Zeitgeist and History: Curating Change

Mehvash Amin


The word curator means ‘overseer, guardian, agent’. In Latin law, the curator was appointed guardian of a person legally unfit to conduct himself, such as a minor or a lunatic. However, in the Middle Ages, the curator became known specifically as somebody in a clerical position, a priest for whom the exhibition would be an ecclesiastical display and who would be crucial to the organisation of religious spaces and beyond.


Today, in the exhibition, the curator takes into account both the zeitgeist and the repressed history—a history associated with individual motivations, with the transcultural and the mythic.


For my final piece this year for The Aleph Review website, in which I undertook the theme of diffusing Pakistani art, I question three important curators about their practice. I was struck by their passion and their commitment to this oft-overlooked but important aspect of art, especially since I feel that with the grand emergence of Pakistani art, its critique and presentation has to pass into the stewardship of committed and knowledgeable minds who have, or are trying to, ‘own’ Pakistani art and retrieve it from the paradigm of an ‘otherized’ narrative.


Aasim Akhtar: The Viewer


Aasim Akhtar is a photographer, and an independent art critic and curator. His writing is published in magazines, catalogues, and books both nationally and internationally, and his art work has been widely exhibited. He was a writer-in-residence at Ledig House, USA, and Ucross Foundation, USA in 2000, and a curator-in-residence at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan in 2002. Among the many exhibitions he’s curated to date, An Idea of Perfection: National Exhibition of Photography and Open Field: Contemporary Art from Pakistan are noteworthy. He is the author of two published books; has just finished writing his third, Dialogues with Threads: Traditions of Embroidery in Hazara; and is working on his fourth book, Present Tense: An Overview of Contemporary Art in Pakistan.



My first question to him, and all others was: what does curatorial practice vis-à-vis art and culture mean to you?


AA: I often return to a rudimentary definition of art, as something that makes us see the world differently, and provoke in us the spirit to interrogate and investigate, leading to critical inquiry. The best dialogues I’ve had were with people who do not have art degrees; those who do not use the art jargon when they speak; and those without preconceptions about art. They often say, “I don’t know anything about art,” but then find themselves talking about art in ways that can be meaningful.


As a curator, I am a viewer and never an artist. My position is always looking at the work and seeing it first in a very intimate, personal way. Then, if I believe in it, I ask, how can I share it? In order to make that possible I must have a close relationship with the artist.


A curator’s work is not done after the selection of artists or themes. The exhibition must also be choreographed with compulsive madness, curiosity or humour. It’s important to look at an exhibition as a medium that is part of a continuing cultural practice. What comes out of that understanding is a larger awareness of how you tell a story, because exhibitions are narrative by nature – one thing after another: sentences, paragraphs, line breaks, punctuation, exclamation marks, etc.


MM: Many curators have come to their profession from other disciplines, and many are mere dabblers. Do you see a difference or commonality in their approach?


AA: To begin with, the term ‘curation’ is a misnomer for random selection. The nomenclature ‘curation’ does not exist in any dictionary, be it Oxford’s, Webster’s or Chambers’. ‘Curatorial Practice’, to be technically correct, is a much-abused pastime of the upstarts in Pakistan. From fresh graduates in Fine Arts to investors and collectors, every single ant on earth is an ‘art curator’, including those who can’t even spell the word.

To add insult to injury, there are no qualified curators in Pakistan per se. There are no workshops or courses offered in curatorial practice even by the top three art institutes in the country. Yet, everyone and anyone can claim to be a curator, as it were.

It's exceedingly important to know what it takes to curate – hanging a show, at one’s own whim and fancy, is not curatorial practice!


MM: Many curators use a theme to introduce an idea and to select the art for their show. What that entails is to think big, and to have plenty of resources at one’s disposal. What, in your opinion and experience, are the pitfalls and shortcomings of curating a show in a country like Pakistan?


AA: More than the lack of resources and funds, it is the risk of ‘censorship’ and ‘taboo’ that continues to haunt the curator in a country like Pakistan. Which is not to say that issues and problems of a similar nature do not exist elsewhere. Take, for example, Chris Ofili’s, Andres Serrano’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s shows in the US.


During the Martial Law through the ‘80s, display of the human figure in visual arts at public spaces was banned. I remember how Iqbal Hussain’s exhibition was raided by men in uniform and taken down from the Alhamra on the Mall! Decades later, Nilofur Akmut’s artwork displayed in Karachi under the aegis of Shanakht sparked a huge controversy ending in disaster when an angry mob set the venue on fire. Adeela Suleman’s Killing Fields of Karachi mounted at Frere Hall on the occasion of Karachi Biennale 2020, is yet another glaring example of public apathy.


There is a general lack of state patronage when it comes to art and culture. Exhibitions of artworks that travel abroad through the official channel often comprise artists selected on a provincial quota regardless of the quality of the work.


