“It pleases me immensely to look back and observe the role AAN Gandhara Art Space and the AAN Foundation has played.” – Amna Naqvi
Amna Naqvi is the founder of AAN Gandhara Art Space and the AAN Foundation. She is an art collector, philanthropist, publisher and a supporter of art projects and initiatives, which has led to the development of the Pakistani contemporary art space, locally as well as globally for over fifteen years. To know more about AAN Gandhara Art Space and AAN Foundation, I got the opportunity to interview Amna Naqvi, who shared her experience and journey of AAN from its inception.
Maheen Aziz: When did you decide to form the AAN Foundation? What was the motive behind it? What have been the most recent projects?
Amna Naqvi: We have been supporting the arts for over twenty years via collecting, art patronage, publication and exhibition-making as well as through facilitating specific projects and initiatives at institutions. As the number of projects increased, we decided to formalize the structure under one umbrella, hence the birth of the AAN Foundation.
In particular, the aim of AAN Gandhara Art Space in Karachi as well as in Hong Kong has been to bring longer-duration curated museum quality exhibitions with a public programming component for both education and development of the art space in Pakistan.
Recent projects include, AAN Foundation’s seed funding and Central Sponsorship for the inaugural Lahore Biennial. An earlier initiative, Scroll: Projects on Paper, has not only exhibited in Karachi but also travelled globally to museums with Independent Curators International including the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art, Cape Town as its first stop. Another program is the AAN Residency in Spain, collaboration with the Centre for Contemporary Art in Cordoba. Adeel Uz Zafar has been selected as the first resident artist for this program and is currently in Cordoba. Other initiatives include the LBF AAN Research Grant, support for the Salima Hashmi Archive at the Asia Art Archive and an architectural workshop and lecture focusing on Indo-Mughal architecture at the Department of Architecture, Hong Kong University.
M.A: Name of a foundation or an organization is somehow connected to the motive behind it or it has a message, would you agree? If yes, then how do you connect the name of your foundation to your mission and what message lies behind the name?
A.N: The name for the arts organization is AAN which includes the collection, the foundation, the publication and the art space. AAN means honor and privilege in Urdu. We chose this word as we feel honored to be the custodians of the art collection and the foundation. Also, in high Urdu the word AAN means ‘moment’. We are also trying to capture this moment in art history.
M.A: The name itself is unique and catchy. What is the idea behind naming the space ‘AAN Gandhara Art Space’?
A.N: The art space was previously titled Gandhara Art Space. Though Gandhara would be showing contemporary artists such as Aisha Khalid, Imran Qureshi, Adeel Uz Zafar, Rashid Rana and Khadim Ali in major exhibitions at the Hong Kong Art Centre as well the Art Space in Karachi, I felt that the title ‘Gandhara’ which was a 3rd Century cultural movement in the historic north of the country would symbolize what we were trying to initiate rather aptly. As Gandhara was a synthesis of Greek art with South Asian art, a coming together of two visual styles which was also the case of the contemporary Pakistani artists who were combining a centuries old visual vocabulary to current socio-political narratives.
Therefore with bringing together both identities, this art space was renamed the AAN Gandhara Art Space.
M.A: You have over 800 pieces of artwork and your house in Hong Kong alone has over 140 artworks. That is a very extensive collection of artworks, what motivates you to buy artworks at auction?
A.N: Yes, the collection has, over the years, become very extensive and our collecting makes use of all avenues available for collecting – galleries, art fairs as well as auctions. We have bought works from galleries as I believe in supporting the work that the galleries are doing. As for auctions, the reason for collecting from auctions is that one can chance upon historically significant works of contemporary as well as modern artists.
M.A: As the art space is growing what difference are you observing in the work of artists and what are they focusing on now?
A.N: In the last ten years or so I have seen the narratives of artists change. The earlier contemporary artists were focused on political issues a great deal. I think if one looks at the works of artists such as Imran Qureshi or Rashid Rana, one observes that it was certainly a fractious time in Pakistan’s history and the artists were responding to it. While currently artists such as Fazal Rizvi, Noor Ali Chagani and Saba Khan, Tentative Collective, Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani, to name a few, are focusing on issues of urbanization, ecology of the land and water bodies, and movements and growth of cities.
M.A: Today there is so much happening in the world that people are more focused on what is contemporary and new. Let’s apply this to art galleries. Is this disappointing? How far do you agree with this?
A.N: I think you might mean technology with this question, as technology has made the image much more widespread. Though I do agree that the engagement with the image or a work of art can be fleeting, but the access to arts and artworks that it gives to millions is unprecedented. The AAN Collection partners with Google Arts and Culture, and has designed exhibitions for online audiences. While with AAN Gandhara Art Space, we have all the images of all the exhibitions on the AAN website (www.aancollection.org). It has become one of the largest, if not the largest, digital repositories of images of Pakistani contemporary and modern art.
M.A: Do you think the understanding of art among general audience/public has increased with time? What difference do you see in the art audience of today and past?
