Another piece in my web series ‘Diffusers of Art’ for The Aleph Review. In this piece I explore the importance of women art gallerists.
For as long as I can remember, art has been a factor in my life. My mother, Jamila Masud, was an artist and sculptor who received a Pride of Performance for her work. Later, my sister-in-law, Shehla Saigol, started The Lahore Art Gallery in Lahore.
So on the one hand, I would see mother chipping away at a marble statue, or disappearing into her studio at four in the morning to paint. She would also interconnect with gallery owners when she would complete a series, and I remember many, from Moin Najmi in the 70s to Sehyr Saigol (when she briefly opened a gallery) to Georges Lefeuvre, the amazing director of The Alliance Française in Islamabad, who held an exhibition and also enabled her sketches and her commissioned translations of the Punjabi rural poetic form, ‘mahiya’ to be published in Paris. The plus side of being an artist’s daughter was that besides these enablers, I also met the likes of Sadequain, Zubeida Agha (Mother’s good friend,) Ghulam Rasul and other artists who would come to the house.
I saw my mother the artist, working, but also interconnecting with gallerists, an important feature of her career. Later, when she went to an international symposium in China to carve a monumental 11-foot statue, I went for the opening and saw a similar interaction with curators and others who enabled the event.
On the other side, after marriage, I would see my sister-in-law launch her exhibitions at her sprawling gallery on Lawrence road. I saw that an ethos informed her choices—she admired the ‘Lahore School’ of landscape painters and portraitists, and I saw her interact with its active proponents—Khalid Iqbal, Ijaz ul Hassan, Iqbal Hussain, Ghulam Mustafa and others. I was with her in Karachi when she bought a treasure trove of Sadequain’s work from a collector. I saw, in short, the other side of the artist/gallerist equation.
Since then, as someone who used to paint once, as a wonderful artist’s daughter, as a gallerist’s sister-in law, as an art collector, and now as the Editor in Chief of an art and literature journal, I have been struck by how many galleries in Pakistan are run by women. They are the enablers who allow artists to display their work, and their role is very important indeed.
In the following suite of interviews, I ask ten gallery owners, in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, a few questions about their work, their challenges, their attempts to go beyond their own gallery space into other venues. I could not get through to some, like Zohra Hussain of Chowkandi, Nageen Hayat of Nomad, Mobina Zuberi of The Art Gallery and Zainab Omar of Artcade. New gallerists have also come to the fore, like Ambereen Karamat of White Turban, Lahore, and many others.
These women are enabling art from all corners of Pakistan to reach not just collectors and an audience abroad, but also those who feel that art is part of their DNA, and that it should touch others as it touches them.
(The following answers have been placed in alphabetical order, by last name)
Noorjehan Bilgrami, Koel Gallery, Karachi: I studied painting at National College of Art at Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, when Ali Imam Sahib was heading it. I continued to paint at Ali Imam’s Indus Gallery, which was the nucleus for art in Karachi in the 70s. A vibrant art center existed there, heated debates amongst artists who gathered almost daily at the gallery… Sadequain, Ahmed Parvez, Shahid Sajjad, Bashir Mirza, Jamil Naqsh, Dr. Akbar Naqvi (art critic) and regular art patrons.
An active, communal atmosphere was very much a part of my life and art practice, and I felt a strong need for a collective space where artists, craftspeople and thinkers could sit together to discuss, share and generate ideas. Koel Gallery provided that frame-work for me, opening its doors in 2009.
Faryal Haris, Royaat Gallery, Lahore: My first passion was fashion design. I was trained in London and designed outfits that were inspired by South Asian rituals and festive occasions. At the time, I collected art for my own personal collection. Over time, the two interests collided and I became interested in painting and the exploration of conceptual themes and colors that were inspired by the spirit of celebration.
Salima Hashmi, Rohtas 2, Lahore: The reason to start an art gallery in 1981 [Rohtas Gallery in Islamabad) was that it was the Zia era, where apart from certain kinds of sanctioned art, other work was not being exhibited in Government spaces. This was a time when the cultural atmosphere was as oppressive as the socio-political atmosphere, so the gallery, which I initiated with architects Naeem Pasha and Suhail Abbasi, was an attempt to show-case art which otherwise would not be shown to the public. This made it possible to show work by younger as well as established artists such as Zubaida Agha and Zahoor ul Akhlaque.
Asma Khan, Satrang Gallery, Islamabad: I have been collecting contemporary Pakistani art long before I began Satrang Gallery, ten years ago. I realised it was under-represented, particularly so in Islamabad, the capital city, where there were fewer galleries and most people have had less exposure to contemporary Pakistani art. It was with this in mind that we wanted to build a platform in the capital that showcased the works of our talented artists, with a particular spotlight on young artists. Satrang Gallery at the Serena Hotel has been the perfect venue for this venture.
Zishan Afzal Khan, Khaas Gallery, Islamabad: Looking back, it all started when I was seven or eight years old and went to my first art exhibition with my grandfather, Z.A. Bokhari. It was Sadequain’s Ghalib series and I can still remember being transfixed by a particular work. My grandfather was so thrilled by my interest that from then on he gave me a painting for my birthday every year till he died. So I can proudly say that most of the art in my parents’ home actually belongs to me!