MM: Speaking internationally, the curatorial practice has gone way beyond the exploration of the utopian dream. There are times, though, when the artist may make works that are non-conformative and oppositional. In many cases, the works may be political, arising out of a new way to interact with society—a refutation of the commodity system. The work is not about acquisition. What is your response to such work?


AA: There’s a huge amount of naïveté in the use of the word utopia. When you use this term you have to be accountable for the term and for the disasters carried out in the name of utopia throughout the 20th century. The political relationship of utopia to art has been complicated.


All the utopias, stating with Plato’s Republic, have been failures in practice. There are times, though, where the artist may imagine a utopia, making works that are non-conformative and oppositional. Earthworks (the movement), for example, was political, arising out of a new way to interact with society—a refutation of the commodity system; the work was not about acquisition. Could we call this utopian?


I think Utopia is a nice, catchy term and a good marketing device—but it is also where the danger lies. If you reduce art to these marketing terms, to these superficial, hip-sounding phrases, then you destroy its potential to transform the imagination.


MM: There are periods in history—especially in developing cultures—where modernity is a new thing, and people are obsessed with the new because there is a necessity for it. I think this happens when society reaches a stage where innovation and tradition interweave. Comment.


AA: An exhibition for me is as much a textual as a visual device; how you scan left to right, right to left. If I were to pick up an Urdu newspaper, I know I’d be reading right to left while a Chinese text is vertical (which, incidentally, is how traditional Chinese landscape painting orders space), and thus I try to understand the different ways the audience can enter the work through the scheme of the exhibition.


Naiza Khan’s well-orchestrated show The Rising Tide was made up of strong artworks woven into an architectural and thematic structure. It contained many important artists, but as a project it was dressed up in a Che Guevara T-shirt, shrinking and consuming its own radical possibility. It mimicked a capitalist consumer situation with the curator as CEO and the artists as the products, reducing the possibility of the artist.


MM: In case of both the Karachi Biennale and the Lahore Biennale, the curators seemed to avoid the potential dangers of geographic essentialism or limited parochialism by diversifying the conception of the exhibition site: choosing places where one would find old industrial warehouses and crumbling apartment blocks, apart from places of historical eminence. What would you associate this phenomenon with?


AA: More than reinventing oneself, the issue is, what is the space of culture today and how can a curator have an important voice in its shaping?


I guess the curators’ proposal was to create a platform in which the artists could work and include the cities. These included antique sites, dramatic and historical locations, constructing a situation whereby a certain autonomy was created for the artist and the viewer to travel about the city.


Rarely does one create an exhibition that has the kind of deep emotional and intellectual impact on one’s larger framework as one had with Between The Sun and the Moon: Lahore Biennale 2020. It was one of the most satisfying shows, pleasing in all its facets, exciting many buried sensations. I recently reread Chinua Achebe’s Home in Exile, in which Achebe humourously tells the story of an African proverb, the origin of which an American professor of comparative literature had asked him to explain. The proverb goes like this: “Until the lions invent their own historian, the story of the hunt will always be that of the hunter.” For me this is what the second edition of the Lahore Biennale was about. Until you have the competence (read courage) to tell certain stories, you’ll always be defined by the hunter!


MM: Innovation in the practice is a legitimate concern among curators today, even though biennales like the Sharjah Biennale, for instance, is a fusion of the innovative and the academic. What is your take on that?


AA: For a long time, UAE has been concerned with the experience of boundaries, and transcending them. How identities form, prove themselves and transform, shifting, changing, some even vanishing, then forming anew. Whether one is dealing with physical matter or with information, it is a time of uncertainty. Thus places like Sharjah showcase works by those contemporary artists who speak not only from a specific place but also from their condition of transience; their context is no longer a place but the contact zone where different cultures meet every time they stop in their routes.


The exhibition must be choreographed with compulsive madness, curiosity or humour

MM: Looking at the larger picture, are capitalism, consumerism and spectacle real-time issues while curating a show?


AA: Regarding the art market since 1999, when one thought it’s going to crash, it never did but one witnessed a major change; the price now determines the quality, and this absurdity has the ability to monopolise every conversation. It’s now the investors who’ve made the audience bigger. Money has the power to change everything, and Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi and Ayesha Khalid, Rashid Rana, and more recently, Salman Toor have made the game even bigger. With rich new audiences, it is all happening through money. The curator is just a tiny pawn to the king.


But it all points to the artist whose role is the most important. He/she makes the commodities for collectors. The main actor of the ‘90s was the curator, and now it is the collector. The new model of the ‘90s was the biennial, and now it is the art fair.


Capitalism is a reductive vision of the history of mankind, and is not just about a phase of modernity but also about the effects of power, in general. Power is grounded on subjugation and it is manifest in many ways that go beyond economics and into psychoanalysis, for instance, the power of an adult over a child or over the elderly; or a husband beating his wife; or of humans over animals, etc. These are not only ‘capitalist’ issues.


