culminating in August 2007. This was too ambitious a plan for any curatorial team to take on, as it was announced in March of 2006, only five months beforehand. The actual opening finally took place in August 2007.
Following is a synopsis of the process and the challenges that were faced in setting up the show, through the perspective of Dr. Atteqa Ali, one of the curators. And briefly deliberated upon, further down, are pointers from adiscussion with Professor Salima Hashmi, who led the curatorial panel for the show.
Perspective: Dr. Atteqa Ali
Dr. Atteqa Ali is a curator and teaches Art History to the undergraduate and graduate students at the National College of Arts, Lahore (NCA). She has recently completed her doctorate in Art History of Pakistan from the University of Texas at Austin, U.S.A. Dr. Ali has curated several exhibitions in Pakistan as well as internationally. She also writes for local and international publications and journals. She currently lives and works from Lahore.
Dr. Atteqa Ali is one of the very few professional curators practicing in the country. For this reason, she was selected in 2006 by Salima Hashmi for the fifteen person curator-panel that was to organize the inaugural show. The others included were prominent players in their own right: Quddus Mirza, Imran Qureshi, Naiza H Khan, Aasim Akhtar, RahatNaveedMasud, Marjorie Husain, Naazish Ata-
A nationwidecompetition was arranged which was won by the architects firm, Naqvi and Siddiqui. Extensive delays due to bureaucratic issues meant that the plan was approved much later, only to be rejected as unsuitable in1988. Another competition was arranged and this time the architects Sohail and Pasha were successful.
“Pakistan National Council of the Arts,” last modified March 17, 2011, http://www.pnca.org.pk/NAG.html.
Ali, Dr. Atteqa, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - The Inauguration of Pakistan's New National Art Gallery”, Orientations HK (2007). Pages 96-98
Ullah, Jamal Shah, Rasheed Butt, WaqarHanif, NilofarFarrukh, Amna I Pataudi, MasoodKohari and Salima Hashmi herself.
Dr. Ali says that there was definitely a sense of excitement on that day in March of 2006, when a dynamic team of young and old sat together for the first time to discuss the prospects of NAG. The plans of the building – the sheer size and elaborate network of galleries, sculpture courtyard, lecture halls, restoration lab, library and auditorium – and the Ministry’s and PNCA’s willingness to invest time and money was greatly welcomed and everyone saw great potential.
However, what started as a promising venture was soon swamped in bureaucratic issues. The inaugural show was plagued with difficulties from the very beginning. The government set unreasonable deadlines, which the curators felt was an impossible timeframe for arranging a show of that scale and importance. Delays in construction added to constant shifts in the opening date, and the schedule became a nightmare of sorts. The opening date was pushed from August 2006 to October, November and December. It then spilt over into 2007 and the date jumped from January, March, and April, concluding at its final date in August 2007.
Dr. Ali faced additional problems because her segment, titled ‘Homecoming’, came under intense scrutiny from the officials. ‘Homecoming’ was a show about Pakistani Diaspora artists – those that were living and practicing art outside of Pakistan. One of the artists, Elizabeth Dadi, was not even of Pakistani origin and was connected with Pakistani Art because of her marriage to, and joint practice with, IftikharDadi, and the time she lived and taught in Karachi in the 90s. The artists were primarily dealing with themes of identity, politics and the role of the West in Pakistan. One of the works was aptly titled ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and summarised the theme of the exhibit. (See Figure 1)
The PNCA expressed trepidation over the choice of artists selected arguing that these were relatively lesser known artists in Pakistan and not even practicing in the country. They felt that for a show of this nature only works of artists of recognized calibre and fame should be on display. Additionally, the content also became the centre of a heated debate,which the PNCA refused to acknowledge as censorship concerns. A committee was formed by the PNCA to moderate the works of all the planned exhibits and remove any pieces that would be of a controversial nature and possibly offensive to the public. The guidelines under which works were deemed ‘offensive’ werenever clearly outlined.
