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In Conversation with Ambereen Karamat

Ambreen Karamat has recently established White Turban, a company that deals with Pakistani art and promotes it in the country and internationally. Karamat studied ceramics at the National College of Arts before acquiring her Master’s Degree from USA. Since her return she has been engaged with teaching, writing and curating. Her recently curated exhibitions at the Dhaka Art Fest and at Latitude 28 Gallery in New Delhi both showcased Pakistani art. In a recent conversation, Ambreen Karamat discussed art and related issues.
ArtNow: Please share with us your early training and interests in art?
Ambereen Karamat: We all have cravings, desires and needs that must be fulfilled; similarly my hands always ached to create, to paint, to mould clay and construct. I loved the potter’s wheel and was fascinated by it, clear what I wanted to do from the very beginning. I graduated from NCA in 2001 majoring in ceramic design and all I did for four years in college was to throw pots on wheels. It became an addiction and a spiritual therapy of working with a malleable object that had a mysterious connection with our existence. Besides learning the technical aspect of ceramics, the most important aspect that I cherish the most was the time I spent revisiting myself while spinning around and shaping a blocks of clay.
AN: How does the experience of being a ceramist help you in choosing what you are doing now?
AK: If a lifeless lump of clay can be moulded into a refined work of art, I believe that we all have the tendency to enhance ourselves by excelling in what we are doing, with just the right conditions. With my art consultancy White Turban, I help my clients (artists, collectors, art institutions) find the right opportunities that are appropriate for their practice; simply, I’m a bridge connecting two entities that may be looking for each other.
AN: What was the motive behind establishing an art dealer’s company, ‘White Turban’, in Pakistan?
AK: I’m bit a hesitant in calling myself an ‘art dealer’, though I love the title; it brings out my clandestine desire of being part of the underworld, with the connotation the word ‘dealer’ has, but jokes apart, I prefer calling myself as an art consultant. A dealer just buys and sells works of art whereas a consultant offers knowledgeable advice to its clients. White Turban is an art consultancy and we do much more than just buying and selling of artworks.
I realised that there’s a need for a formal platform that promotes artists, giving them opportunities and creating a stronger collector base while also educating locals on the immense artistic talent we have. Recognition of Pakistani artists is coming from outwards to inwards; only after international recognition are they locally recognized (in most cases). I just want to bring a change in this phenomenon; as in other parts of the world, recognition should be sprouting from within.
AN: In what ways do you work with artists?
AK: I work with artists in various capacities. A section on my webpage, called Artists 101, introduces each artist with an image of their artwork, a brief about their art practice and achievements. This helps people sitting in different parts of the world get an overview of Pakistani artists. I visit their studios, talk about the turning points in their artistic career, identify the new direction and catalogue it in White Turban’s database. I intend to understand art practices and predict the directions that they are heading into both as individuals and as an overall study of local art practices. I also assist in getting gallery representations, and am proud to announce in ArtNow that WT’s latest achievement is getting Noor Ali Changani representation from Leila Heller Gallery in NY. We also do all the logistics on the artist’s behalf: in short we wear different hats ranging from art manager to a consultant, to maximize an artists’ productivity and give him more time to do what he does best, to make art!
AN: Do you have any preference when you choose an artist to work with?
AK: As long as the artist is serious in his practice, has the right attitude and potential to grow we look into opportunities for helping them.
AN: What are your experiences of working with artists?
AK: An enthusiastic lot, creative to the limit that wants to explore opportunities; it is an amazing experience to work with artists. Being an artist myself it helps me to reconnect with my creative instinct; most of the time I know exactly where the artist is coming from and relate to them well. Sometimes it’s like talking to an artistic clone of myself!
AN: Do you think that with the established galleries in Pakistan, we need White Turban?
AK: Local galleries are paving the way of creating a local art gallery culture, but somehow there seems to be stagnation in the transition from the first to the second phase, I mean in their growth. My understanding of an established gallery is that it represents artists, helps in promoting them, holds curated shows, actively exhibits in international art fairs and biennales, invites international and local critics and writers to write about the artists’ works and create catalogues with views from different perspectives, builds dialogues and creates liaisons with the international art world and works on steering the artists’ career in a direction that they deserve. Having shows and selling works is not good enough; maybe that’s the reason we lack an established, intelligent collector base who understand the value of art and thus see a high growth of commercial galleries.