MM: What weightage do: a) lesser-known, naïve, younger artists gain in your curatorial practice; and b) do you address/engage the diaspora in your practice?


AA: Well, I do believe the group exhibition is in crisis because of too much attention paid to curatorial practice. An exhibition, as opposed to a fair, is still a space where people try to organise elements in a meaningful way and to dialogue with others. By introducing the works of younger, lesser-known artists, the exhibition shows what is bubbling to the surface. It is also about geography and age. Young people working in far-off places participate in the dialogue of these shows, and you learn from them. Globalisation is decentralisation, and that’s the positive side. Taking over the creative side too much, the curator may seem to become the artist and the artworks may seem to be illustrations of his or her ideas, but in reality, the curator is playing a game, creating a decoy which may seem protagonistic but is actually a magic trick to keep the interface between the world at large and art in a state of positive misunderstanding.


MM: As a curator, how do you define Pakistani art? What are its ramifications?


AA: In Pakistani art today, there is no dominant medium. For ages, painting enjoyed a pre-eminence unequalled by any other medium. It hasn’t continued though as it did throughout the 20th century. Might it be that the artists have shifted their emphasis? Great painting is still vital, but it has to contend for space with other fields and practices—which are not necessarily bound to a single medium.


Historically speaking, painting once served the market economy of the ruling class. Its maturation and dominance as an artform paralleled the rise of capitalism from its birth in a declining feudal economy. Painting was a commodity that reflected a cultural and social shift, one that was reduced to its economic value.


The modernities and histories of the post-colonial world are deeply entangled in Pakistani art. Art produced here may not carry the binary opposition or perspective, but it must focus on the larger historical backdrop against which the artist could begin to explore his task in the formation of modern culture.



Zahra Khan: The Median

Zahra Khan is a curator of contemporary South Asian art. She is the Creative Director of Foundation Art Divvy, through which she led and curated the first official Pavilion of Pakistan at the Venice Biennale 2019, Manora Field Notes.


In an effort to expand Pakistani art, culture and narrative’s global reach, as well as transform local attitudes towards the creative fields, Foundation Art Divvy provides a platform at an institutional level, locally and internationally, to the arts from Pakistan. In addition to an annual larg- scale institutional exhibition, its latest venture has been the Divvy Film Festival, celebrating independent Pakistani cinema as well as Art Divvy Conversations, a series of insta-live interviews with artists across South Asia.

Zahra is lead curator at Satrang Art Gallery, Islamabad and has worked at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York and Sotheby’s, London and BlainSouthern, London.

Zahra is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received a Master’s in the History of Art and Archaeology from SOAS, London


MM: So I also asked this question of her: what does curatorial practice vis-à-vis art and culture mean to you?

Zahra Khan: I see myself as a linkage and a median, and that’s what I believe the curatorial practice is. I believe it to be a multi-pronged bridge between the artist and the artwork—and the exploration of theory, practice, concept, as well as the audience that is interacting with the work. As a curator, I create the meeting point where thoughts, interactions and motivations meet and merge. I also make it a point to push artists and viewers out of their comfort zones, and out of the white cube environment—highlighting the existence and benefits of art in different scenarios.

MM: Many curators have come to their profession from other disciplines, and many are mere dabblers. Do you see a difference or commonality in their approach?

ZK: I believe, like any profession or practice, a curatorial practice should be taken seriously. I do see a significant difference in the quality of the exhibitions that dabblers have put together and those that have been curated by seasoned and more thoughtful curators. A well-curated exhibition is not just about selecting a theme, choosing art works and then placing them in a location or upon walls. It is about creating a well-crafted journey, supported by artistic theory and concept, both for the artists as they create the work and for the viewer as they interact with the work. A well-curated exhibition should encapsulate the viewer to the extent that they feel like they have crossed a boundary as they step out of the exhibition. It should stay in their thoughts and have them reconsider what they thought they knew. A well-curated exhibition is an artwork in itself.

MM: Many curators use a theme to introduce an idea and to select the art for their show. What that entails is to think big, and to have plenty of resources at one’s disposal. What, in your opinion and experience, are the pitfalls and shortcomings of curating a show in a country like Pakistan?

ZK: In my experience, curating an exhibition anywhere has significant challenges—there are a lot of moving parts and people when working on an exhibition and it is often difficult to coordinate and manage personalities as well as the quality of the work performed. Pakistan also has its set of challenges, but having curated exhibitions over the past decade in varying locations and restrictions, I make it a point to set measures in place which reduce the intensity of these challenges – for example working with the same teams time and time again. I am extremely hands on in my approach to curating, and can do everything from hanging the artworks, to sweeping the floors, putting up the labels for the works, etc.

MM: Speaking internationally, the curatorial practice has gone way beyond the exploration of the utopian dream. There are times, though, when the artist may make works that are non-confirmative and oppositional. In many cases, the works may be political, arising out of a new way to interact with society—a refutation of the commodity system. The work is not about acquisition. What is your response to such work?

