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Art Goes On: In Conversation With Marjorie Husain

Hajra Haider Karrar: Your marriage brought you to Pakistan. Soon you were well integrated into the art community in Karachi. How did it all start?
Marjorie Husain: One discovered an intense period in the development of modern art taking place in the country between the sixties and early seventies. The Gallery opened by Bashir Mirza in Karachi in 1965 was a meeting place for artists and art enthusiasts dropped in to view the work, though the sale of paintings was slow. Among the interesting artists one met was Ahmed Pervez, who had recently returned from London.
When BM went off to Europe, he sold the goodwill of The Gallery to one of the country’s earliest art collectors, Mr. Sultan Mahmood, who ran a flourishing advertising agency. Mahmood shifted The Gallery to the Sindhi Muslim Housing Society, where a pleasant bungalow stood in a garden. My friends, the artists from Lahore whom I had worked with in the Michael Ponce de Leon printmaking workshop, were keen for me to run the show. Then on visits to Lahore, I went straight from the airport to NCA to confer with Ahmed Khan, Colin David and Saeed Akhtar. Then dear Professor Shakir Ali was amused by the way I travelled around on the back of Saeed Akhtar’s motorbike to call on distinguished artists such as Haji Sharif, Ustad Allah Bux and others. The Gallery re-opened and took off. There Colin David, Mian Salahuddin, Zoay and others showed their work to appreciation. One of the outstanding artists in those days was Ahmed Khan, who was at the height of his brilliance. Gulgee, Leila Shahzada and even Sadequain exhibited work and rather reluctantly – Jamil Naqsh. We kept going enthusiastically, and were delighted when the maestro S. Ali Imam, opened the Indus Gallery and the age of art appreciation began.
HHK: How did you start writing?
MH: I found the art scene extremely inspiring, and often felt that artists were not understood or appreciated. When asked to write for various media I was delighted to have the opportunity to explain the artist’s point of view. Visiting the Karachi Art Institutes, I sympathized with students who were given test papers for which they were not prepared. The outcome was the text book, Aspects of Art, published by Oxford University Press. It remains the only text book for art students in the country so far.
HHK: How was art perceived by the general public thirty years ago?
MH: In the seventies, women came into their own. They established art schools, ran galleries and exhibited their work to appreciative audiences. Important exhibitions of work by women artists have been exhibited internationally and are included in museum collections. In this respect, credit is due to Salima Hashmi, one of the first painters to focus on social issues as a subject and who continues to work tirelessly for the work of Pakistan’s artists worldwide. Perhaps the most amazing development was the tenacity of the sculptors. The late Shahid Sajjad worked independently since the sixties. Rabia Zuberi established Karachi School of Art in 1965, and initiated an impressive department of sculpture.
HHK: You have been a witness to the evolution of art in Pakistan since its inception. How would you describe the sixty-seven years of art in Pakistan?
MH: Art in Pakistan today is a diverse, vibrant phenomenon, rapidly expanding and acknowledged by way of exhibitions in international art circles. Freely fusing contemporary mores with tradition, artists continue to extend the possibilities explored by previous generations and add further dimensions. In the cities an urban popular art movement assimilates truck art, cinema hoardings and wedding motifs. Unrestricted, artists explore electronic media, digital art forms, photography and films to express their art idioms in individual ways.
HHK: How would you compare the art practices and artists that you have known in the past and now? How is it different?
MH: This is a subject that cannot be summed up in a paragraph. Artists deserve respect, and every age has its Genius.
HHK: Do you feel that the increase in the number of schools has improved the quality of work being produced?
MH: Knowledge of art history and methodology is important but you cannot teach talent.
Sadequain, Gulgee and Shahid Sajjad were self taught, as were Van Gogh and Gauguin.
Yet, no doubt, students with mentors such as Khalid Iqbal, Shakir Ali and Anna Molka Ahmed, to name but a few, benefitted tremendously.
In recent times it appears that art students are not familiarized by schools with the early development of art in the country or the work of the pioneers, many of whom were outstanding artists. I find this hard to understand.
HHK: There has been a debate about how there is a lack of documentation and archiving of Pakistani art history. Do you agree? How could it have been different?
MH: It is interest that feeds knowledge. Though documentation of art development has not been a priority, an archive exists. FOMMA has struggled on for years to create an art archive. There are books available, numerous catalogues of individual artists, and paintings in private collections and galleries which may be examined on request. The recent exhibition tracing the development of art in the Fine Art Department of the Punjab University was an event that traced the work of the Department’s artists since Anna Molka Ahmed to the present time.
When I was working on my book on Colin David, R.M. Naeem very supportively obtained permission from the National Art Gallery to photograph the work of Colin David from the National Art Gallery collection. NAG has also printed a book of their collection with data on artists; one has to move around and focus.
HHK: There been an increase in the number of art writers. Do you think art is being documented the way it should be?
MH: Art critics and writers, with the support of the media, have contributed greatly through the years to the interest in art in the country. Sultan Ahmed, as a newspaper editor, gave pages to publicizing art exhibitions and encouraged writers. Hamid Zaman, Jami, Dr. Akbar Naqvi and S. Amjad Ali rarely missed an exhibition. Much of the available information on art is due to the articles written by these journalists. In recent times, art critics and writers have expanded their aesthetic horizons keeping abreast of the movements in art. They write to interest a particular audience, endeavouring to hold the interest of the reader throughout an article. Unfortunately, due to economic reasons, there are few art magazines available and art is not a priority.
HHK: What do you foresee the future to be?
MH: Time decides the future.
HHK: Do you have any dream project that remained unfulfilled?
MH: So far my dream of world peace remains unfulfilled!
HHK: Do you ever think of going back to England?
MH: Of course, every summer for a month, but I have a lot of things I still hope to do and my interests and home are here.
Haajra Haider Karrar is a graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore.She is a visual artist and a curator. Currently she is the curator of IVS Gallery, Karachi.

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