White Turban is trying to fill out the gap; the Artist101 section is just the beginning; we have had a White Turban notebook printed that was distributed to international galleries and collectors. My team is constantly working on updating our database with artistic achievements and sending them to our mailing list. We are active on social media to promote art to the maximum. Besides this, I work closely with collectors and catalogue their collections of Pakistani artists, as it is important to know where the artworks are going and to understand the local market.
AN: In what ways do you foresee helping artists and benefiting Pakistani art?
AK: The art world is just not about artists and galleries; the billion-dollar industry consists of curators, critics, art consultants, museums, art fairs and biennales, the primary and secondary markets. White Turban is just the beginning of establishing one of the components of the art market in Pakistan. A huge number of artists are graduating every year, with few galleries (those too mainly based in the southern part of the country) to exhibit their works; WT helps artists in getting opportunities through residencies, curated shows, connecting them with international consultants, writing about them and educating the world that Pakistan is much more that what is seen in the news.
AN: In your opinion, what are the factor that make a graduate into a successful artist? His work? Publicity? Support? Exposure or anything else?
AK: Let me explain this by connecting it with what I drink the most: coffee. Just the way an espresso machine gushes out the hot, brewed coffee, forcing pressure through the fine coffee beans, the light foam disperses the aroma and simmers down, similarly the artist’s two-days of fame during their thesis melts away, shattering down all expectations. The coffee remains, the flavour is there, but the froth of optimism dissipates. The best way to savour it is to sip it hot, distinguish the flavour and cherish it. The occasional sips by the collectors and gallery owners give the artist some hope but chances and success start appearing bleaker and distanced. I feel it’s here, at this point that the ‘experience’ for the artist begins to mature; reflections of past experience and stifling of emotions and unison of present is achieved. For some this vacuum becomes unbearable; failure prevails and jobs are switched, but for the few persistent ones there still is the excitement, turmoil and urge from within to go outward. Artists can openly assert their genius, purport their eccentricity and celebrate the madness of their time and cherish this moment. And this is the time when we jump in. What matters most is how well this experience is realised in the art produced, and how it connects with the viewer.
AN: What have been the most difficult incidents in your work so far?
AK: It took me almost two years to study the local art market before setting the objectives and role of the consultancy. I couldn’t follow any other consultancy from other parts of the world as they all were coming from established art markets and we have different dynamics here altogether. I’ve raised the bar very high with our professionalism and services we provide that caters to both local and international market. It’s interesting how we wear different hats to cater to all the needs.
AN: How do you see art from Pakistan, in relation to other countries?
AK: In this global age boundaries are blurred, which allows meanings to spread globally. Artists are interested in understanding the critically global, rather than parochial, issues of genre and identity. Art is much more universal than what it was years ago.
AN: Do you think artists in Pakistan have attained a distinct vocabulary, or can their works be from anywhere?
AK: All coffee beans may look the same, but plants from different regions will have their own distinct flavour and this can only be realised when experienced. Similarly, art is an expression that carries the essence of its culture, political environment and the way it is nurtured. These unavoidable subtle reflections unconsciously come in the work of local artists and in the diaspora.
AN: Do you feel that a sense of belonging is necessary in today’s art or art market?
AK: We all are so finely connected with these mysterious threads that join us down at an unknown point. The branches may sprout in different directions and they may never meet again, but will be identified from the trunk they belong to. If stood alone without a support, the branch will ultimately fall off. So ‘belonging’ is unavoidable, never thought about if its necessary or not.
AN: What is your opinion on art fairs and biennales around the world?
AK: We can’t deny the fact that art is a billion-dollar ‘industry’ and seen as a commercial commodity. Seeing all the galleries under one roof and experiencing artworks from Damien Hirst to Tayeba Lipi can be over-whelming, but interestingly, with so many components at play, this industry cannot run without art fairs and biennales anymore.

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