It helped that I grew up in a house full of debate at a time of intellectual ferment. While my parent’s home was full of political debate, my grandfather’s portion was full of artists, writers, poets and intellectuals. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sufi Tabassum, Farida Khanum, Sibte Hasan were all regular visitors and I spent many evenings sitting as a silent spectator.
After university, I worked as a research officer in the Foreign Office and then in a development bank. I learnt a lot in those years but always knew that my genuine passions were art and literature.
I began collecting art in the 1980s, very much inspired by the late Ali Imam Sahib, whose Indus Gallery was the basis for my earliest purchases. Abandoning banking, I joined Mobina Zuberi in The Art Gallery in Islamabad. The rest as they say is history!
Shakira Masood, Art Chowk The Gallery, Karachi: I am an artist by education and by practice, therefore it was natural for me to be a gallerist. I opened the first online gallery in Pakistan, www.artchowk.com with my daughter, who is a collector, and soon after opened a physical gallery space in Karachi.
Seemah Niaz, Unicorn Gallery, Lahore: From a young age, I was exposed to art museums, spending hours studying the paintings of classical art masters in London, Paris and across other cities in Europe. My family’s love for traveling and the arts encouraged me to spend time with artists, and when I returned to Pakistan from the UK, I joined the Punjab University, where I met art scholars and academics such as Professor Anna Molka Ahmed. Colin David was a student there, and Sadequain was painting his masterpieces at the Lahore Museum, working on the ceiling.
Encounters with artists and art critics led me to take up writing and teaching, especially focusing on culture. After years of collecting artworks, researching and being encouraged by artist/gallery owner, the late Ali Imam (Founder of Pakistan’s first art gallery Indus), I launched Unicorn Gallery officially in 2001. Gulgee, Mansoor Rahi, Hajra, Shahid Jalal and other famous artist friends lent me their paintings for my debut exhibition. I also showcased the work of Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Ustad Allah Bux and Haji Sharif from the Mian Mumtaz Daultana Collection.
Noshi Qadir, Tanzara Art Gallery, Islamabad: I established Tanzara Gallery in 2007 with a deep commitment to the concept of art in its many forms. Being an art enthusiast and a graduate of the National College of Arts, it was only natural that I embarked on a venture to help promote the arts in a meaningful way. Hence opening an art gallery in Islamabad provided me with just the right opportunity to do so.
Sameera Raja, Canvas Gallery, Karachi: I received my degree in Architecture from the prestigious National College of Arts, Lahore, and returned to my hometown Karachi to practice architecture. As a student at a multidisciplinary institution, I was exposed to art and design along with my primary degree. This exposure, which went beyond pure academic requirements, made me a frequent visitor/participant at numerous cultural activities in Lahore. Karachi , at that time in the 1990s, was not the cultural and artistic hub it is today .
While Ali Imam’s Indus Gallery, Mrs Hussain’s Chawkandi Art and Riffat Alvi’s VM Art Gallery were contributing tremendously towards creating awareness of art in a culturally parched society, contemporary art was not given its due importance, probably because contemporary art was raw, new, untried and untested.
The initial idea for Canvas was planted because I saw a need to show what I had been exposed to and found Karachi lacked that creative space and freedom of expression. This was my opportunity to create a unique quality art-service in the nascent gallery circuit of my city. Beyond simply a gallery, my aim was to establish a hub for emerging artists who, quite like myself at the time, were taking risks in their creative endeavours.
I was ready to take the risk… it was actually more a leap of faith, driven by passion, to present the avant-garde, the cutting edge, the exciting, to an unfamiliar audience. The idea was to present ideas outside the box and shake things up .
Once that leap of faith was taken , there was no turning back…I had found my ‘ikigai’.
Sanam Taseer, Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore: I trained as a Barrister and legal work seemed meaningless and unfulfilling. I wanted to do something that would make a truly lasting and positive change. In a country as unstable and strife-torn as Pakistan, art is even more important. It marks the difference between surviving and truly living.
Every art gallery owner has her own art ethos, which in turn informs her choice of art for her gallery. What is yours?
Noorjehan: With a focus on Pakistan’s fabulous, indigenous crafts, perfected over centuries in harmony with nature, we began with an advisory group of distinguished artists and architects. Many hours were spent in the courtyard under the champa tree with Habib Fida Ali, Arshad Faruqui, Amean J and beloved late artist, Usman Ghauri—the most enthusiastic and determined amongst us all to make Koel Gallery different from the rest. After extensive discussions and deliberations, Koel’s mission statement was agreed upon: ‘To bridge the divide between the Arts and Crafts.’
Koel designated a space for exhibitions, both for visual arts and the crafts, where artists, designers and craftspeople would share a common platform. The Gallery is housed in a peaceful, tranquil environment, where soft natural light bathes the walls and a sense of calm prevails; where works of art become one with Nature.
