Hajra Haider Karrar: How did an MBA lead to the inception of Gandhara Art Space and later on to the AAN Foundation?
Amna Tirmizi Naqvi: The foremost lesson one takes away from an MBA program, apart from managing and running businesses and understanding finance, is that it gives you the tools to be able to tackle new challenges with aplomb and confidence. It trains your brain in a way so as to accept growth and newer disruptions. When the idea of Gandhara Art sprang in our mind some twelve years ago, the foremost thought was not “how will it happen” but rather “it will happen”. It was a similar process when it came to setting up the AAN Foundation which supports the art space globally with special focus on Pakistan.
HHK: You have an eclectic art collection holding some seminal works of modern and contemporary art. It is known to be one of the most extensive and substantial art collections of Pakistani art, ranging from Gandharan sculptures to video works by Bani Abidi. What is the ideology behind it?
ATN: We (Ali & I) have been collecting for over 20years and I look at the collection in concentric circles. The antique objects mostly inform the modern and the contemporary art collection. These objects are South Asian (Indian and Mughal) as we are deeply interested in history and therefore collected objects from a heritage and tradition which resonated with us, rather than trying and forming an encyclopedic collection. The collection of modern works from Sadequain, MF Hussain, FN Souza, Ismail Gulgee, Ahmed Pervez, Jamil Naqsh, SH Raza, Ali Imam, Anna Molka Ahmed, Bashir Mirza and others were collected as these gave context to the contemporary works by Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Khadim Ali, Risham Syed, Aisha Khalid, Naiza Khan, Adeel Uz Zafar and Faiza Butt. There are links between the concentric circles as well. For example, the 18th and 19th century miniatures link up to the neo-miniatures of Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi. Just as contemporary artwork titled Superman by Adeel uz Zafar is juxtaposed with a 3rd century Gandhara winged Eros, both creatures with the ability to fly. There are various such potent linkages which form organically between the works.
Medium has never been a barrier. We bought our first video installation by a Pakistani contemporary artist at least ten years ago. Similarly, size has never been a barrier. The scale of Desperately Seeking Paradise, a gargantuan sculpture by Rashid Rana, is one such example. If the narrative is compelling, the medium and size pose no challenge.
HHK: Does this ideology further translate into the operations of Gandhara Art Space?
Gandhara art functions like an institutional gallery, and often fulfill the lack of a museum space through its long term and experimental projects. In the past couple of years, you have been inviting independent curators which has not just brought forward some critically attuned, avant garde shows but have also encouraged alternative art practices. What was your vision for Gandhara Art at its inception and how has it evolved?
ATN:It absolutely does. As we are very confident in collecting by stretching ourselves creatively, the same way the program at Gandhara is and has always been very robust. With our show ‘Whitewash’ at Gandhara in 2011, we were the first space to show video and sound installations as well as performance art in one exhibition and in a single space. We also let the artists use the space creatively, and as I recall Abdullah Syed hurled stones at a wall to create his installation and Atif Khan created an in-situ installation by painting on the floor of the gallery. Exhibiting a six-channel video installation by Bani Abidi and just recently showing Ayesha Zulfiqar’s sand sculptures and installations in the space are just more examples of the ease at which Gandhara faces challenges.
My vision for Gandhara has always been to break ground and challenge notions of both practice as well as narrative. Ten years ago in 2007 when we showed Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid’s work in two solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, there was not much awareness of contemporary miniature from Pakistan. We showed video, in-situ installations as well as contemporary painting to build the narrative and now their work sits in M+, the contemporary art museum in Hong Kong. Apart from exhibitions Gandhara also provided early key funding and support for ‘Authority as Approximation’, Shahzia Sikander’s first solo public exhibition at Para-Site Art Space in Hong Kong in 2009 as well as funding for ‘Lines of Control’ at the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell University, New York.
Creating a space in Pakistan went hand in hand with what we were doing globally. I felt there had to be a place in the city where we show museum quality exhibitions of a longer duration, where we support the art and artists. We also wanted to provide a place for the public to enjoy stellar exhibitions at home. A role of art patronage is not just providing support to artists but also to the art professionals who have made this their chosen field. We have had two super permanent curators at Gandhara. Both Sivim Naqvi (no relation) and Malika Abbas have helped forge this path here which is true to our vision. We have also been inviting external curators like yourself, Aziz Sohail and Zarmeene Shah to stretch the boundaries further at Gandhara and bring challenging narratives to the audiences here.
HHK: Gandhara Art is also unique in its stance on producing publications and monographs. It has made valuable contributions in archiving contemporary art practices locally. What drove you to invest in publishing on contemporary art of Pakistan?
ATN: Documentation is critical as it supports research and scholarship. We at Gandhara wanted to document the Pakistani Contemporary Art Space as there was minimal effort put in art documentation both in publication as well as in the digital realm. Therefore, we have published more than twenty five stellar 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 so as to enable research in this field. Gandhara was also the first in putting up organized digital displays of art on the web.
