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In Conversation with Akbar Naqvi

Hajra Haider Karrar: According to your qualifications, you have a PHD in English literature, yet you pursued a career in art criticism. When did you realize your interest in art? Did you ever think of becoming an artist?
Akbar Naqvi: I was twelve years old when I saw the Yakshi sculpture, spirit of the tree, cast in iron at the Patna museum for the first time and fell in love with it. We used to live in Patna, Bihar then. From that day onwards I would visit the museum every week. I still remember it clearly to this day.
Observing my interest in art my father hired an artist from the Bengal school to teach me painting, but very early on I realized that I did not have the temperament to become an artist. So instead I started reading on art and educating myself on it-Encyclopedias helped me learn about art from all over the world.
I went to England to study English Literature and alongside continued learning about art. I mixed with art students and teachers and would try to visit every art exhibition in London and Paris.
I was greatly inspired by Herbert Read. He helped me understand that art was the most important cultural activity of man and that great art approximated to poetry.
HHK: Upon your return, you enrolled into an administrative job. What initiated the journey of art criticism for you?
AN: I was the administrative manager at Exxon Chemical plant in Daharki. We were looking to engage the ladies and students in quality activity. At that time, Ali Imam had just opened the Indus Gallery in Karachi. He had developed a technique of palette knife painting which could make painters of those who could not even draw. Exxon decided to hire him to give painting classes. We used to have lunch together twice a week when he came for his class to Daharki. The Sun, was looking for an art critic when Ali Imam introduced me to them. The first article I wrote was on Lubna Agha’s work. It was much appreciated by the editor and from then on, I wrote an article every week for the next 11 years. My articles were well researched and full of information. I wrote on art and architecture for Dawn, The Muslim and Herald, besides The Sun for over 20 years.
My greatest reward was getting Shakir Ali and Salimuzzam Siddiqui as stringent critics of my work. I would post my article to Shakir Ali every week and in return he would give me his feedback.
HHK: In your opinion what makes a good artist and a good critic?
AN. A good work of art or poetry is one which touches your core. It makes you feel pain and happiness, forces you to think and reflect.
A good artist gets inspiration and uses it to push his work to the next level. Skill and knowledge are essential. I believe that without craft there cannot be art. Concept does not make art. I am not an artist but I am inspired- Art is sacred for me.
A critic needs experience and sensitivity of the eye when he looks at art. It depends on the kind of work that is seen and the detail it is seen in. It is important to keep learning and acquiring knowledge for a well-rounded approach.
Art criticism does not mean criticizing for the sake of criticism. It is critical appreciation, consisting of comparison and evaluation to place art in its proper perspective.
HHK: Besides being an art critic, you are also recognized as an art historian. Your resourceful book; ’Image and Identity: 50 years of Pakistani art 1947-1997’ is an evidence of that. What created this shift?
AN. I do not think of art criticism and art history as separate. Art criticism, art history and anecdotes about the artist and his time all need to be combined together to make it comprehensive and to bring the artist to life. I developed a style and published my first book five years after I started writing. I have been greatly inspired by Giorgio Vasari.
The highlight of my book is that Pakistani art is similar to Indian Art yet different.
The famous Indian art historian Partha Mitter wrote about my selection of artists and works, stating that Modern Pakistani Art is way superior to Modern Indian Art.
HHK: You have been following international art ever since you went to England for your education. Did you feel that parallels could be drawn between the art being produced in Pakistan at that time and the international art scene?
AN. Shakir Ali, Zubeida Agha, Ahmed Pervez, Shahid Sajjad , set the boundaries of modern Pakistani art. They are all great artists of international standards.
Sadequain was unique; no one has produced work like him.
Shakir Ali pushed cubism to the next level. I think Shahid Sajjad is the greatest sculptor in the world. I am ready to contest any famous art historian on this. Zahoor ul Ikhlaq was as good as any great international artist. He had an unmatched sense of colour making and application, his black paintings would illuminate.
HHK: The significant artists that you mention have all been involved with academics and artist training sometime over the span of their lives. Do you feel that they were able to nurture prodigies like themselves?
AN. There have been good artists with high potential, but they are too inspired by techniques and modern trends. An artist can adopt a trend but then they need to give it a new turn, and evolve it with their local cultural vocabulary.
There are artists who are good in techniques. But art is not about technique.
HHK: You have also taught in art institutions. How was that experience for you?
AN. I have taught 7 years at IVSAA and 5 years at NCA.
Art schools are now commercial entities. My purpose was to contribute and share my knowledge. I resigned when I realized that they did not seem interested in teaching and learning. The educators do not educate themselves. There is a lack of education /knowledge and experimentation within institutes. They give out degrees but teach nothing.
HHK: What do you think is different in the art being practiced today from the time you started writing about it?
AN. Contemporary art has become very shallow and technical. Anything could be art. They talk about conceptual art but they do not understand what conceptual art is.
I realize that change was inevitable but it has been badly affected by commercialism. There have always been monetary concerns but now artists only work for money. The whole art scene; environment and the vocabulary have changed.
The galleries have played a big role in the commercialization of art. They have caused a lot of damage by directing the work, and concentrating on buying and selling. Sensationalism has become more important than beauty in art. Becoming famous is all about networking, it’s more important than skill.
I believe that unless the hand touches the surface and interacts with the medium directly, the mystery and soul does not enter the work.
Make money but you cannot compromise on quality.
HHK: Do you think that the market trends affect the quality of work produced?
AN. According to Robert Hughes; my guru- when artist concentrate on money then there is no quality. The same way the type of buyer also affects the quality of work. When the law of stock market is applied to art and it is bought as an investment then quality takes a back seat.
HHK: The last 15 years have been very significant for Pakistani art internationally. How do you look at it? Do you think it’s purely due to political reasons which brought Pakistan into the lime light?
AN. It is not political. It is all about demand and supply. People now have money to buy art. Indian art has become too expensive and inaccessible. As a result Pakistani art has taken preference. The majority of collectors of Pakistani art belong to the Indian market.

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