Faryal: Some prominent threads inform the ethos of my gallery. The first is the creative expression of women. In spite of our patriarchal society, I feel that women in Pakistan have been driving a social revolution and have a privileged take on the sacred and the intimate. It has been an absolute pleasure to curate works by women in Pakistan. Secondly, I have works from what has unfortunately become the periphery in Pakistan or cultural traditions that have been neglected… I am honored to showcase artists from Baluchistan and Sindh. Finally, I am committed to showcasing raw, new talent. Some of Pakistan’s most renowned international artists have made their debut at Royaat.
Salima: The ethos was to show iconoclastic, dynamic work, which was full of new ideas and employed new mediums. I was determined not to show pretty landscapes, or sentimental representational narratives, which were hackneyed or familiar to audiences. We also decided to step away from state-approved genres such as calligraphy.
Asma: As gallery director, I chose to promote the young, vibrant, contemporary art scene of Pakistan, focusing on artists whose work was cutting edge, conceptually powerful and replete with important narratives. There are some truly phenomenal works being created by artists with incredible stories of resilience, focus and sheer genius. Our goal as a gallery is to support artists whose work we feel is truly special and critically thoughtful, regardless of its commercial success. The Serena Hotel and its CEO, Mr Aziz Boolani, have the same vision to promote contemporary Pakistani art and craft, with an emphasis on young talent that doesn’t get space in most commercial galleries. Together, we launched Satrang Art Gallery in 2012.
Zishan: I think the ethos of Khaas is clear. It is a contemporary art gallery, promoting art that embodies the zeitgeist. It’s worth noting that the contemporary art gallery is wholly different to the traditional. Whilst the latter focuses on artists whose works have proven to be a commercial success, the contemporary gallery is largely delving into the unknown, with an eye on the future.
Though we take risks, I am not interested in gimmickry. We want to work with artists with integrity, people whose work will grow and survive. Fundamental technical skill underlies even the most abstract of paintings.
My business partner, Ali Zulfikar and Shameen Arshad, the gallery curator, not only share this vision, they are making a huge contribution to its development.
Shakira: The priority for Artchowk is that the work on the walls has to be of a high standard, whether by established artists or newcomers.
Seemah: Since its inception, Unicorn Gallery has been committed to the preservation of Pakistani Art History. Through our retrospective exhibitions, we document and create awareness of South Asian Art History and old masters. Over the years, the gallery has been active in the production of art monographs and books, launching the first dedicated art bookstore. At Unicorn Gallery, we have enjoyed a high reputation for the quality of our exhibitions, an annual art book fair exclusive to Unicorn, art scholar talks with the likes of Dr Akbar Naqvi, Marjorie Husain, Niilofur Farrukh, Salima Hashmi, Mian Ijaz ul Hassan and others.
Unicorn Gallery has also hosted retrospectives of major masters including: ‘Sadequain’s Rubbiyats’, ‘Jameel Ahmed: A Forgotten Master’, ‘Ghulam Rasul: Pakistan’s most influential landscape painter’ and most recently ‘Laila Shahzada, a Life: The Legacy of a Pioneer of Modern Painting in Pakistan.’
Noshi: For me art is a quality of life, a pursuit of enlightenment and an aspiration to higher ideas. It invariably transcends cultures and becomes a bridge for better understanding. Thus, Tanzara Gallery was created with this notion in mind and this is what I continuously aspire to work towards. The name ‘Tanzara’ is a combination of my daughters’ names: Tanya and Zara.
Seemah: In 2008, Unicorn Gallery became the first Pakistani Art Gallery to launch in Dubai, with our dedicated branch Unicorn Space, with a debut exhibition of modern miniatures. The same year, Unicorn Gallery also launched a YouTube Channel that has been educating viewers on the history of regional painting with access to free lectures by published art scholars. The gallery remains committed to creating awareness of the history of the subcontinent, showcasing South Asian Masters including Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza, Manjit Bawa, Sadequain, Ahmed Parvez and Bashir Mirza.
Unicorn Gallery also has the distinction of auctioning Sadequain’s ‘Crucifix’ painting for £118,750 (HK$ 1,279,761) through Bonhams London, creating an auction record for Pakistani art.
Sameera: The only constant is change. My vision or view of art and the world at large is constantly changing and of course my ethos today has evolved a lot from what it was two decades ago. Remaining informed and moving ahead of the times are my compass, guiding my journey to discovering the art that we exhibit at Canvas. This is subjective, very much based on my own preferences and something that I take full ownership of. I fully acknowledge the privilege as well as the responsibility that comes with this. Based on personal choice, I am willing to bear the ramifications, by putting my money where my mouth is.
Sanam: Our aim was to put the same amount of zeal and passion into promoting art that our artists put into creating it. We have distinguished ourselves by taking part in a large number of costly art fairs and international exhibitions. In addition we also make it a point to take a chance on young artists and have had more debut art shows than any other local gallery. That includes grooming young artists and steering them away from stagnation, safe choices or a lack of originality.
What are the challenges that you face as an art gallery owner?