HHK: The initiatives taken by Gandhara in the last couple of years has encouraged other art spaces around the country to invest in experimental projects and one can witness the transforming landscape. Having curated some of the most ambitious and important shows of my career at Gandhara Art, I know that you are most supportive to new ideas, something which is quite rare, though it appears to be changing now. Did you ever anticipate this ripple effect when you agreed to these projects?
ATN: I observed that “ripple effect” as well and I must say that is a great choice of words. As I said earlier, the work we do at Gandhara has always been about challenging notions and breaking barriers. Barriers are usually self-imposed and if one can disrupt those, then truly remarkable things emerge. I am so glad to see that the ‘disruption and ruptures’ we have honed at Gandhara are finding newer iterations elsewhere.
HHK: What are the challenges of managing a space from a distance, especially in a place where almost all other art spaces are run by their owners, being physically present in the space? You have a hectic schedule with multiple mega projects which requires a lot of travelling, yet you are ever present and fully engaged, always found with a smile and positive energy. How do you manage it all and what are the pros and cons of it?
ATN: It is all about being fully engaged in what you do. I do believe that ‘Intentions’ or the Urdu word ‘neeyat’ describes it best. As I tend to get fully engaged in what I am doing, I can say that time and distance can be managed. I think technology has been a great disrupter and it has made life easy for those who are managing at a distance.
I also believe distance gives you a perspective that is absent from those who are physically in their spaces. Again I believe that we all have reserves of energy we can draw from. I am fortunate that I have a partner who enjoys these worlds as much as I do and is a great sounding board and advisor, and children who support these interests. The pros of being fully engaged in the arts, publication and sports are that all these interests tend to inform each other positively. The mind can be stretched infinitely, one only has to try.
HHK: Being a collector and having an art space you are familiar with both sides of the picture. How do you think the two positions correlate and do they facilitate each other in any way?
ATN:A great deal, I believe. Running an art space keeps you fully aware of the art world and that impacts one’s collecting and it helps to hone the eye. Also it gives one the confidence to collect challenging work early and be bold in what you want to bring to the collection.
HHK: You are the pioneer in representing Pakistani art on international platforms; most recent being Apparatus of Power by Shazia Sikander at Asia Society and Art Basel a few weeks ago. What made you decide to represent Pakistani art internationally?
ATN: ‘The Apparatus of Power’ by Shahzia Sikander was an AAN Foundation project. The role of the foundation is to support a wide range of art forms with a particular focus on visual arts from Pakistan, in an institutional manner. This includes providing platforms and support for exhibitions, private as well as public art projects and publications. These include blockbuster shows like the ‘Apparatus of Power’; a museum show with programming and a publication or smaller and unique projects like the ‘Scroll’ in Pakistan.
Gandhara has been participating in Art Basel for the last ten years and again to give access to artists so that their work is introduced to and viewed by a truly global audience of artists, art professionals, museum directors, historians, art students and the public at large.
HHK: Born in Karachi and based in Hong Kong, you are equally active with the art communities of both cities; Hong Kong with its international art community ripe with action, and Karachi which is picking up speed and has an emerging art community. How do you feel the two compare if at all?
ATN: I think Hong Kong and Karachi are quite alike in certain ways. Both cities are very cosmopolitan and are financial hubs as well as being cities by the sea. Cities which are by the sea are not only open to goods but to ideas as well.
Hong Kong is now most definitely the center of art in Asia. It is the third largest art center after New York and London. This was not the case twelve years ago, when I began Gandhara. I am most proud of the role this small art space from Karachi has played in the development of a more robust art scene in Hong Kong. I believe Karachi is also well on its way in becoming a hub of art activity with its robust gallery scene, art institutions and independent art spaces. Gandhara’s role has been a pioneering one here as well. We were the first art space to set up in this area of Clifton more than ten years ago and one just has to see how this has developed into a vibrant art district with scores of galleries.
HHK: What is the direction forward for Gandhara Art?
ATN: Gandhara will continue in its pioneering role in this city and globally and will showcase the work of those artists who stretch notions of art making.
HHK: Pakistan has two biennales scheduled in the near future and you are involved with both of them. How do you predict they will affect the cultural landscape of Pakistan?
ATN: As I consider both Karachi and Lahore my cities, I am most pleased with the two biennials planned in these mega cities. Biennials can be super disruptive as these have the ability to shake up the art world in a country and beyond. With two happening in Pakistan, it can only mean more power and robustness to the art space here.
The co-founder and director of AAN Foundation and Gandhara Art Space, Amna Tirmizi Naqvi is a cultural entrepreneur who has formalized her passion for art and literature as a collector and art patron. Pioneers in representing Pakistani contemporary art internationally, Amna and her partner have provided key funding and support to significant initiatives and artists from Pakistan and are known to be invested in innovative projects and publications. Amna is a founder member of the Tate Modern’s South Asia Acquisitions Committee and is a member of the Asia Society’s Global Council for Arts and Culture.Based in Hong Kong, Amna works between Hong Kong, Karachi and Lahore.