ZK: As a curator, I prefer to exhibit work that is not motivated by collectors or eventual acquisition. As I mentioned earlier, I believe a well-curated exhibition is an artwork in itself and creates a journey for the viewer through the narrative of the exhibition. I use artworks to create a carefully crafted story and prefer artworks that are conceptually strong and distinctive—those are the ones I find interesting. Artworks that are solely created to be sold without much thought or understanding are usually not what I would choose to deal with. I also prefer working with artworks in different mediums, films, sound pieces, sculptures, multi-media installations, all add varied textures and flavours to the exhibition, creating a nuanced experience both for the viewer but also for the artists.


For example, the Pavilions at the Venice Biennale are not commercial in nature. This automatically allows the artists and curators to widen the possibilities of commissioned artworks and their display. The Pavilion of Pakistan at the Venice Biennale—Manora Field Notes: Naiza Khan, which I curated, highlighted linkages—in terms of history, trade, textures, etc – between Manora Island and Venice, and the journey of the artist as she slowly discovered layers of history and texture in the island.


MM: There are periods in history, especially in developing cultures, where modernity is a new thing, and people are obsessed with the new because there is a necessity for it. I think this happens when society reaches a stage where innovation and tradition interweave. Comment.

ZK: I think people often get bored of seeing the same thing again and again, and enjoy diversity and the seemingly new, even if it’s a recycled version of something they haven’t seen for a while. This happens everywhere, and perhaps an easy example is in fashion, where bootcut and flared jeans come back after every so many years, in slightly modified versions.


Art is similar where for periods of time even painting has been out of favour, and installations, conceptual art, and sculpture have been demand, then to come back and be in vogue once again. As a person in the creative fields, I believe it is important to keep moving forward, and experimenting and advancing, but also incorporating older techniques and finessing them. This ensures consistent quality, and consistent innovation.

MM: In case of both the Karachi Biennale and the Lahore Biennale, the curators seemed to avoid the potential dangers of geographic essentialism or limited parochialism by diversifying the conception of the exhibition site: choosing places where one would find old industrial warehouses and crumbling apartment blocks, apart from places of historical eminence. What would you associate this phenomenon with?

ZK: A Biennale is traditionally a public art exhibition which takes place every two years in public spaces and which engages with the city within which it is set and the public of that city. The idea is very much to create a dialogue between the works of art, the architecture of the city and the members of the public. Karachi and Lahore both have incredible public spaces and buildings, in terms of historical and aesthetic significance, it would have been strange and short-sighted if the Biennales had not focused upon the incredible locations within the cities.


For example, when I curated collateral exhibitions to the Lahore Biennale in 2018 and then in 2020, I too chose locations that were raw gems in Lahore and were unfortunately not frequented by the general public. I, too, am a Part of this History, was held at the Fakir Khana Museum and haveli, a wonderful private, family-run museum in Lahore’s old city, housing a gorgeous collection of Mughal and Rajput art and artefacts. The experience of visiting the Fakir Khana Museum is extremely special and made even more so because of the wonderful stories narrated by the custodians of the museum. The exhibition that I curated of contemporary art was spread throughout this Haveli and used the rawness and historic character of the space, and its place within Lahore’s old ancient city to add another layer of interest to the exhibition.


Similarly, in 2020, ‘Sagar Theatre on Queen’s Road’, the collateral exhibition I curated (alongside the biennale) was held at Plaza Cinema, which originally was Sagar Theatre, Lahore’s oldest theatre house. I was interested in exploring the idea of cultural centres drawing people together, and the idea of accessing alternative realities. The artists I chose for the show rose to the challenge, and helped me create a memorable experience for our visitors, some of whom remembered watching old films in the Plaza Cinema.

MM: Innovation in the practice is a legitimate concern among curators today, even though biennales like the Sharjah Biennale, for instance, are a fusion of the innovative and the academic. What is your take on that?

ZK: Yes, the innovative, the conceptual, the academic but also the highly skilled are all important concerns when considering art. Lasting art practices, which continue to grow and remain relevant, are strong conceptually and academically, and are innovative in their execution. The same is true for art movements and the art world in general. On a personal level, I draw all three aspects into the exhibitions I curate, often the works I select and the artists behind them have a combination of all three, or different artworks represent individual aspects and thus come together in the overall experience.


The curatorial practice is a multi-pronged bridge between the artist, the artwork—and the exploration of theory, practice, concept and the audience that is interacting with the work

MM: Looking at the larger picture, are capitalism, consumerism and spectacle real-time issues while curating a show?

ZK: Capitalism, consumerism and spectacle can sometimes be driving forces behind the production or the display of certain artworks. Work that is more ‘instagrammable’ or commercially successful can become sought after by certain collectors, and therefore be created by artists. However, when I am working on curating an exhibition, or guiding an artist, I choose to focus on creating a memorable, interactive, critically understandable and educational experience for the audience. Some of the installations in the exhibition Sagar Theatre on Queen’s Road were certainly more instagrammable or more appealing on social media, but the artists and I worked towards creating a critically and conceptually strong work—we were glad that the work also had popular appeal and spoke to people across generations and interests.


