Omer Nabi is an interior designer as well as the founder of O Art Space, a busy art gallery right on top of two floors of his beautifully appointed furniture outlet. Coming from a talented family that includes author Mohsin Hamid and artist Salman Toor, Omer’s latest avatar might well be as a top-notch chef! I talk to this multi-talented and affable ‘diffuser’ of the arts in my 2021 series of people who enable art to reach a wider audience.
Mehvash Amin: Why Art?
Omer Nabi: Well, my immediate response would be, why not art? But I suppose I felt that Lahore was not very active in the art scene. And considering that the city was the epicenter of culture and crafts and art—and the home of the Mayo School of Industrial Arts, now National College of Arts—I felt it was producing a lot of work but showing very little of it. There were not many active galleries. There were some, but a lot of them were not showing contemporary art, so as an interior designer I felt that whenever I would go out to look for art for my clients, I wouldn’t find many interesting pieces.
I would have to reach out to Karachi, because it had more—Canvas Gallery, Sanat, Koel—so when I was building my studio, I felt I must designate a space for a gallery. And I feel very fortunate, because we are probably the most active art gallery in Lahore today. I have a show every two weeks and a lot of young artists are very thankful that there is a platform for their work.
M: Which artists in history move you the most—Eastern, Western, the whole gamut?
O: That’s a very difficult question—firstly because I don’t remember names very well! But I suppose I am moved by the perfection of Michelangelo’s work, by the simplicity of Anish Kapoor’s, by the grace of Chughtai’s.
M: Do you curate your exhibitions yourself?
O: No, I don’t. I believe in professionalism and I believe in letting people who know their stuff do it properly. We have one in-house curator, but we let other artists also guest-curate. People like RM Naeem, Irfan Gul Dahri and Mohammad Zeeshan.
M: So designing and making furniture was your first calling, and you obviously have an amazing furniture space presently too. Do you make all the furniture yourself or do you collect from other designers?
O: We don’t really collect from other sources… we want to, but the bulk of the furniture is our own. Raza Zahid, an architect and brilliant designer, gives some pieces, Fizza and Fatima, my friends, give lamps and bits and bobs, Heritage Homes does, Melanie Saigol, a couple of my students make interesting hand-painted trays and trolleys. I used to have a workshop, but it was really not my cup of tea. Now I have set up the people I had trained as independent vendors, and I outsource from them. As long as they don’t reproduce my designs, I don’t mind whom they make furniture for.
M: You also have an amazing skill for cooking, which I see on Instagram. How did that come about?
O: It was always there. I remember one of the classes I took at the Lahore American School was cooking and baking—I was ten or eleven then. We always ate what we made, and that got me into it a little bit. Then I didn’t really focus on it for a long time when I went away to college at Tufts. I really started missing Pakistani food as there was no decent restaurant around, Pakistani or Indian… so one of my friends taught me how to make qeema… which meant qeema alu, qeema matar, qeema pyaz, qeema daal. Friends started appreciating my food. I lived in an apartment with friends, we had some French copains, starting making French and Italian food, so got the hang of it in college.
Then I stopped. But the Covid lockdown really got me back into it full on… you know, I have made a pilot episode for a cooking show in Hunza. The idea is to put it up on TV… I haven’t done any research yet, just plunged into it. It cost me a bomb! My videographer was from Hunza, but I had to pay a lot for renting stuff and for the editing of the piece. It really has turned out quite nicely.
They think of art as decoration pieces, matching it to their sofas. They have a lot of money, but they will spend it on cars, eating out, Birkin bags, on their homes too, but when it comes to art they’ll say,”Yeh to bahut mehnga hai”
M: Any other talents we don’t know about?
O: Well, as a child I used to do a lot of macramé! I used to make presents, hanging owls and all that…
M: How are you going to take your gallery forward? Say in the next five years? Are you going to take it to Karachi, or elsewhere…
O: You know, no. I feel we need to have more of a collaborative approach with other galleries. We have already started working towards that, so that we can have shows here and take them to Karachi. I have more of an inclusive approach. Rather than being divisive, we should unify. That way the whole art scene can be positively influenced.
The other is that I want to have residencies, and I have been actively seeking space for one and finally bought land—in the hills, completely off the beaten track, a 40-minute drive from Islamabad. In a couple of years we will have the space for perhaps even an international residency.
So we are thinking of two types of residencies—in the first kind we will invite artists to produce work (paying for their daily costs, like food etc.) and then have an exhibition of the work they produce. Alternatively, we could rent out the space to other galleries for their own residencies.
M: Do you think there is politics in the art scene?
O: Whenever three people get together, there is politics! From the word go, I have made it very clear to my curators, and I think our openings reflect that, that we will not be part of any ‘camp’. Coming into the art scene, I thought there wouldn’t be politics, as artists are supposed to be malangs. But the politics in this scene can be extremely lethal. Having said that, there is no wrong or right ‘art’ for us. We show contemporary work, but if a client wants a classical piece, we will source that out for them.
We don’t follow any tags. We have artists From Jamshoro University, from Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture— the whole of Sind actually— RM Naeem, Imran Qureishi, Irfan Gul Dahri, Mohammad Wasim, all bloody talented artists—then from Punjab University, From the North, from the west, the Hazara community…
L to R: Omer in his studio; a Markhor with carved wooden horns (the animal is on the IUCN list of threatened species); Omer with a Saud Baloch sculpture; Omer in his office
M: Would you ever compile a book about contemporary artists?
O: No, I don’t think so. The only book I would write would be about food. I lack the knowledge to write a book about art.
M: Okay, now an important question. I feel diffusion of art in Pakistan—galleries, residencies, what have you—is confined to the elites. In France, there are Maisons de la Culture, where people can actually borrow paintings and put them in their homes. Do you feel that in Pakistan the diffusion of art to the middle class is a bit limited? Shouldn’t art trickle down to those who are making their way up?
O: I feel at some point—perhaps the Zia era—there has been a conscious clampdown on creativity, art and crafts. Art was considered un-Islamic. That has done a lot of disservice to it. The level of art appreciation is not nearly as much as it should be. You talk about the middle class, I am talking about the filthy rich. They think of art as decoration pieces, matching it to their sofas. They have a lot of money, but they will spend it on cars, eating out, Birkin bags, on their homes too, but when it comes to art they’ll say,”Yeh to bahut mehnga hai.” For them art is just landscape and calligraphy.
I don’t personally get impressed by Rolexes and big houses—I appreciate going to a house with beautiful art.
That said, we have incredible talent coming out of Pakistan. Our artists are considered some of the top in the world—look at Shahzia Sikander, Salman Toor presently, Jamil Naqsh and Sadequain from the older lot.
And now there is an attempt to have art trickle down. The Biennale Foundation is doing a brilliant job. People have been taking their drivers and initiating interesting dialogues with them. Who can afford Waqas Khan, most people can’t, right? Or Imran Qureishi or Faiza Butt? But the Bienanale has put up billboards for everyone to see. Someone might say, what are these two circles all about? But then they might Google Waqas Khan. So these things will make a difference, eventually.
M: Ok, the last question might be a tough one for someone who owns a gallery. Of all the artists you have exhibited, who is the one that has blown your socks off?
O: Salman Toor. He’s my cousin as well…
M: So is it that a political answer?
O: No. His work is brilliant. He has evolved. He had the skill of Michelangelo, of a master level artist, and he has evolved it to caricature, a commentary on everyday life, often talking about class differences here and the queer scene in New York. So those are things that people can relate to, and art is also about just that—being able to relate to something.