Noorjehan: The greatest challenge I am facing now is to keep the Gallery sustained. It has always been a labour of love, a passion made challenging because of its lack of financial viability. Quality has to be prioritized and my vision has always been to educate audiences instead of simply plastering the walls with mass-produced paintings. When the market is flooded with art dictated by buyers who want to fill the walls with decorative, colourful works, it becomes increasingly difficult to inculcate a discriminating eye in the public. As a result, serious works and artists suffer.
Faryal: When I started working with art in Pakistan in the late 1990s, no one was interested in the artistic process and instead chose to place primacy in mass-produced forms. The gallery scene has come a long way since then, but there is a struggle to translate the full artistic process in the market. The art market outside of Pakistan places a greater importance on art concepts and the art process than here. As a consequence, some of Pakistan’s most exciting talent prefers dealing with an international, rather than a domestic market.
Salima: How to pay the electricity bill and costs of mounting exhibitions. We have a volunteer staff, including Asad Hayee, assisted by Sheraz Faisal, who are passionate about what we do, but there are many costs of mounting shows and transportation, etc. Having to deal with all this over the years has been challenging, with occasional help from patrons.
Asma: Initially, it was getting people interested in the contemporary art we were exhibiting in Islamabad, as most people were not familiar with it; in many ways it has been an educational journey for our audiences and our clients. Initially when we started Satrang, it was the diplomatic community that was more appreciative of the often quirky and cool art we displayed, but now, I’m delighted to say, it’s equally the Pakistanis. Overcoming the challenge has also made it more rewarding; comments in our visitors’ book, like the one that read: “Fifteen minutes in your gallery and our view of Pakistan has changed”, make us feel that our efforts have paid off!
This past year has, of course, been difficult for everyone. After the initial lockdown we were closed for a few months, but we quickly adapted and learnt to work online. We promoted the art on various social media platforms. Our Instagram page has been far more active this past year and we also made our exhibition schedules flexible, and now we’re pretty much back on track, even with the physical gallery shows.
Zishan: I prefer to focus on the opportunities. Contemporary art in Pakistan is exhilarating and there is a burgeoning world of people involved in the visual arts.
Of course, it is crucial for any gallery to find appropriate premises, and this can be difficult in Islamabad. We are delighted with our new space, opened in March, where we have already hosted three phenomenally successful solo exhibitions (by Bushra Waqas Khan, Komail Aijazuddin and Shakil Saigol) and we look forward to our next season.
Shakira: Like all self-run businesses, finance is our biggest problem, but thank God we do manage to stay afloat. Having made a niche for ourselves, we are very lucky as a gallery.
Seemah: We have always spoken for the need for a dedicated fine art museum where masterpieces are on display for all times and where art aficianados can come in to view important paintings, as well as better understand the logical flow of our art history timeline—the various influences of East India Company Painting, Academic Realism, Miniature Painting and through to the present day. A timeline that tells the story of Pakistani art history through a tour of paintings spanning from the1940s (pre-partition) to the present day. We have pushed for this for years, and now with the Covid challenge, there is a greater need, as people are more curious than before and want to learn how it all began.
The current Covid challenge has brought with it new ways of experiencing art, with people now consuming artworks virtually and with less face-to-face contact. We believe the pandemic has been a disruptor of sorts and will change how we experience artworks, with virtual events and online tours being given precedence over physical events. Art galleries must consider the post-Covid art world to be more personal, where individuals will seek out art experiences and build collections through online means, while having a greater connection with art gallery curators—who must be both informed and transparent to build a meaningful experience.
Noshi: Art Galleries have been at the forefront of promoting quality art in Pakistan. They are instrumental in creating a positive impact of art and culture, both nationally and internationally. Therefore running an art gallery is not an easy task, and requires a strong commitment towards selecting artists of immense potential and, in turn, giving them a platform for adequate exposure. The gallery also has to maintain a fine balance between guiding clients to make informed decisions when purchasing art, whilst keeping in mind what the client wants. Earning a clients’ trust is the foundational element on which the gallery functions, as it establishes a sustainable and long-term relationship, ultimately contributing to the its success.
Sameera: Adversity breeds success; for what would life be without challenges? Challenges make one grow, reinvent, recalibrate, rethink and move on, hopefully wiser. I view them as opportunities to evolve, always increasing my benchmark accordingly. Challenges are time-bound . Once you have overcome them , their value expires and to think of them in the present would only pull one back .
Sanam: Although Lahore is a university town with deep cultural roots, too often the lack of interest beyond the artistic community itself can be depressing. Also the local government has never helped galleries—only hindered them. Clear-cut laws regarding custom duties governing the export of art would be greatly appreciated.
There has been a burgeoning of artistic talent not just in cities, but in the rural hinterlands of Baluchistan, Hazara, interior Sind, South Punjab etc. what do you think of this phenomenon and how have you encouraged it?
Noorjehan: The talent hidden in the rural and far-flung areas of our country is truly phenomenal. I have spent five decades documenting and working with such talent in the realm of fine arts, crafts and other creative genres.
