is what you see
Art big time business
Pakistani artists are at the brink of being discovered for their cutting-edge, avant-garde, contemporary art
By Alefia T Hussain
Some weeks ago, when spring bloomed in Lahore, one of the city's up-scale galleries buzzed with cultured people. They chattered, appreciated the artworks on show, and some whispered, "I love the painting. I want it but… can't afford it!"
It was a sort of scene one might not see at any show where people rush to pick up the must-have pieces. This was an extraordinary occasion -- the preview of Shahid Jalal's 22 landscapes to be auctioned online to raise funds for The Citizen's Foundation (TCF). So there were no red spots on frames and no price lists -- and no competition to be the first to bid. The auction of his collection, called the Pool Garden, was designed to be silent and online after it had been showcased in Karachi and Islamabad after Lahore.
Jalal's show was unique indeed. One, his decision to donate the entire collection to TCF reminded one of the old wisdom that art cannot have a price -- as artist/teacher/gallery owner Salima Hashmi puts it "the show served a wider purpose than sales". Two, the silent auction was the first of its kind in the country, and in a way, reflected the prevalent trends in today's art market, that art is a big time business, and going places in Pakistan and beyond -- and online. Basically, it is crossing all physical borders.
Jalal adopted this model purely to reach the maximum amount of people to raise funds for TCF. The auction, he says, "helped in increasing the bid prices. Most of the successful bids were made by visitors to the gallery in Karachi, who, when they saw the paintings in person, were very impressed and piled on their bids. The visitors to the website just did not get the same visual experience and hence were not so enthusiastic. My paintings, because of their texture and size, have to be seen hung up on a wall."
Since Jalal is dedicated to a very deserving charity, he knew, donors and genuine art buyers would support him. "The sale was to be treated as a donation and the donor would get between 20 to 25 percent back as a tax rebate hence the additional 100,000 per painting," he says.
No wonder, he rose close to ten million rupees for the Foundation by auctioning 20 out of the total of 22. The rest of the two were sold later on. "Most paintings had between five to six bidders upping the bid by 10,000 each time," he elaborates.
In Pakistan, art of past ten years or so has done well financially. It has received rousing public reception. Prices have increased, investors have flourished, new and old collectors are in awe and artists, like Rashid Rana, have become stars. Art has offered power and glory -- mainly because the art market of the last few years has been dominated by a new kind of buyer.
Till five year ago, "Young corporate professionals, who understood art, began to purchase art pieces. Personal collections became a source of pride, and investing in art made good business sense," says Hashmi. Unfortunately, today, these people find themselves in the midst of the economic crunch hence have little money to throw around.
But if young Pakistani professionals cannot afford art someone else can. The professionals have made space for a new kind of buyer, which Sameera Raja, owner of Karachi's Canvas Art Gallery, says is an "investor" as opposed to one who buys for the pleasure of art.
Hashmi agrees. She adds, "He is wiser and asks for a certificate before making a deal. He has a bottomless capacity of networking. He is British, American, Middle Eastern, Australian --- and yes also Indian."
Pakistani artists have taken their work across the world. They have discovered overseas viewers at the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York and Cartwright Hall in Bradford to name a few prominent venues. Art collector Charles Saatchi acquired Rashid Rana and Huma Mulji's artworks recently. And the list is long and illustrious. Because, "The international art world has gradually become more interested in art produced in the non-European world," says Lahore-based artist Rashid Rana, who works with pixels or miniaturised photos depicting mundane scenes of life. Rana is an internationally acclaimed artist and his work has travelled far and wide.
"Teaching had been my main profession till four to five years ago when my work began to receive recognition locally and internationally," explains Rana, adding, "After gaining attention from writers, curators and public institutions, international collectors began to demand my work. But I am not the main beneficiary rather a few collectors who bought my works initially for nominal prices resold them for huge amounts, which made big news." So that's how Rana was introduced internationally.
But, according to Salima Hashmi, Shahzia Sikander made the first strike internationally. She managed to very intelligently showcase her miniatures in some of the leading museums and henceforth paved the way for others like Imran Qureishi and Ayesha Khalid.
Some credit however is also due to non-resident Indians (NRIs), who began to patronise art while living abroad. This created a ripple effect on cash-rich Pakistani expats that didn't lose time to join in the business. These were mostly professionals seeking a new market for investments.