From the time of its birth in Karachi until now, how AAN has evolved with time, what changes have you brought in the gallery, in its structure, programs etc? Please share, if there are any
A.N: When the AAN Gandhara Art Space was formed in Karachi, it was the first and most expansive art space in that area of Clifton. A lot of galleries have since set up space in the area and it has developed into an unofficial ‘art district’ of the city. We introduced a number of new concepts like showing increasingly experimental shows with in-situ installations and video installations which also became a trend. Exhibiting Bani Abidi’s six-channel video installation was a first. We combined that with a performance by Zambeel Dramatic Readings and the audience was enthralled. AAN Gandhara has been at the forefront of initiating a stronger narrative quality of its exhibitions by patronizing curators to not only curate exhibitions but to initiate idea driven projects such as ‘Scroll’ with Aziz Sohail and ‘Who Gets to Talk About Whom’ with Haajra Haider Karrar. Serving as an incubator for programs that push the boundaries and establish dialogue and discourse is what AAN does best. Our in-house curators like Sivim Naqvi and Malika Abbas have curated stellar shows and are adept at exhibition-making.
AAN Gandhara Art Space has also been a leader in initiating public programming to engage audiences in Karachi. Artist talks, panel discussions, dramatic readings, book launches and critical dialogues are all leading to a more robust art scene in Karachi and we are very proud that not only did we exhibit Pakistani artists globally but we are continuing to work to establish a more robust artistic dialogue in Pakistan.
M.A: Being one of the leading galleries of Pakistan today, you have had an enlightening and protracted journey making Pakistani artists how do you think the artists are evolving?
A.N: This is a very interesting question. Pakistani artists receive much acclaim as the quality of their work and narrative are both compelling. It pleases me immensely to look back and observe the role AAN Gandhara Art Space and the AAN Foundation has played in supporting their work in terms of exhibition making, publication and patronage. Aisha Khalid, Imran Qureshi, Khadim Ali, Rashid Rana, Faiza Butt, Adeel Uz Zafar have all worked with AAN Gandhara as well as other galleries. These artists as well as other artists we work with are all morphing and their practices are deepening.
We are also pleased that AAN Gandhara has exhibited the works of younger and emerging artists by giving them a platform as well as a voice. In 2008, we exhibited the works of the graduating class of the miniature painting department from the National College of Arts, titled ‘Genesis’, which was curated by Imran Qureshi. AAN Gandhara Art Space just recently played host to Microcosm and Microcosm2. These exhibitions were curated by Adeel Uz Zafar and gave younger artists a platform and a voice and would help to play a crucial role in their evolution.
M.A: There has been a debate about the fact that is lack of documentation and archiving of Pakistani art history. Do you agree? How could it have been different?
A.N: Yes, there has been (and still is) a lack of documentation and archiving of Pakistan art and its history. We believe documentation is critical as it supports research and scholarship. We wanted to document the Pakistani contemporary art space. AAN Gandhara has published more than twenty five publications on arts and artists to date with essays by scholars and writers such as Dr. Virginia Whiles, Salima Hashmi, Suzanne Cotter, Sue Acret, Quddus Mirza, Dr. Fatima Zahra Hassan and Dr. Iftikhar Dadi to fill this gap.
Equally, digital documentation has also become a very important part of archiving history. AAN Gandhara focusses on it diligently and all its exhibitions are digitally stored, archived and available for public use.
M.A: What was the biggest achievement in these years of success?
A.N: We believe that AAN has contributed to Pakistani art at three levels.
We feel blessed in playing an instrumental role in being a catalyst and providing a robust global platform to Pakistani artists which enabled and in some cases re-enforced their individual global presence. For example, by showing the seminal work ‘You Who Are My My Love and My Life’s Enemy Too’ by Imran Qureshi at his solo exhibition in Hong Kong in 2010 which led to the installations at the Sharjah Biennial 2011 and the Roof Garden Commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013. We supported’ Authority as Approximation’ a solo exhibition by Shahzia Sikander at Para-Site Art Space, Hong Kong in 2009 and the engagement continued with patronage for ‘Apparatus of Power’ by Shahzia Sikander, the first solo exhibition by a woman and South Asian artist at the Asia Society in Hong Kong in 2016.
We are also most pleased in supporting and leading to shape the ecosystem of the art space in Pakistan by continuing to push the boundaries with exhibitions, publications, projects, ideas and in helping develop audience engagement with public programming. Pakistan (especially Karachi) currently has the most robust arts community the country has witnessed since the early seventies.
Lastly, we are pleased that the size and importance of our AAN Collection has been recognized globally. As the collection is predominantly from Pakistan, this recognition and global relevance has given the country a subtle but significant voice in the global art discourse.
M.A: What up-coming major projects the foundation is working on?
A.N: That is a secret! Suffice to say, that we will continue to work on exciting ideas and will continue to stretch the boundaries of creativity and experimentation. These will be revealed in the course of the next year.
M.A: Where do you see AAN in the next 5 to 10 years from now?
A.N: AAN will be a robust hub for arts and culture, a supporter and preserver of art history and an incubator of ideas.