ArtNow presented the second Art Section at the Karachi Literature Festival, with talks featuring internationally renowned artists, writers, curators and other key figures in the art world, ‘Speaking in Tongues’, an exhibition curated by Amin Gulgee and Zarmeené Shah, ‘Through the Looking Glass: A Selection of Works by Amin Gulgee’, an art book reading corner and book launches, signings and sales.
The Karachi Literature Festival has expanded considerably since its inception in 2010 to become an institution and an eagerly awaited annual event. As it did last year, the Art Section featured two full days of lively debate on significant issues in South Asian art history and emerging practices in the contemporary art of Pakistan. The series of conversations, readings, an exhibition and book launches provided a venue for artists, writers and publishers to feature current projects and display their publications. Top Pakistani artists, including Rashid Rana and Nazia Khan, came to discuss their works.
Rashid Rana spoke about his works on Saturday afternoon with Quddus Mirza, Editor of ArtNow. Bringing up the vexing question of identity in relation to his work, What is so Pakistani about this painting, he said he wants to bury the question of identity once and for all. The role of the artist today, Rana said, is not necessarily that of someone trying to create an ‘original’ work, but of an image editor who adds and rearranges images without having to carry the burden of presenting reality. Pointing to his giant photo-collages, he asked, which of these two images – the large composite or the thousands of smaller images that form it – is real? Rana mentioned he has a bias against the moving image, a desire to make everything look two-dimensional, the concept of which he says is inherently abstract. Pointing to The Step, a UV print on aluminium, which references Equivalent VIII, Carl Andre’s controversial 1970s minimalist sculpture, composed of bricks arranged in a rectangle, but is familiar to any Pakistani as a step leading to a typical village shop, he explained that his works negotiate with art history.
Rana went on to discuss his upcoming project at the combined India-Pakistan pavilion at this summer’s Venice Biennale, which he will share with Bombay-based artist Shilpa Gupta. The exhibition, called My East is Your West, will consist of a series of rooms that displace the viewer in space and time. Room #4 will be replicated in Lahore so that both audiences in Pakistan and Venice can be connected, raising the question of who is the viewer and who is the audience.
Amongst other timely and topical issues, the art talks at the KLF focused on the growing art market, and the effects it has on the art being produced today. Describing the influence of the collector and the power of the market in creating and manipulating tastes, Sanat Initiative founder Abid Merchant said: “I’m facing a challenge – people are going for decorative things”. Yet, at the same time, the curator of Islamabad’s Satrang Gallery, Asma Rashid Khan, said she was pleasantly surprised that a recent exhibition – Islamabad’s first video and performing arts show – attracted four times the expected audience.
Renowned art collector and fashion designer Rehana Saigol and Standard Chartered Bank CEO Shazad Dada discussed art patronage with moderator Sameera Raja, owner of Canvas Gallery. Discussing the role of the collector, Dada pointed out that an individual can only have a limited impact, but partnering with an institution creates a multiplier effect. “To see an artist’s success is a wonderful feeling”, he said. Rehana Saigol has over the span of years been a classical Indian dancer who performed for Queen Elizabeth, the Shah of Iran and Agatha Christie, amongst other notable names, a dramatist and a generous supporter of the arts. She was a pioneer in staging the works of avant-garde playwrights Jean Genet, Edward Albee and Peter Shaffer in Pakistani. Saigol grew up in an art and culture infused environment; the artist Ustad Allah Bux was invited to live in their home; the rooms he used have now been turned into an art gallery. She added that she does not see herself as a patron of the arts, but says that she merely “has an appetite for beautiful things”.
The session on Sunday opened with piece of performance art by Sumaya Durrani, called Wahid, which traced the eternal nature of God, relating it to the perfection of the circle.
Later in the morning, artist Naiza Khan, fashion designer Sonya Battla and Frieha Altaf discussed the blurring boundaries of fashion and art. Increasing innovative, Pakistani artists are breaking old bounds as the influence of art spreads into the wider world of aesthetics and the public realm. In December of last year, Naiza Khan launched an exciting new collaboration with the Sonya Battla, who featured the artist’s Manora watercolors on a limited edition line of silk prints. This was not the first time the two have worked together – the designer helped create a piece in the artist’s series of body armour lingerie some years ago. The collaborations between the fashion and art worlds – also seen in the presence of a number of designers in Amin Gulgee’s exhibitions – signal a new level of maturity in the Pakistani art world and a growing confidence in art and commercial crossovers.
Simone Wille, an Austrian art historian, launched her book, Modern Art in Pakistan: History, Tradition, Place and discussed the evolution of modernism with Sean Pue, Assistant Professor of South Asian Literature at Michigan State University, Waqas Khan, a rising star in the art world, and Amra Ali, who had discussed Rasheed Araeen – Homecoming in a session on the previous day. The world now recognises multiple modernities, said the panellists, and drew parallels between the emergence of modern art and modern poetry in Pakistan.
The talks also paid homage to the artists who passed away last year, including painter Imran Mir and sculptor Shahid Sajjad.
A series of book launches and sales took place, including Rasheed Araeen: Homecoming edited by Amra Ali, on the eminent Pakistani modernist artist, writer and curator and Stranger than Fiction, a publication by Karachi’s Gandhara Gallery on Adeel uz Zafar’s latest works. Adeel spoke about his works with Gandhara Gallery curator, Sivim Naqvi, and artist Muhammad Zeeshan.
The art section also featured another type of conversation with the exhibition ‘Speaking in Tongues’, co-curated by sculptor Amin Gulgee and curator Zarmeené Shah. This exhibition of installations, new media and sculptural works by twenty-five national artists, through its curatorial and spatial considerations and framework, created intimate spaces within the show that allowed for an unlikely dialogue between individual works. These internal dialogues connected to a larger polemic that questioned the times we live in and our perceptions within it.Arising through an organic curatorial process, ‘Speaking in Tongues’ evolved out of ‘DREAMSCAPE’, also curated by Gulgee and Shah in December 2014 at the Amin Gulgee Gallery in Karachi. This exhibition, mounted specifically for the Karachi Literature Festival, re-contextualized the premise of that reverie in a more meditative setting allowing for newer narratives to emerge and interweave. A concurrent exhibition, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, displayed a selection of Amin Gulgee’s intricate metal sculptures.