This came hand in hand with the opening up of the Indian art market. "The fact that I started exhibiting in the Indian art gallery circuit perhaps helped to expose my work to the international market," says Rana. The Indian market, however, has somewhat slackened for the Pakistani artists since terror struck Mumbai in November last year. They have become extremely cautious.
The emergence of deep-pocketed overseas buyers took the visual art prices to a different level. They made the price go completely crazy and made it more difficult for mid-range local buyer to acquire pieces. Consequently, "Local market got affected as international pricing is prohibitive for almost 99 percent of the local clientele. Even though low end international pricing matches high end local pricing," says Sameera Raja.
The pricing at local galleries is always determined by the artist who stipulates the price, plus the standard 30 to 35 percent gallery commission. "Let me point out that the commission rate is much less in the local galleries than at the international level where it starts at 40 and goes up to 60 percent," says Raja.
Explaining the pricing patterns prevalent in international markets, Rana says, "As far as the primary art market goes, the gallery and the artist figure out what is the best price based on production costs, number of editions, and realistic prices which will appeal to the collectors. The secondary art market, though, is like any other business, which involves investing. The works are subject to the market conditions and inflation. This, in many ways, resembles the stock market, where some investors act as day traders, trying to invest in artworks and send them to auction in order to make a quick profit, as opposed to 'genuine' collectors who buy work based on interest and building a collection. The secondary market has little to do with the artists themselves."
It was not too long ago when our art was under priced. Even works created by acclaimed artists carried a low price tag. With the exception of a few, most of them had to supplement their incomes by opting for other jobs, commonly teaching. Given the present scenario, then, perhaps it wouldn't be wrong to say that they have risen from rags to (well!) riches. But, Rana says, "Sale of one's work is not the main criteria of success although no artist would deny that they like it when there are people out there who are keen to buy their work.
"I have totally enjoyed the attention I got from the international art scene in general and Indian art scene in particular. It has been encouraging as it means more interest from galleries, institutions and individuals and thus more opportunities to share my creative ideas with other people. I can't say if it has affected my ideas, but exposure to the international art scene has definitely enhanced my understanding of the 'art world' in general.
"An artist's practice gets affected only if he runs out of ideas and lacks resources to continue with his creative production. Fortunately I have both. Besides, ideas are not directly related to economy. In Ghalib's words: Aatay hain ghaib se ye mazameen khiyal mein", says Rashid Rana.
Rightly, Raja says, art is a depiction of the times we live in and a voice to be seen and heard by all. "We are at the brink of being discovered for the cutting edge, Avant-garde, contemporary art that is at par with the international art world. I foresee great times ahead for art and the artists of Pakistan -- the world is the artists' competition."
No foreigners this time
The recently concluded Mystic Music Sufi Festival reflects the resolve of Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop to bring back normalcy to life
By Sarwat Ali
The great debate this year at the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW) was whether to continue with the holding of the festivals or to stop doing so. In their last World Performing Arts Festival held in November last year, several bombs that exploded on the site had cast doubts in the minds of the organisers and the people attending the festival regarding the key issue of security. Thankfully, the organisers decided to go ahead with the festival --arguing that the best way to counter the prevailing threat to cultural activities was not by cowering in this environment of terror but by persisting with everyday activity.
Actually another festival had been organised by the group earlier when the Folk Puppet Festival drew a good response from the people. The group's dream to convert their premises on Raiwind road to a village for craftsmen and artistes seems to be inching forward as one can see new construction on the site.
All these decisions have been difficult to take. Foreign participants were not taking part in the festival this year for the uncertain environment, the economic downturn and the declining sponsorships have all affected cultural activities in the country. To have gone ahead with the festival sans foreign artistes was a brave decision that more than anything else reflected the resolve of the organisers to bring back normalcy to life.
It was a pity that the foreign artistes did not take part in the festival because in the past we have seen artistes mostly from the Muslim countries participating with their own forms of music and dance. It was quite fascinating to see and hear the artistes bound together by a common thread of faith and yet with their own nuances and shades that reflected the different areas and backgrounds that they came from. If there were artistes from the Maghreb (west) there were also many from the Far East which offered a good spectrum through which one could experience the richness, similarity and diversity of the peoples and lands spanning continents.