MM: What weightage do lesser-known, naïve, younger artists gain in your curatorial practice; and how do you address/engage the diaspora in your practice?

ZK: One of my objectives as a curator is to work with younger, innovative artists and create exciting exhibitions. It is also to help them grow and advance their practice, through guidance, but also through exposure—locally and internationally. Many of the artists I have worked with have not been well known. As the lead curator for Satrang Gallery, I make it a point to organize exhibitions of fresh graduates to encourage them to keep working and developing their craft. The purpose behind the gallery is to provide a platform to young contemporary artists.


Exhibitions often include a range of artists in terms of experiences. Through Foundation Art Divvy, I curated a series of three exhibitions in London, which were aimed at highlighting the work of young artists to museum professionals, galleries and aspiring collectors.


MM: As a curator, how do you define Pakistani art? What are its ramifications?

ZK: I define Pakistani art as art that has been created by a person of Pakistani descent whether they are in the country or living internationally. I prefer to keep a broad definition and enjoy the fact that Pakistani art is hugely diverse and different. It is not possible to classify it easily because artists from Pakistan, like artists from most countries, work across mediums, disciplines and techniques. Their thematic concerns vary widely too.



Amra Ali: The Dreamer and the Poet


Amra is an independent art critic, researcher and curator based in Karachi, Pakistan. She holds a BFA from the Department of Visual Arts, University of Ottawa, Canada. She was a Nieman Affiliate at Harvard University and studied drawing, art history and criticism. She has been contributing reviews and critical writing for newspapers and publications in Pakistan and internationally since 1990. She was a co-founder and Senior Editor of NuktaArt, a first international bi-annual art publication from Karachi, Pakistan. Most notably, she has initiated issue based critique on contemporary art in Pakistan.


She started her art writing in 1990 from The Frontier Post, and was invited to initiate the weekly column on art in Encore, The News on Sunday. She has written for The Star, Friday Times, Libas, Art Now Pakistan, NuktaArt magazine, Gallery, Dawn, and for foreign publications such as Art India, Jamini and Circa among others. She currently writes for Dawn.


She has been Secretary of the Pakistan section of the International Art Critics Association (AICA, Paris) As Secretary AICA Pakistan, she was on the coordination team for the international seminar Mapping the Change. She conducted workshops for young art critics, on a national level, in affiliation with the British Council of Pakistan. She conducted a series of film showings for a year, bringing film collectives together, in collaboration with the Goethe Institute, Karachi.


Her curatorial works include The Fragrant Garden, Koel Gallery, February 2020, Beyond the Waters, Koel Gallery, October-November, 2019, Objects We Behold: Gandhara Art, 2018, Home Coming, Rasheed Araeen; A Retrospective, VM Art Gallery, 2014-15, Sabza O Gul, Chawkandi Art, 2014, and many others.


MM: What does curatorial practice vis-à-vis art and culture mean to you?


AAli: ‘Curatorial practice’ does not emerge from out of the blue, or for that matter, a degree. It is a form like other creative forms, arrived at because you want to create something for audiences to ‘enter’, to engage with.


The criticality emerges within the relationships of the social, cultural and historical, where the personal is also political. The artist absorbs from it, is in it to speak, to listen, to dream, to protest, and the art manifests layered meanings as it is interpreted. The curator tries to extract some part of it in a new conversation, often linking diverse histories, also because the curator has a distance from the work and can see it with a new perspective. Therein lies the poetry, which is why and how each curatorial project manifests its magic.


In the show The Fragrant Garden held at Koel Gallery, for example, that took place in 2020 just before the Covid lockdowns, I “invited the viewer to meander through the gallery, into a garden or gardens as a space of contemplation, a means to seek beauty in the fragrance and imagery as evoked in the masnaavis/Decaani court poetry.” The exhibition was the interface of garden descriptions in texts from the 16th and 17th centuries already situated within the concept and imagery of the baagh. The critic/curator delved into the scholarly research by Dr Ali Akbar Husain, in his book, Scent in the Islamic Garden (OUP 2000).”


The curator can create a thousand and one forms to explore associations between and intersections of art and culture. The notion of beauty, the seen and unseen, as well as the rupture of pain were all part of the artists’ premise and therefore mine in this particular project.


The curatorial does not and should not, in my view, aim to depict or present or promote culture as such, because that is the job of governments and the tourism industry. The curator must look and find spaces and conversations in between the more visible, sense the undercurrents within history, and compel the viewer and the artist to engage with something poetic. One object presents a thousand points of study, so what you chose to extract or bring into discussion, affirms where you voice as curator. Once a project is opened for the public, audiences add to it. These are the intersections of art and culture, artist and larger audiences (private or public) that the curator proposes as possible models of study, which are then documented and interpreted at different levels. The cultural context defines that reading and its evolution.


