Dissecting Sanat and the man behind it


Dissecting Sanat and the man behind it

If you throw a stone in Clifton odds are you’ll either hit an overpriced restaurant, an overstuffed art gallery, or both. Amidst Karachi’s cluttered a

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If you throw a stone in Clifton odds are you’ll either hit an overpriced restaurant, an overstuffed art gallery, or both. Amidst Karachi’s cluttered and rather insular art scene it’s a true rarity to find art spaces which are not only able to carve out a singular identity for themselves but are also able to simultaneously push the boundaries of Pakistan’s artistic landscape. Yet, in a relatively short amount of time, Sanat Initiative has managed to do both. Initially located in Clifton prior to a recent move to the Sadiq Godown located off Old Queens Road, the gallery sticks out like an eclectically furnished thumb in a city which has plenty of sore ones. The former warehouse now turned into a gallery boasts something which most other galleries in a cramped city like Karachi simply can’t: plenty of space. But an abundance of space without substantive matter and an underlying ethos to populate it is ultimately worthless. Enter Abid Merchant.


A man who seems like he’s just wandered out of a Mario Puzo novel, Abid Merchant is the brains and the brawn responsible for Sanat’s quick ascent. If one truly wishes to understand the ethos Sanat embodies then one has to begin by understanding Merchant, the man who nurtured it. “Art, in one form or the other, has been around me as far as I can recall,” he narrates. “I used to collect carpets in my twenties and thirties but took to serious collecting of fine art a decade or so ago.” That lifelong admiration of art morphed into something more when Merchant lost his job as a banker in October, 2013. “I always wanted to quit my banking job and do something else. I had decided a long time ago that when I turn 45 I’ll leave my 21 year long banking career. It happened a bit sooner, at the age of 41. It was the first opportunity I got to consider doing something else,” he says.


Since Merchant was already an avid art collector at the time and friends with several artists, three of them, Muhammad Zeeshan, Muzzumil Ruheel and Irfan Hasan, convinced him to launch Sanat Initiative. The aim was to bring to Pakistan an art platform which raised the bar of the country’s art scene by promoting experimental and innovative streams of thought in art. Merchant’s self-proclaimed “risk taking appetite” came in handy, and when he launched Sanat in 2014 he carried over much of the knowledge he had gained as a banker. “You need to be persistent and you need to develop personal relationships with the people you’re working with. This is what my 21 years in banking taught me. I implemented the same practice at Sanat.”


Sanat’s roster of exhibitions is certainly a testament to this. The gallery has housed a wide variety of works by both established and emerging artists, ranging from Shahid Rassam and Sajjad Ahmed to Asif Ahmed and Shanzay Subzwari. That ability to never grow stale is central to the gallery’s ability to surprise. Merchant credits Sanat’s first show, “Incubator” curated by Muhammad Zeeshan, for laying out “our vision in front of the world; what we want to be and what we want to show. We continue to showcase cutting edge art. One thing I’m very proud of is that unlike some other galleries where everything is available in their backrooms, we only have in our general display works of those artists whom we exhibit in our shows. There is no double standard.”


However, there is another man who appears to be just as attached to Sanat as Merchant is, which is why it isn’t surprising that he curated Sanat’s first show. In the monograph “Muhammad Zeeshan 1990s-2018” Merchant refers to Zeeshan as a man who is, “known for his theatrics, his palpable yet flamboyant personality and for ruffling feathers.” No wonder the two get along so well. You’d be hard-pressed to visit Sanat and not find Merchant and Zeeshan engaged in an animated discussion while an exhibition rages on around them. Evidently, the relationship between the two is one which sets Sanat apart from other gallery spaces in the city, and one which has proved to be instrumental in forming the foundational philosophy on which Sanat operates.


That philosophy was momentarily under threat when Sanat Initiative moved from its rather compact location in Clifton into a warehouse which has some 5,000 square feet of exhibition area and another 1,500 square feet of general display space. Many wondered if the gallery would continue to be as prolific when operating in another location. But it seems like the gamble has paid off. “The new location has treated us very positively,” Merchant says. “We have a huge space now. It gives artists the room to experiment more. It also gives an amazing viewing experience to the audience. The visitors to the gallery have increased in number as well.” If the recent shows “Tomorrow We Inherit the Earth: Notes from a Guerrilla War” by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr. and “Drawing Room Diamonds” curated by Champa (which featured Amin Gulgee lying in a boat being wheeled around the former godown) are anything to go by, it is safe to say that Sanat’s new home certainly presents artists with a lot more space to experiment, both figuratively and literally.


But for Merchant, it is imperative that Sanat Initiative not only showcases new talent but also nurtures and guides them, which is why its artist residency programme is vital. “It makes me really happy that the artists we selected and exhibited from the start of their careers have also managed to leave a mark in the international art scene,” Merchant states. “A recent example is of Ahmed Javed. He was part of our 4th Artist Residency and we saw huge potential in him and offered him a solo exhibition right after the residency. He became the first Pakistani ever to win the Juried Prize at the Sovereign Art Foundation.” Evidently, Sanat Initiative greatly values the artists, curators, writers, patrons and collectors who have contributed towards its success.


So what does the future hold for the Sanat brand and Merchant? “In 2017, I decided to broaden the scope of Sanat and ventured into film production. In 2018, Sanat started work on two narrative feature film projects and one narrative short film. This was something very new to me.” In fact, Merchant sold artworks from his private collection to fund a film which was selected for the South by Southwest film festival. Clearly, Merchant is not one to sit idle, which perhaps accounts for Sanat’s ability to make a name for itself as an art space which is testing the limits of Pakistan’s artistic landscape. Yet Merchant has never seen Sanat Initiative as simply a means to an end. In his words, “Sanat is not just my bread and butter. It’s my passion. And I believe that whatever you do passionately you can’t fail at.” That philosophy has certainly worked for Sanat thus far.





Hasnain Nawab: The writer is a journalist and was selected for Vasl’s Art Writers’ Residency 2020.