In Elizabeth Mansfield’s “Art History and its Institutions”, Kathryn Brush elaborates on the contribution of two universities located in two different countries that established art museums on their campuses and set a precedent that acknowledged the importance of art and history. The history and context within which Jubilaums-Kunstinstitut in Germany and the Fogg Museum at Harvard developed allowed these institutions to perform the role of what Brush describes as “communicators of culture”. (Brush, 2002)
This function can also be accorded to art galleries today that exist within colleges and universities as not only do they project the ethos of an institution but they are in fact an extension of it. Through their collection of artworks, they offer a potent and distinct representation of a nation’s culture and history. These deceptively noble and altruistic motives cannot be divorced from capitalism and the economics of art consumption; the role and success of the gallery in an art institution where they are purveyors of a cultural commodity that is meant to be marketed, sold and consumed still remains a valid concern. The Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery at National College of Arts, Lahore rests its laurels on attempting to mediate and find a balance between this matrix of production and consumption. One should also take into account that its complex historical context attests to and deserves a more nuanced and wider understanding of how different kinds of historical experience have come to define its multilayered role both in and outside the institution.
Every year, accompanied by the due pomp and ceremony that comes with such events, the College opens its doors to the press and public to inaugurate its Undergraduate Thesis Show at the Gallery and boasts of graduates whose work is emblematic of a pedagogy that is rooted in contemporaneity as well as an acknowledgment of its colonial past. This conflation of identity and history is also embodied in the architecture of the site itself.
To step into the Campus and the Gallery itself is to step back in time for its geographical location and architecture adds another dimension to the discourse on art and space; the art institution was formerly known as the Mayo School of Industrial Art which was established by the British. Its exterior was designed by one of its star pupils of the time, Bhai Ram Singh and integrated vernacular stylistic features with European aesthetics. The all-pervasive and unique aura of history exuded by the exterior of the Gallery as well as by its interior in the form of high walls, plaster friezes and skylights allows visitors to engage in a unique phenomenological experience, one that facilitates a dialogue between the colonial past and present as they walk around and view the artworks housed within.
Yet the founding of the space as a Gallery is fairly recent and its current name is a commemorative memory that can be traced back to the untimely tragic death of acclaimed eclectic artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq. Imran Ahmad, the curator of Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery at NCA who holds a Masters in Art Administration from College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, elaborated on the history of the gallery saying that this space initially functioned as a Drawing Studio where even renowned artists such as Shazia Sikander as a student attended drawing classes. Space sometimes still holds drawing classes and confirms how the Gallery and institution function in synchronicity and respond to immediate needs. It was in 1993 though that the Principal at the time, Mrs. Salima Hashmi formally laid the foundation for the formulation of this Gallery.
“ It is something worth cherishing just to know that one is learning Drawing in the same space that Masood Hameed once held his Retrospective in” states Ahmad. (Ahmad, 2018)
One could even argue then that the past associated with this Gallery space transcends mere nostalgia- it can be interpreted as a repository of anecdotal historical memory where great artists are remembered as an integral fabric of the institution itself. The presence of this residual past in the space allows visitors and students to reimagine their spatial experience in the Gallery as equivalent to being in an incubator of artistic creativity where an intangible aura that reenacts and recalls the contribution of great artists whose association with the institution itself becomes a marker of the success of the quality of education and values imparted there.
The name of the Gallery acknowledges the contribution of an artist whose iconoclastic innovations sparked a new dialogue between the old and the new and this has paved the way for how the Gallery envisions and situates itself within a larger context in today’s rapidly changing time. These elements in its conception add a new dimension to the way the Gallery is functioning today in relation to the history of the institution.
In the recent past it has emerged as a sort of cultural center that regularly holds Shows of both national and international artists whereby making a wide range of art accessible to students, artists and scholars. Private galleries normally function strictly as sites for purchase and viewing but a functioning Gallery within a national art institution such as NCA operates on a non-profit basis giving various artists, genres and styles an opportunity to showcase their talent. The public as well as the student body then has the advantage of regularly viewing art that reflects the aspirations of emerging artists, upcoming trends and what may become watershed moments in art in the future for salability of art is not necessarily the primary concern.
Recent international collaborations have given way to important exhibitions such as “Drone Vision: Warfare, Surveillance and Protest” which was an initiative between Valand Academy, Gothenburg University and the Hasselblad Foundation, ” A CONVERSATION” which showed the works of Pakistani artists Waqas Khan, Naiza Khan and Ali Kazim whose works were displayed at the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Australia as a collaborative event between National College of Arts and Australian High Commission, Islamabad and “Innovative Design from Finland” that was a joint effort of Embassy of Finland and National College of Arts.
The art collection of the Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery as an archive is a conduit for the propagation of a national identity as the works are put on display whenever the institution has international delegations visiting its premises. For more discerning art viewers, such a collection can offer an alternative viewing into how identity has been constructed in relation to official narratives of history and how artists have posited themselves in an art institution that has been witness to key political events and upheavals in the past.
The acceptance of other mediums such as video, installation etc. has meant that curation and display have emerged as key components integral to the success and realization of an artwork. The Zahoor ul Akhlaq at NCA, recognizing this need, is currently offering students and graduates a chance to work and train as curators as the Gallery takes on trainees each year.
For thesis students in particular, states Imran Ahmad, this space has great physical attributes that allow it to function as an ideal training ground of sorts for students where they get their first taste of the importance of curation and display, an understanding that is necessary when graduates enter the international art market. This is why, he explained, that the establishment of the Gallery in the nineties became necessary. (Ahmad, 2018) Developing a cultural and historical consciousness about the importance of art as an experience and a conducive, healthy activity among the public and visitors each year is of paramount importance to Ahmad.
“We want students and visitors today to be exposed to all kinds of art while in this academic environment and if I were to consider the mission statement of our Gallery we are an extension of the values and spirit of NCA and we want to tell the world and the public about the role we play in this institution in that capacity” (Ahmad, 2018)
Shows and talks by artists are the lifeblood of a Gallery space; the participation of the public and students is also vital to its existence because they affirm the fact that it is ideas and innovation that bring social space to life. The Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery at NCA is attempting to situate itself in such a context so as to reflect these ideals.
Brush, K. (2002). Marburg, Harvard, and purpose-built architecture for art history, 1927. In E. Mansfield, Art History and Its Institutions Foundations of a discipline (pp. 65-84). New York: Routledge.
Ahmad, I. (2018). A discussion on the history and role of Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery [In person]. NCA.