The committee’s decision to make major changes to the placement of ‘Homecoming’ by removing it from Gallery 2 on the ground floor and putting it in a quieter corner on the top floor resulted in Dr. Ali asking to withdraw from the show. The PNCA gave in to this standoff and asked her to keep the show as part of the exhibit but it had been moved nonetheless – away from the eyes of the military ruler President Pervez Musharraf, to avoid possible embarrassment. In the same vein, several other contentious works from the other exhibits were shuffled around so as to become almost invisible.
These moves directly challenge the work of the Curator. Surely, demands such as those made by the PNCA committee – and the adjustments they made to the final display – belittled the vision of the curators and their significant involvement in putting up an important Survey Show. It becomes futile to argue that if one were to just put up artists that are ranked high in book and paper and known by all, and work that is dependable and predictable, then the audience would always see just one tiny facet of our culture.
Despite all of this, the show did go on and was well received amongst the artist community. The curators put in their best efforts around a system that was ineffectual and disorganized and managed to pull off a grand show. However, Dr. Ali feels that she has learnt much from the experience and remains sceptical about the role of the State in absolute promotion of the arts.
The problems mentioned above were deeply rooted to begin with and inundated the efforts of the show organizers and curators in many ways. It is imperative to know that the function of promoting art does not simply lie in arranging exhibitions – research, documentation and dissemination are equally important. In a discussion with Professor Salima Hashmi, it became very clear that this aspect of the exhibit was awarded the least amount of attention and finances, despite the emphasis laid on it by the curatorial body.Hashmi points out that the content of such a significant show, that was in all aspects a reflection of our identity as a people, was lost in a very mediocre catalogue. She believes that only those who attended the show enjoyed it to its fullest but very little of it was documented properly in the catalogue to be of any great use to future artists, students and other viewers. As Hashmi puts it, “there were many battles fought: some were won and some were lost.”
Over the years, it seems as though the artists’ community has in fact lost more battles where NAG is concerned. On three different occasions, my attempts to gain access to the gallery for research have been unsuccessful due to the gallery being closed to visitors, with no reason given as to why. It also seems that the gallery function of the building lies dormant while only the office spaces are functioning. For quite some time, even the position ofDirector-Generalremained vacant.In 2011, Television actor Tauqeer Nasir was appointed the Director General of PNCA, and hence in-charge of NAG and MussaratNahid Imam holds the posts of Director Visual Art and Curator. Small exhibits are held several times a year to fulfil calendar requirements. The gallery’s mandated international exhibitions and exchange program seem to have slipped into oblivion as well.
Upuntil recently, the latest reports about the gallery were about serious temperature and sun damage to the permanent arts collection, and the lack of funds to remedy it. Attempts by a newspaper reporting on the story to seek a response from the Director failed. It seems as though a very great vision has been squandered away in the limited vision of the officious.
Curating in public spaces in Pakistan will continue to have its own set of challenges – on both a logistical and intellectual plane. It seems that the bodies governing public spaces must be educated first on the importance of academic intervention in showcasing the nation’s art. They must also cultivate a desire to encourage those efforts that approach the arts with a more inquisitive nature than just purely recreational. But as long as state support, however little it maybe, translates into state interference, these exercises might come to mean nothing.
This essay is an excerpt from the research paper (pending) written by Saira Ansari for her MA dissertation titled ‘State of Art – An Inquiry into Exhibiting Visual Arts at State-funded Spaces in Pakistan;with a focus on three major survey shows held at Alhamra (Lahore), National Art Gallery (Islamabad) and Mohatta Palace (Karachi)’. Some of the text has been modified/edited to make the context more accurate for a stand-alone piece.
Hashmi Salima. Interview by Saira Ansari. Audio Recording. Lahore, May 16, 2011
Shahid, Jamal, “Art treasures get sunburnt”, DAWN, July 2, 2012, http://dawn.com/2012/07/02/art-treasures-get-sunburnt/ accessed July 3rd, 2012.