MM: Many curators have come to their profession from other disciplines, and many are mere dabblers. Do you see a difference or commonality in their approach?


AAli: I believe that the curators’ space is like a vessel and it is informed and shaped by whatever discipline they are addressing it from. Your expertise within a discipline motivates or even compels you to ‘open’ a narrative within a ‘curatorial’ structure. You delve into that reservoir of what you know, what you feel, as you tap an idea, and before you know it, there is a direction that actually takes you if you open yourself to it. In other words, the curator is situated within space of culture, her/his time and history of it.


My entry into the art exhibition curatorial happened organically. As one trained in visual art, both studio and theory, critique had been ingrained within my training and therefore in my process and methodology. I jumped into writing to understand the cultural context(s) of art in Pakistan; visiting artists’ studios and discussions on the work after I moved to Karachi from Ottawa, Canada, since the early 90s. That enquiry sustained itself, and emerged eventually in areas that I wanted to explore further, departing from the structure of text, into the gallery ‘exhibition’ form. Text has remained part of it.


My reference remains my experience as a writer/critic/researcher and as an artist.


As an example, when I curated a retrospective of Rasheed Araeen, Homecoming (VM Gallery, Karachi, Dec 2014- Jan 2015), I also edited a book by the same name, with research essays by Aasim Akhtar, Iftikhar Dadi, Nafisa Rizvi and myself, through which we tried to situate Araeen into the history of Pakistan and the many unresolved notions around the entirety of his oeuvre. Funnily, when I started writing, I used to think of myself as an artist writing, and I used to be wary of the word ‘art critic’, and when I was deeply into criticism, I felt the need to ‘curate’. At this point, I feel that I have tried to ‘un-curate the curatorial’ and expand existing frames. There are enough references in my projects that emerge from my writing, in dissent of established structures of critique and curating. They are one and the same, with no boundaries, one is simply the extension of the other. At heart, I remain an artist, but my medium changes.


Similarly, there are many artists who are curating, and that’s great, because they bring different perspectives that enrich and make the viewer look at the work with wonder.


Believe it or not, there are plenty of people within the art world who feel that the curator simply manages and hangs a show, like an interior designer!


MM: Many curators use a theme to introduce an idea and to select the art for their show. What that entails is to think big, and to have plenty of resources at one’s disposal. What, in your opinion and experience, are the pitfalls and shortcomings of curating a show in a country like Pakistan?


AAli: That’s a loaded question! By bringing a show, the curator is urging the viewer to rethink, and delve deeper into a work of art, or of a collective. I have seen plenty of shows that resemble an assembly line. XYZ collects a bunch of artists, has a big bash of an opening and that is the end. The emphasis is on personalities and glamour. That to me is akin to a ‘lawn’ show, where you have the models and the red carpet. I don’t want to be cynical, but these are the same mechanisms that are often reflected in gallery shows. There are few curated shows that depart from the conventional, in their copying of international models and in really creating a space of contemplation and discussion. Like copy-paste art, I have seen copy paste shows with enough borrowed terminology from established Western sources in curatorial statements and media package that make you want to run away from it all. I see young people trapped within it, unable to create or think on their own. And there are ‘curators’ who I am getting nothing at all from, no sustained enquiry.


The biggest advantage of curating in Pakistan is that we are at this moment at the critical time of shaping these initiatives and every project, big or small, can be studied as a potential model/s for the future. There is so much magic that is being created by artists that can be brought into curatorial discussion and practice. The margin for intervention is immense. Remember, the creative juices flow when there is a crisis, and moments of unresolved, underdeveloped frameworks. It is for people now to participate, and there is no formula for it.


The pitfalls, or I’d say challenges are the lack of structures that support the curator’s work. You are there like the chota hanging the work in the physical space, you are faced with dire funding for your ideas and knowledge or experience, you are perhaps the last in the line in terms of being understood for your work. If you look at most reviews in the Pakistani media, I’d say less than 20% of the curatorial narrative is discussed. The debate is zero and hence the insight and literature into this is scarce. I feel that we are on the brink of a great moment in history, and we must write more, curate more, create more. That is why I do it, also knowing that it is I who must set the boundaries or lack of and the standards, as must everyone else who curates and creates!

MM: Speaking internationally, the curatorial practice has gone way beyond the exploration of the utopian dream. There are times, though, when the artist may make works that are non-confirmative and oppositional. In many cases, the works may be political, arising out of a new way to interact with society—a refutation of the commodity system. The work is not about acquisition. What is your response to such work?


