17th May 2015 saw the inauguration of a new event on the Pakistani art calendar, the Arjumand Painting Award. In a country all but devoid of government involvement in the arts, the advent of such awards is a necessary boost to artists in Pakistan and an investment in the future of art in Pakistan.
Out of the over 80 paintings received by Gallery 6 (the Arjumand family gallery and host to the event) three were chosen as the final winners, with 200,000, 150,000 and 100,000 rupees for the first, second and third prizes respectively. The panel of judges were told to base their decision on the works’ creativity, concept, execution and composition.
Third prize went Syed Zainul-Abideen for his work Rural in vision which bridges a strange gap between hyper-realism and surrealism. The work is technically very strong, a clear understanding of composition evident. The painting is captivating because the viewer is not entirely sure whether they are looking at a realistic depiction of a reflection on glass of a quiet rural scene, or if the artist is depicting something entirely more surreal; the continuation of the brick pattern across the sky and scenery give the impression that we are penetrating the veil of a wall, rather than clearly looking out a window.
Second prize was taken by Saba Zahid with her haunting painting, While she looked away. The image is striking in its composition, with the stark contrast of light and shadow bringing an otherworldly quality to the painting. Are we seeing the impression of a ghostly image, or perhaps the fleeting image of a memory long forgotten or more disturbingly still, is this the depiction of the darkness that many children in our time live in, shining their tiny lights in spite of the bleak surroundings? While the work is strong in elements of composition and execution, it is the concept and creativity that have pushed this work to second place, because it raises questions within the viewer and provokes thought.
First prize was awarded to Kiran Saleem for her Untitled painting. The choice was an interesting one, leaning towards being controversial. The work is at once recognizable as an appropriation of Monet’s Water Lilies but the execution is what sets it apart as a truly contemporary piece of art. This is not just a copy of a famous set of paintings, or even a contemporary rendition of the style – it is a statement about contemporary art, and the role of artistic forebears. What makes it such is a combination of elements, none of which have anything to do with the technical prowess of the artist (although this is very evident in the work itself) – the size, presentation and manner in which the surface has been treated.
Painted onto a small sheet of paper, the image – which is very painterly and skillfully rendered – has been folded numerous times, as though to suggest that what we are seeing is not a painting, but perhaps a cut-out from a magazine, folded and stored in some old book for later inspiration. What furthers this impression is the way the artist has chosen to display the work, simply taped to the wall with a familiar piece of cream-coloured artist’s tape. Again, the impression we get is that this has been lifted from an artist’s studio – a copy of one of Monet’s works, taped up on the wall for inspiration. For some viewers it may have felt like the judges had chosen an unfinished, unimpressive piece as the winner – and indeed there were questions about this – however, they have failed to understand the greater context of this piece as contemporary art. The artist is not intending to create work that will hang well in a low-lit drawing room – although given a nice frame it could well do just that. There are connections being made here, links being drawn to our relationship with art, now, in the past and in the present. Monet was a rebel in the painting world in his time, daring to change the way artists rendered and even perceived the painted image. Today, that revolutionary style has become so normal and mainstream that it is all but ubiquitous – prints of the Water Lilies series grace the walls of hundreds if not thousands of lobbies, hotel rooms, lounges. The way that art is transformed over time from something of huge and inimitable impact as the Monet’s work was to the subdued and everyday is one aspect that is highlighted by Saleem’s painting. The other aspect is how this same art can continue to inspire generation after generation. The presentation of Saleem’s work is vital in carrying this meaning, as without the creased paper, the casual taping to the wall, it would simply be another copy of Monet’s work. In this regard, Saleem has managed to create a truly contemporary piece of art, strong in execution, composition, creativity and above, concept.
More information on the Arjumand Painting Award can be found here. Images courtesy Gallery 6, Islamabad.
Cosima Brand is an editor and writer living in Pakistan