For a country with as rich a culture as Pakistan, we have a surprisingly few number of spaces within which to experience and dissect it. The lack of initiative on a state level to preserve, archive, and display our heritage for the public has left the nation intellectually starved, and this lack of creative engagement and cultural apathy has bred increasing amounts of intolerance in our society. In such a climate, it falls upon individuals from the private sector to step up and create platforms and avenues for cultural exchange. COMO Museum of Art is one such space which has recently opened its doors to the public in the city of Lahore.
COMO (Contemporary/Modern) is the brainchild of Seher Tareen, a young and passionate art collector and curator who recently returned from the UK with a degree from Central Saint Martins. It is refreshing to see a space founded and run by a professionally qualified art curator, which is rare in Pakistan. COMO is the first private art museum of its kind in the country and seeks to reflect the trajectory that the art of Pakistan is currently on while promoting a museum-going culture within the public. The aim of the space is to foster the love and appreciation of art in the Pakistani public through its preservation and promotion, and its contextualization within the global framework. “We have a very strong art footprint in the region, both with our modern masters and contemporary artists, and though many have achieved global recognition, I felt that it was equally, if not more, important to preserve and promote their work within Pakistan,” says Tareen.
Pakistan in general faces a dearth of art galleries and museums, which remain depressingly scarce despite a recent increase in the larger cities. Lahore itself, while enjoying its place as the cultural hub of Pakistan, has depressingly few spaces of creative expression, and art and cultural activity. “I knew there was a vacuum in the city for something like COMO, a cultural hub where one can go to be inspired, to engage with art and just take it in,” says Tareen. Even though there has been no interest in developing the art scene on the state level, Tareen believes things are improving with private initiatives like the Karachi and Lahore Biennales and she hopes for COMO to contribute to this cultural re-awakening in a big way. The non-commercial aspect of a museum allows for artists to push boundaries and experiment with new mediums, without the pressure of selling their works, which will allow for COMO to contribute in propelling the art of Pakistan forward into new and exciting directions.
The COMO space reflects a modern aesthetic with hints of traditional influence fused within a clean, minimalist form. The white façade with a tall arch at the entrance combines conflicting geometries, and the wide spaces within divided into individual display spaces one leading to another along with a main high-ceilinged hallway offers many creative possibilities to the discerning curatorial eye. The rooftop garden along with the main outdoor garden with its beautiful old trees that Tareen was careful to preserve offers an alternate space for performances and discursive events, and combines the build environment with nature. The premises were originally an 80’s home designed by Nayyar Ali Dada, and with a few renovations was able to lend itself as a gallery space quite effectively. “Overall the design philosophy of the space is white cube contemporary within a quintessential Lahore framework. The building itself has a very ‘old Lahore’ feel about it,” Tareen says.
The inaugural show aptly titled “ONE” sought to reflect many of the museum’s aims and motives, and establish its character and vibe. It brought together some of the biggest internationally acclaimed contemporary artists of Pakistan, Rashid Rana, Risham Syed, Ali Kazim, Naiza Khan, Salman Toor and Saba Khan, with works that define the current landscape of Pakistani art practice and its diasporic reach. “For me the six artists that became a part of ONE, were absolutely perfect for the show and their work came together in harmony perfectly.” The show also allowed the audience to explore the space and its possibilities through the chosen works and their display, making an exciting debut into the art world of Lahore. Toor’s interesting mural, “Upside Down Party” painted on the ceiling of the museum is installed as a permanent part of the museum space and creates the sense of looking up at a mirror image with upside-down figures executed in the artist’s signature painting style. “The show is inspired by the paradoxical concept of ‘one’ – the beginning, the first, the only. A universal unit of singularity that can hold the concept of the divine, one is the paradox of the finite and the infinite. It is the start, the end and all that lies in between,” says the curatorial statement.
To further its aims to promote art, COMO has formed important partnerships with Lahore Literary Festival and the Lahore Biennale Foundation and has offered itself as a venue for their events. The LLF has already held a successful talk on Zahoor Ul Akhlaque at the COMO rooftop. The museum will work with both organizations to further mutual goals and work for the betterment of art in Lahore. The museum will also be working with the youth of the city through an outreach towards educational institutes, “to engage an entire generation of students with our collective art history and provide a platform for them to engage with contemporary art and artists alike.” In this regard, multiple field trips were conducted with various institutions for the inaugural show, and artist talks were held for students with four out of the six artists.
In a place where artists are mostly anonymous and museums aren’t a part of public’s perception of entertainment, spaces like COMO are an important and welcome addition for cultural revitalisation. Tareen hopes to begin with a few strong exhibitions with emerging and big name artists and bring into the public eye hidden away private collections of incredible art on loan to allow a contemporary audience to benefit from them, before working to build a permanent collection which she hopes would include modern masters such as Bashir Mirza, Sadequain and Gulgee as well as contemporary powerhouses such as Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi and Hamra Abbas, among others. It would be exciting to see this space make innovations and efforts to set itself apart from the standard private gallery and bring a new flavor through its events and exhibitions to the Pakistani art landscape.