AAli: I was influenced by art school in Canada by three types of mentors. First were the practicing artists,who had studied from the Ecole de beaux Art in Paris in the 60s, extremely bohemian and intense, with endless hours of critique in the studio that shaped my young mind in the 1980s. Second, I understood what it was to be the ‘other’ as I was the only Pakistani/ Asian in the visual art program and I got naturally drawn to the work of the prominent anthropologists Nancy and Philip Fry, who were studying Canadian Inuit art. And a syllabus that studied the history of western art through a historical, critical and philosophical emphasis. So, basically I grew up viewing art that was charged with angst and outrage; dissent was at its center, discussion was its necessity.


I used to spend hours looking at the work of Jamelie Hassan, a Canadian artist of Palestinian origin at the National Gallery, Ottawa, moved by her critique on racism towards immigrants and stories of persecution. Twenty years later in Pakistan, I got to write on Jamelie’s work and meet her for my magazine NuktaArt.


Similarly, I was introduced to the protest art of Rasheed Araeen at University. He was a model of resistance and resilience in the face of racism in Britain in the 60s and 70s, and his performative art was a seething commentary on the white establishment. I was aware of his written critique in the journals Black Phoenix and Third Text, which looked to non-white perspectives, and was almost militant in its approach towards the establishment. Araeen, who achieved much prominence as an authoritative critical voice in Europe, deeply influenced me then. And what do you know, I met him in Karachi in 2003 and interviewed him for Dawn and our conversations brought me to curate his retrospective in Karachi in 2014 and in the show, Beyond the Waters. If anyone is anti-establishment, or has challenged the status quo, it has been him. The same artist who is considered a heavy weight internationally is almost peripheral in the art discourse in Pakistan. I am reminded of a headline in Newsweek with Araeen on the cover that read, ‘Storming the Margins’. The margins are I guess, where I find most compelling narratives.


Interestingly, in Beyond the Waters, I placed Areen’s book, Art Beyond Art : A Manifesto of Eco Aesthetics in the gallery as a work, because he believes, as I do, that the ideas in the book are works of art. There are proposals for land cultivation in barren areas in Balochistan where he spent his childhood, and these works do not have the conventional price tag that our galleries and visitors expect to see in shows. So the question is, where does the artist and curator take their ideas if they are not funded or can be bought as a painting would be?


Another relevant example is my curatorial collaboration with the artist Sumaya Durrani. This also comes out of an association of close to 30 years. Durrani asked me to curate her project Shahkaar in 2013, as a result of our discussions on curatorial strategies. The curatorial was based without a project brief in the conventional sense and, as such, it was a leap of faith. I had no idea what the work would be in its physicality, except that is was emerging from within a religious/Sufi discourse.


I had to approach nine public and art gallery spaces to respond to the intervention by providing Durrani space within their ongoing programming. In a nutshell, there were questions asked on my role as a curator, who seemed to others ‘clueless’ on the art. I realized that there was absolutely no margin for such experimentation because no one was willing to trust the curator or the artist, with the exception of Noorjehan Bilgrami. This kind of resistance pushes you away from the secure mainstream into a place of much creativity and soul seeking, and it informs you about the community. And you realize that you have to expose your vulnerabilities in order to really gain from an experience. Since there is generally no dissent amidst us, we remain as subjects to the capitalist mindset, we create, we sell and forget.



MM: There are periods in history—especially in developing cultures—where modernity is a new thing, and people are obsessed with the new because there is a necessity for it. I think this happens when society reaches a stage where innovation and tradition interweave. Comment.


AAli: Edward Shils has written that the whole idea of progress in the 20thcentury was to get to the 21st century. He has written on how newness is the norm in modernity, or let’s say Western Modernity. Ruptures such as the advent of Freud’s intervention changed the world and changed artistic expression. Most of us who are curating or writing here in Pakistan have been educated in the West. In any case, the early ‘modernists’ Shakir Ali and Ali Imam brought with them those ideals from Paris and elsewhere to this part of the world. We exist in the colonial, post- colonial, modernist, post-modernist times all at once, right at this moment, and our realities are so intertwined with the poetic traditions of Urdu and Persian, that we really are an eclectic khichri of sorts. You chose where you belong because that is what you are. For me the biggest thrill and challenge is that I am free of copying or regurgitating western markers in art history or practice, but trying to unlearn those because I have lived there. I am interested in defining this moment here, with all its contradictions and beauty.


MM: In case of both the Karachi Biennale and the Lahore Biennale, the curators seemed to avoid the potential dangers of geographic essentialism or limited parochialism by diversifying the conception of the exhibition site: choosing places where one would find old industrial warehouses and crumbling apartment blocks, apart from places of historical eminence. What would you associate this phenomenon with?