I was asked to curate the art project for the new airport in Islamabad. It was a great opportunity to curate Pakistan’s finest traditional crafts and the best contemporary art in this large-scale venue, which has passengers, international and domestic, weaving through. I designed the airport art project as an amalgamation of exquisitely hand-made craft and fine art. It was also important to give equal respect to both the master-craftsmen and Pakistan’s leading contemporary artists, both sharing a platform in this high-tech glass structure.
This ethos continues at Koel Gallery, where we have held extensive exhibitions, including ‘Sind Reverberating Sounds’(2014), featuring the work of 56 artists from Sindh. More recent was the two- part show, ‘Mera Safar’ showcased the work of 16 prominent Sindh-based artists.
Faryal: Royyat Gallery has made a concerted effort to showcase talent and depict life from every corner of Pakistan. To do this, I travelled widely to every province and worked with art schools to identify young, new talents. I’ve commissioned paintings from young painters that no one previously had confidence in, so that they had the support and exposure that allowed them to develop a foothold in the art world.
Salima: The Rohtas Gallery in Islamabad and Rohtas 2 in Lahore have always, as a matter of policy, shown artists off the beaten track. This has been our priority, as with regional artists Khadim Ali, Akram Dost, Shakila Haider and Shah Abdullah Alamee, which is why a recently-graduated young unknown from Swabi, Rahman Zada, had his first show here.
Shakira: Art in Pakistan has flowered all over the country, and the talent of the young is mind-blowing. An artist that we encouraged, Mujib Lakho, a young graduate from Sindh University, is now in China on a four-year full scholarship. The Center of Excellence in Jamshoro has been producing some of the best artists over the years and the credit goes to their teachers and the high standard of the school. Quetta is also a base for some of the best works produced, Akram Dost Baloch being one of the best living artists on the art scene. I have also received works from faraway Peshawar schools, and other cities up north.
Seemah: Since its inception, Unicorn Gallery has been committed to the preservation of Pakistani Art History. Through our retrospective exhibitions, we document and create awareness of South Asian Art History and old masters. Over the years the gallery has been active in the production of art monographs and books, launching the first dedicated art bookstore. We have an annual Art Book Fair exclusive to Unicorn, art scholar talks including Dr Akbar Naqvi, Marjorie Hussain, Niilofur Farrukh, Salima Hashmi, Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan and more.
Unicorn Gallery has hosted retrospectives of major masters including: ‘Sadequain’s Rubbiyats’, ‘Jameel Ahmed:A Forgotten Master’, ‘Ghulam Rasul: Pakistan’s most influential landscape painter’ and most recently ‘Laila Shahzada, a life:The legacy of a pioneer of modern painting in Pakistan.’
In 2008 Unicorn Gallery became the first Pakistani Art Gallery to launch in Dubai, debuting with an exhibit of modern miniatures. The same year the gallery also launched a YouTube Channel that has been educating viewers about the history of regional painting with access to free lectures by published art scholars. We have also showcased South Asian masters including Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza, Manjit Bawa, Ahmed Parvez Bashir Mirza and Sadequain. The gallery auctioned Sadequain’s ‘Crucifix’ painting for £118,750 through Bonhams London, creating an auction record for Pakistani art.
Asma: As a gallery, we seek out and exhibit the work of artists from across Pakistan, making a special effort to represent the different provinces and communities. We are constantly in touch with professors in universities in the different provinces, ensuring that we are aware of new talent and of their alumni. Pakistan has extremely strong art schools in major cities, but we also have strong schools in cities in other provinces. They have many stories to tell. We have shown Ramzan Jaffrey, Shakila Haider, Shah Abdullah Alame and many more young artists from the Hazara community. Ghulam Hussain ‘ Guddu’ is a visual artist who hails from a village near Hyderabad in Sindh. He has incorporated his family craft of weaving in his art practice, creating works weaving vasli paper and canvas and creating contemporary art pieces. In one series he superimposed images of Piet Mondrian on his woven vasli. We have also shown other regional artists—like sculptor Saud Baloch, miniature artist Rahim Baloch and the painter maestro Akram Dost Baloch from Quetta. I would like to mention so many others from KPK, Hunza, Gilgit and others areas whose works we have successfully exhibited but the list is long!
Noshi: The art world in Pakistan comprises of artistic talent from multiple communities—it constitutes a multitude of lived experiences, of individuals who are seeking platforms to showcase their art and stories. This phenomenon is crucial in our growth and evolution as a community. Part of Tanzara’s mission is to promote and bring various artists’ work to the forefront and contribute to this phenomenon. We have had the pleasure of showcasing young artists work from Sindh, Chitral and Hunza in our previous group shows. More recently, we exhibited miniature artist Syed Hussain’s work that beautifully portrays the Hazara community.
Sameera: For me, art has no geographical boundaries, as I purely prefer to exhibit artists according to talent. I do not play according to limits imposed by cast, gender, race or ethnicity, as my worldview is not coloured by this and there are already plenty who play this game. Regardless of education, resources or networks, the artists chosen to exhibit at Canvas all excel in technical acumen and vision. Their talent speaks for them.