This exposure to the cultural expression of the Muslim societies had been absent from the screen of our relational radars. It may be a more fruitful exercise to expose the cultural expression of the Muslim societies in entirety to the people here rather than limiting it to certain rituals.
The Muslim cultural expression had been seen in a few films and now recently on the television channels -- or has been depicted in films made in either Hollywood or Bollywood. But the cultural expression as it exists per se has never been introduced to the people of Pakistan except in the previous Rafi Peer Theatre Festivals. The only exposure that some sections of our population has had to the culture of the Muslim world has been through the cultural troupes that visit Pakistan on exchange programmes and perform for a single night at venues like Alhamra to invited audiences. The general impression that Muslim societies do not have any culture to present, or is very narrowly constructed is belying the truth.
The participation of local artistes was wholehearted. It had all the major forms, along with representation from most of the areas of the countries. From the Frontier came Zarsangha, from Sindh Akbar Khamiso Khan, Fakir Abdul Wahid Jamali, Shah Jo Raag Fakirs, Jamaluddin Fakir, Sanam Marvi, Taj Mastani, from Balochistan Akhter Chinar Zehri and from Punjab, Nazir Ejaz Fareedi, Mehboob Farid Qawwal, Gogi Nazir Ai, Sher Miandad, Imran Aziz, Rizwan Muazzam, Wahdat and Hasnain -- all qawwals -- and Pappu Sain, Gonga and Mithus Sain on the dhol. The galaxy of other artistes included, Allah Ditta Loonewala, Jawaid and Babar Niazi, Mansoor Malangi, Chand Khan Sooraj Khan, Ghulan Muhammed Chand, Iqbal Bahoo, Surraiya Khanum, Hussain Buksh Gulloo, Sain Zahoor and Surraiya Multanikar.
It is quite fascinating how the local musical traditions have creatively intermingled with the more standardised forms of mystical/sufi music. The diversity itself is quite mind-boggling. Akbar Khameso Khan played the surs like Rano attributed to Shah Latif while Shah Jo Fakirs chanted the wai on the damboor, traditionally played on the shrine of Shah Latif. Similarly in Punjab from the qawwali to kalaam of Sultan Bahoo, to the kaafi and then the folk music which is heavily influenced by the kalaam of the sufia as enunciated by the likes of Surraiya Khanum, Multanikar, Mansoor Malangi, Allah Ditta Looney wala and Sain Zahoor.
It will not be far from the truth that the music patronised by the sufia had the common people as its primary audience. The music created in the shrines or the sufia was probably meant to express the sensibility that was being nurtured by the various orders. The Chishtia, we know, were the most vociferous and consistent of the Orders that upheld the need for music being not only as part of the religious ritual but also as being the essence of the sufi message. The more unorthodox sufia, if this term can be used, branded under labels like qalanders, malamatis and shataris too were strong advocates of musical expression.
This time round the RPTW decided to host the festival in their own premises that houses the Puppet Museum and Peerus Café and not at the Alhamra Cultural Complex where most previous events have taken place. In the vast expanse of their acquisition, it was an event away from the humdrum of downtown existence -- a very nice peaceful location. But for ordinary persons, who do not have their own transport, found it a little hard to access. The way Lahore is expanding and the speed at which the suburbs are popping-up very soon this site will be fully co-opted into the city. As it is much has changed in the few years since the Puppet Museum was formally inaugurated in 2004. The city has almost encroached upon it in the 12 odds years since the project's foundation stone was laid. Then also it was feared that the location was too far away to become a public venue.
Talpur's presence and acceptance in our art world is a sign that we are still able to enjoy the essence of art on a sensory level
By Quddus Mirza
Everybody, from fellow artists to friends to followers, is wondering at Mohammad Ali Talpur's success. The unexpected rise of Talpur to a position of an established artist who is showing and selling consistently has surprised many.
Talpur studied at National College of Arts, teaches and lives in Lahore and belongs to this country but his work may not be easily identified as Pakistani art. Actually, there is no such entity as Pakistani art. Yet, the special circumstance that led to the emergence of Pakistan has played a pivotal part in shaping the creative expression of its artists, writers and intellectuals. The immediate concern for a conscious citizen of Pakistan has been that of identity -- an issue that spilt into determining one's position in the context of East and West, traditional and modern, indigenous and alien.