AAli: In the first Karachi Biennale KB 17, the curator Amin Gulgee took us to the oldest part of the city and we witnessed a movement from the affluence of Clifton and Defence Societies to areas out of the comfort zone of the usual artistic activity. While there was criticism into how enclosed and guarded those sites were, I think that Gulgee and his team managed to strike conversations into the nature of Karachi, how it has evolved and how disconnected the older parts with so much history are, to which writers and poets have been more connected than visual artists. And it made me realize that the real creativity is out there, not bound in our small insular world. That is why I always look to Urdu literary sources to learn from and to be inspired by. For a new generation of artists whose emotional and cultural conditioning has been from the western academies, they were like foreigners in their own land. So I think it was a good ‘rupture’, for lack of a better use of a word, and at the same it exposed the desire to flirt with the ‘exotic’, as well as perhaps raise questions if it did impose on an existing social living space by framing it with the lens of ‘another’.


Lahore has the backdrop of a marvelous architectural and cultural history, and while I think that the first iteration saw some breathtaking and grand installations and sites, it brought the focus of the world to Lahore. So there was a merger of art and commerce and tourism perhaps, we know that Biennale culture has emerged historically from trade exhibitions of early 20th century and before. It is too early yet, but the biennales in the two cities can evolve into significant vestiges for creative expression and dialogue across disciplines.


They just have to take the time and form structures to be inclusive of the many diverse artistic practices that resides, is hidden away due to their social standing. Lahore, especially, has to shed its obsession with the five or ten stars that it has projected all along. Karachi has been uneven, but it has really opened the discussion on a local level and incorporated the international. I am saying this perhaps because I am from Karachi and understand it better.


Curating is a passion and since I am a dreamer, I have no desire to please, I simply like to enjoy the dance and drench myself in its movement

MM: Innovation in the practice is a legitimate concern among curators today, even though biennales like the Sharjah Biennale, for instance, are a fusion of the innovative and the academic. What is your take on that?


AAli: There has to be a moderate balance between the two. In a region where most artists do not read, but continue to produce work, it is difficult to cultivate strong academic base. The experts who come to interpret or partake are from another world, one that is oblivious to ground reality. But Sharjah, for example, has the capacity to commission large-scale projects. I am reminded of Imran Qureshi’s potent work at the courtyard of an abandoned hospital, titled ‘Blessings Upon the Land of my Love’, referencing the bloodshed in the region. It is also a good meeting point for artists from the region, and it is also about time that artists were rewarded and awarded for their art. I do feel that the mechanisms to enter are guarded by a select few, and I know many artists who feel abandoned and seem to have lost their patronage even by local galleries, as the galleries seem more preoccupied in making stars and in artists who can deliver a certain kind of art. I have no idea how that exclusivity can be countered or interrupted. Perhaps, the Karachi and Lahore iterations will help open the landscape. That, in my view, will be innovation.


MM: Looking at the larger picture, are capitalism, consumerism and spectacle real-time issues while curating a show?


AAli: Absolutely. We operate within a capitalist, totally consumer-based system. A gallery will like an artist only if she or he sells. They are not really interested in ‘discourse’ unless it comes with profit. I am talking generally. Another aspect also related to your earlier comment on time and newness that emerges as a problematic concern. Lack of time, and lack of focus and investment into the philosophical ramifications of art could be due to this hurry in condensing ideas so that they fit a page, an Instagram post etc. The lack of will to stop and be still, to ponder before a social media overload of pictures, incidentally of the who’s who.


Frankly, I find that there is a lot out there that does not inspire me. I am wondering where the soul of much art is, or has it been sold already.


MM: What weightage do lesser-known, naïve, younger artists gain in your curatorial practice; and how do you address/engage the diaspora in your practice?


AAli: I try to merge excellence, which I define by what inspires me to the point that I think of it again and again. Once I am in that space of appreciation, I will pull that artist, regardless of young, old, known or unknown. And if I am not inspired, I do not touch. Curating is a passion and since I am a dreamer, I have no desire to please, I simply like to enjoy the dance and drench myself in its movement. I do have a soft corner for those at the periphery and I am constantly trying to understand those artists who do not advocate or push themselves to the audience. I have curated both local and artists residing outside Pakistan, and since I have lived in both places, I can relate to both. They are both home in some ways, although I think that artists who live in Canada, the US or Europe also respond to me because we have a shared history. And perhaps because they are also seeking something here, that I am as well.


MM: As a curator, how do you define Pakistani art? What are its ramifications?


AAli: I do stay away from and many of us do, and are perhaps labelled elitist is in our rejection of ‘drawing room’ art, which copies and does not create. It is fine if it gives someone pleasure, but art has so much more to offer that sustains and rejuvenates the human spirit.


I am interested in the histories from the 50s and 60s and currently, I am researching from the archival material gathered by Rasheed Araeen from that time in Karachi. I think there is such a need to document not just today but make the connections to the rupture of partition, the personal histories from it, the evolution of form and content by the artist and the phenomenal progression of artistic practices in our midst. Our documentation is embedded in the newspaper articles and dispersed all over. We need to study and situate artists and their content more than ever before. I feel that there is an urgency to do that so that this knowledge can be accessed worldwide. I am also compiling my own writing of the past thirty years in some form. The art and its critique need to be owned by us and celebrated.

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