The only criterion for a prospective artist, other than talent, is that they hail from Pakistan, or originate from the nation. We choose not to show artists from other countries , even though we receive numerous requests to do so. I could of course immediately provide a list of artists from the mentioned areas, as per your question, but giving respect to talent, and talent alone, is how meritocracy can be maintained.
Sanam: Our aim was to put the same amount of zeal and passion into promoting art that our artists put into creating it. We have distinguished ourselves by taking part in a large number of costly art fairs and international exhibitions. In addition, we also make it a point to take a chance on young artists and have more debut art shows than any other local gallery. That includes grooming young artists and steering them away from stagnation, safe choices or a lack of originality.
What do you think is the best way to diffuse art to the masses? Have you been part of any effort that is not just restricted to your art space, but seeks to connect with people who do not visit art galleries?
Noorjehan: In 2013, I gathered a group of like-minded creative people, forming a not-for-profit foundation, ‘Pursukoon Karachi’. This was set up in response to the continuous conflict in the city with a firm belief that art and culture are the only mode of uplifting society and the people from the mire of despair, while addressing the issues of conflict.
Also, with a group of visionaries, we established one of Pakistan’s leading art and architecture schools, ‘Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture’. The idea was to enlarge the platform of learning for the country, to have a strong art presence in academia and society for Sindh, much as there was through the NCA in the Punjab.
We organised the first creative festival in November 2013 that included 27 projects, spread over 3 days and 3 venues, with over 300 participating artists. My project was the revitalization and restoration of the Cantonment Railway Station, built in Karachi in 1896—a colonial-era, magnificent lime-stone building that was in a state of disrepair and dilapidation.
In May 2015, we organized ‘Aaghaz-e-Safar’ where 100 artists from Karachi contributed original artworks for the auction, to raise funds to continue renovations at Cantonment Railway Station.
Faryal: Art is very personal. It a powerful medium through which people make meaning not only of their values but the society that they live in. I strove to make Royaat an accessible and neutral space where people, especially the young, e.g. high and university students could inhabit, to explore concepts, values, and aesthetic choices. I have also aimed to introduce Royaat to educators, so that Royaat’s artistic offerings presented an opportunity to explore the diversity of cultural and regional traditions of Pakistan.
Salima: We have a small space and rely on word of mouth invitations. But because of the unusual nature of our programming, we have shown projects of Women from Shelters and done unusual collaborations and performances. They have drawn diverse crowds and diverse responses. The objective of the Gallery is not commercial, but rather to act as a teaching space where audiences and artists learn from each other and have an exciting conversation. Ali Kazim’s startling installation made of hair did exactly that.
Asma: Over our ten years, we have made a consistent effort to reach out to people who otherwise may not come into an art gallery. Additionally, the location and set up of our gallery at the Serena Hotel is such that non-arty people, who may not actively visit art galleries, often chance upon it, and enjoy spending uninterrupted time with the art on display. Our gallery team members are always available to answer questions and give guided tours to visitors.
As a gallery, we are interested in community building and partnerships, and actively reach out to the local community. We often invite children from Basti schools to see the exhibitions and walk them through the shows. For Heraa Khan's recent gorgeous solo exhibition about degradation to the environment, we arranged an interactive workshop with students from Mashal Model School from the Bari Imam area near Islamabad. It was the most rewarding day for me this year! Young twelve-year-old boys and girls who belonged to different parts of the country live in this migrant workers’ area and their interest and understanding of the art exhibition was just amazing.
We also conduct public art projects within the city for different causes. For example, last year, we arranged in a collaboration of Satrang Gallery with students from the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University and the local residents of Dhok Hassu in Rawalpindi and a non-profit, the Akhtar Hameed Khan Foundation. We worked with the residents in painting several outer spaces/walls of the area. Many enthusiastic youngsters, who were initially just watching the artists, joined in and enjoyed the interaction and discovered their own hidden talents! We have hosted several collaborations with the charity The Citizens Foundation and organised art competitions—‘Art a Thons’— to raise awareness and money for the charity and to promote art amongst school children. Many private schools in Islamabad, as well as the children from TCF schools in the area, participate. The art competition is judged by independent artists.
Zishan: To me, this is a somewhat patronising approach. Civilisations are defined by their art and architecture and Pakistanis have a deeply ingrained sense of both even if it’s not always obvious. The visual has always defined us. So, to me, the more privileged and the less privileged are one people and cannot help but inform and influence each other. Whereas the less affluent may not visit art galleries they are, in reality, making most of the art in the country. People can be privileged in some ways and not others.
Shakira: Exhibitions (with approximately 400 exhibition spaces) and major and secondary education centers, keeps the city art practitioners constantly on their toes. Artchowk is simultaneously running the Contemporary Art gallery at State Bank of Pakistan, which is an extension of the Sadequain Gallery. This introduces a specific type of viewership.In 2017, Artchowk held a competition titled ‘Kooray se Art Banao’ (Make art out of rubbish).This very successful competition attracted artists from all over the country. One of the venues for exhibiting the work was Pakistan Chowk, which was very popularly attended.The show we did for WWF in a public park in Clifton, on the other hand, gave us problems, as we had to pay an artist for her work being damaged. Unfortunately it is a matter of security, which makes it difficult to put work in public places. We should approach banks or hotels to sponsor these public showings.