The artists have been dealing variously with these concepts. Earlier, painters like A. R. Chughtai, Allah Bux, Sadeqain and Shakir Ali approached the question of identity, even though each adopted a singular style. In the years that followed, except for a brief period of pure abstract art (mostly dominated by the Bengali painters), almost all our artists have been rendering or resolving the notion of nationhood, either consciously or unconsciously. Hence art here, besides its formal aspects, served to address important issues such as identity -- formulated and expressed through ethnicity, regionalism, religious writing, Mughal heritage or political conditions.
Talpur seems to stand away from all this. In the beginning, like many around him, he also experimented with available imagery and technique, explored the cultural identity and focused on the changing trends of society, but for the last few years (since his exhibition at NCA in 2003), his work has evolved into a form/domain that is clearly separate from most art produced in our environment. His canvases and works on paper, usually composed of lines, offer a pictorial pleasure to the viewer. Even though the medium, method, colour palette (black) and visual element (lines) look simple, minimal and basic, the works are complex in their construction. Due to multiple layers of line, variations in its width, length and tone, and scheme of placing it on top of each other (very near and in different directions), each of his surfaces contains a web like texture that not only engages the spectator, but keeps changing its impact and appearance with the shift in a viewer's position.
Because of this constant movement, one is perpetually engaged with his pieces. The works in his present exhibition, being held from May 5-12, 2009, at Rohtas 2, Lahore) are created with a dual strategy. Some (including works on paper and canvas) are made using black marker or technical pen, while others are printed at an ordinary press. In terms of effect, arrangement and intricacy of line, both the mechanical processed sheets and the hand-made works have much in common. Contrary to one's expectations, the works printed through a machine convey an openness and casualness that is not associated with images coming out of a commercial press; similarly, the 'studio-based' works have a rigidity and discipline not often observed in art made by a human hand.
This apparent contradiction is not a conflict but a confirmation of how the artist perceives art and practices his ideas. For him, the technique or process is not as important as the visual interplay of his work. In this respect, he is following the dictum of Frank Stella who once pronounced that 'painting is what you see." Yet, even in the case of Stella, the artist does address other issues -- sometime of formal nature. Similarly, Talpur is also treating his surface as a window with multiple layers of line, through which one discovers a reality that exists somewhere else, bit-by-bit. In our surroundings, this vision has its parallel in metal mesh, or muslins placed on top of each other. In the realm of ideas and imagination, it contributes to discover something else, something extra.
Formally, the work of Muhammad Ali Talpur is an urge to locate light. Optical illusion is created in order to glimpse the sparkles of luminosity, concealed behind and revealed amidst congestions of lines superimposed on each other. One keeps noticing the points or patches of white glowing areas within dark and thick textures. Yet this phenomenon or drama unfolds itself smoothly, swiftly (and spiritually?) without any clear message or pronounced indication. Talpur relates to this aspect of his work with Punjabi Sufi poetry (interestingly this attention to Punjabi poetry is a recent, yet a fast growing fascination -- like the rise of prices -- in our art today), but in essence it is a purely formal and optical content. Due to its visual strength, the work invites, involves and captivates the viewer who starts seeing different images with the passage of time.
Even if the artist (perhaps due to peer pressure) links his work to Sufi poetry, his instinct and aesthetics surpass that feeble association. Talpur is perhaps conscious of the physicalness of his work, because he has been producing this kind of work with conviction for a considerable period of time. With each new phase, like the practice of music, his lines, visual components and artistic concerns seem more sophisticated, strong and subtle.
Besides its internal quality and inherent calm, the work suggests something significant in our context. It is the long forgotten notion of art being a stimulus for senses rather than serving the cause of 'higher' ideas or ideologies. Talpur's consistency (occasionally changing into single line drawings -- which started with a bird, and lately are inspired from the movement of a fish in two works from the present exhibition) is a courageous move in order to spare him from chewed-up subjects and predictable political positions.
His presence and, more importantly, his acceptance in our art world is a sign that we are still able to enjoy the essence of art on a sensory level, despite being bogged down by all those culturally-correct critics, clever connoisseurs and condescending clerics.