We were also instrumental in getting the Karachi Biennale to take place.
Seemah: At Unicorn, we strive to connect important historical artworks with members of the public. Through our outreach programs, summer internships, annual art intensive bootcamps—where all art enthusiasts are trained by professional practitioners in the history of art, beginner drawing, greyscale painting—the gallery has served as a private art museum.
Our accessibility as well as educational approach to experiencing art, has in turn led to an increased interest and awareness. We have run a series of free workshops where art historians were invited to speak on the ‘Modern art movement in Pakistan’ from the early 1950s onward, highlighting the works of the Late Begum Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali, Ahmed Parvez, Sadequain and Bashir Mirza. Our museum approach led to a revived and renewed interest in classical masters. Attendees were presented information relating to different movements, techniques, classical approaches, style and context. Many times, Unicorn finds itself responding to emails and queries, asking us about the influence of pre-partition heritage on the works of Chughtai, Allah Bux, S H Askari, Nagi, Fyzee Rahamin, and through our responses, many have pursued higher studies in the history of art with a particular focus on South Asia.
Noshi: Over the years, I have learnt the power of being connected to a community of individuals in order to drive a mission forward. With this in mind, I believe that community effort and collaboration amongst artists, curators, art enthusiasts and the like, is necessary to diffuse art to multiple communities that may not have access to it today. Tanzara Gallery has participated in platforms such as The Islamabad Art Festival, where I curated three shows at the PNCA. These shows were open to the public, with the objective being to give access to multiple communities, and to connect with people who do not often visit art galleries.
Sameera: Entering a ‘white cube’ space, alluding to gallery space, is generally daunting for someone who has not been exposed to art. This is not a reflection on the people; rather on the sorry plight of art awareness, education and a lack of public art.
Being cognisant of these problems, Canvas has been diligently working towards creating art awareness in the public realm. We have built public art collections and have organised one of the largest contemporary art festivals at Frere Hall, in collaboration with Vasl Artists’ Association, as well as spearheading Sculpture Residencies with corporate partners in Steel and Cement. We have worked with I AM KARACHI and IPAF ( International Public Art Festival ) and given the city murals at the GSA House and Centre Point building .
These initiatives engage with people on a grassroots level in industrial townships. and encourage them to be part of the changing landscape. They provide the opportunity for artists to engage with artisans and craftspeople, labourers, laypersons and those creatively inclined, to live with art as a way of life, rather than an abstract concept divorced from their reality.
Sanam: The Lahore and Karachi Biennales have done a great job of putting art in public spaces. Public art used to consist largely of Jashne Bahara fiberglass flowers and phallic sculptures glorifying the army. The biennales recently changed things and even public art commissioned by the government has been improving. We worked with the Lahore biennale and presented concurrent exhibitions. We have also lobbied the local government to use contemporary artists for its public projects.
There is also a growing interest in Pakistani art abroad. What have you done or plan to do to promote a better appreciation of our artists abroad?
Noorjehan: Collaboration and engagement across borders is essential to promoting Pakistani art abroad.
‘Visions from Our Own World’ was a virtual initiative by Koel Gallery during the Covid period, a way to stay connected by sharing an image of the present time, by way of a collaboration between Koel Gallery and famous, Rome-based Photographer Mohamed Keita. Hundreds of entries were sent to Koel Gallery’s Instagram, people from Pakistan and abroad participating, including from Spain, Vancouver, Hawaii, New York, Rome, Denmark and Scotland.
‘Landscape of Memory’, in November 2020, brought together artists from Scotland and Pakistan—The artists explored the complex and fragile ecological relationships between nature and humanity. The artists drew from their immediate physical surroundings: the azure Scottish seascape, a verdant Lahore garden, craggy Highland valleys, an encroached Karachi beach, urban kitchen tiles.
A recent and ongoing initiative was in the form of an Artist Residency– ‘Ecologies of Displacement’. Koel Gallery, Pakistan, and Summerhall, Scotland, were awarded the ‘Connect and Collaborate’ grant by the British Council and Creative Scotland to create this residency. Visual artists Farrukh Adnan and Michele Marcoux plan to collaboratively create work on the theme of Ecologies of Displacement, under the guidance of Project Director and filmmaker Sana Bilgrami.
Faryal: It is an exciting time, especially as Pakistan and South Asian artists are getting known on the international circuit. I have worked with curators in the Middle East, North America, and the Greater Asia region to promote promising young artists to emphasize how Pakistan’s history, culture, and artist tradition have contributed to a unique and powerful artistic tradition. The artistic potential of Pakistan is immense and reflects how social and cultural traditions, struggles, and aspirations are represented in rich, hefty traditions that are unique to this part of the world but resonate with universal motifs and aesthetics.
Salima: I have done exactly that for 40 years, curating exhibitions in many parts of the world, including the ground-breaking 'Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan ' at the Asia Society Museum in New York in 2009, ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ at Art Dubai in 2008, plus shows in Colombo, Tokyo, Fukuoka, Delhi, Bangkok, Doha, Dubai, Bradford, Milan and Paris among other places. Many of these shows were accompanied by catalogues, so the exhibitions are recorded and documented as part of the history of art in Pakistan.
Asma: Pakistani artists are extremely talented but need more recognition internationally. Except for a few of our top artists, they don’t get enough opportunity. We are playing our part with Satrang. Some of the artists we showed as young graduates went on to be recognised at international events. I would mention GM, a young artist from Balochistan, whose delicate miniature work made him the first Pakistani artist to win the Victoria & Albert Museum’s prestigious Jameel Art Prize.
Many of our clients are now based abroad—they were either frequent visitors at Satrang formerly or just have an interest in art from Pakistan. They enjoy building their contemporary art collections and we advise them. As our gallery’s network grows, we also expand our support to artists, advising them and helping them with international residency applications and educational scholarships and programs.
Zishan: We like to give our artists an international platform. The first, in 2015, showcased the trajectory of contemporary art in Pakistan. This was where we brought the great Modernist Zubeida Agha to a larger audience and first gave her the exposure she deserved abroad.
The next year we took Humaira Abid’s sculptural works to the Saatchi Gallery London at the Start Art Fair.
Indeed, there is a strong appetite for Pakistani work internationally, and it’s clear that this is gaining pace. It can be frustrating, though, that our Embassies and High Commissions abroad do not always give enough tangible support or encouragement to the arts. Other countries use culture as a tool of diplomacy much more effectively. Nevertheless, I still feel greatly privileged to be part of the current Pakistani cultural renaissance.
Shakira: Artchowk was the first gallery to participate in art fairs abroad. What was amazing was how Indian galleries showed Pakistani artists at these fairs. We took our artists to India Art Fair (twice), Beirut Art Fair and to London, Miami, New York and Dhaka Art Summits. At the Dubai Art fair we showed specific artists—Zahoorul Akhlaque and then Shahid Sajjad, the sculptor. The demand for Pakistani art abroad is growing simply because the work is great.
Seemah: Over the years, the Unicorn Gallery has held several successful traveling shows. These have enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success, starting from our annual ‘New Art from Pakistan’ (2012) series at the Pakistan High Commission London, followed by La Galeria Pall Mall, Royal Opera Arcade. Our traveling exhibitions have reached out to the expat community and even reached first-time collectors, many of whom have built engaging collections through our Gallery. Amongst our art history talk series, the Art Lecture, 'Mughal and Modernist Influences in Contemporary Pakistani Art' by Seemah Niaz at the Royal Asiatic Society, London, was attended by curators of the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as art auction houses specialists. We intend to increase our traveling exhibitions, reaching new locations and addressing international audiences, whilst maintaining an active online presence that is enriching the lives of art connoisseurs, students, artists and patrons worldwide.
Noshi: Tanzara Gallery has made efforts to showcase and promote Pakistani art abroad. We believe that this is a crucial aspect in building the appreciation and value of our artists in global communities and spaces.
‘New Pathways’ was a group show by Pakistani artists show that Tanzara Gallery showcased at the UN headquarters in New York in 2016. Amin Gulgee’s sculpture, titled ‘Reaching for the Skies’ was exhibited at this show and has now been permanently installed at the UN Rose Gardens.
Tanzara Gallery took a group of artists to visit five cities in China on the invitation of the Chinese Government. I had the opportunity to give talks on Pakistani art, and this trip culminated with Pakistani artists exhibiting their work in Beijing. I also had the opportunity to visit Brazil and be a part of a space for dialogue and knowledge exchange between Pakistan and Brazil. Tanzara Gallery has also exhibited in Bahrain and Dubai, given the demand and appreciation for Pakistani art in their communities.
Sameera: Canvas has regularly worked with international institutions and galleries, including those from the USA, UK, Europe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai and India. Over the years we have forged lasting partnerships with some, collaborating to bring group and solo exhibitions of our artists to uninitiated international audiences who are delighted by the diversity and ingenuity from Pakistan. Many of these artists have subsequently received international accolades. We also work with artists of Pakistan origin who live and work abroad, and who have established themselves as internationally recognised.
In addition, Canvas has the singular honour of being the only gallery from Pakistan that regularly exhibits at Art Dubai, one of the Global South’s leading annual art fairs and institutions. In doing so, we have opened the doors for entirely new exposure from the Middle East and beyond.
Sanam: The international acclaim earned by artists such as Shahzia Sikandar, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi and Salman Toor shows that we, as a region, have much to offer. A lot of this international success is owed to the culture of selfless mentoring within the art community itself. As I mentioned before, we have taken part in some pretty costly art fairs as well, working closely with Sunderlande in New York and galleries in Delhi in an effort to put Pakistani artists on the map. Our efforts, however, are not nearly as heroic as the artists’, by creating work that we can proudly present on the world stage