Italian Art, like the Indian Art, precedes and predates the political/national states of Italy and India. But more then this obvious fact, there may be other links between the region which produced great works of art during Renaissance and the subcontinent known for its particular art forms both painting and sculpture. Italian art historian and curator, Lavinia Filippi, during her three years stay in Islamabad, have been in close contact with contemporary artists of Pakistan. She wrote on their art practices and exhibitions in various international and Pakistani publications, including Flash Art; and curated exhibitions comprising/highlighting different aspects of Pakistani art, the most recent being I.D., held at the ILF 2014 in Islamabad.
Lavinia Fillippi was associated with the Castello di Rivoli, Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, Italy and c-curated the section of Pakistani for an exhibition being held in Italy. Not long ago she conducted a workshop on ‘Art Povera’ in the Department of Fine Art at NCA; and while here she discussed her ideas and views on art: Excerpts follow:
Art Now: You are an art historian and art curator. How did you get interested in art? Please share your early experiences and exposures into the world of art.
Lavinia Filippi: Art has always been part of my life. In particular from my father’s side, the family has always been interested in archaeology, painting, writing and collecting, but with a rather conservative approach to culture. I am the first one involved with contemporary art and for this that part of the family still looks at me in a somewhat suspicious way!
When I started studying Art History in Rome, after my BA in Social Sciences at the Ottawa University in Canada, I thought I would write my thesis on 15th or 16th century art. But during my studies I discovered that Contemporary Art was much more alive and exciting. I understood that the possibility of developing a theory and having an opinion on a work, or an artist and be able to discuss it with him or her, while perfectly knowing and understanding the social, political, economical context in which it was created, was fascinating.
I started back then writing for the University magazine, I had previously collaborated to create, and soon for many other publications. After my degree I decided to spend some time in New York. I thought it would give me a better view of the international art scene. In the US I worked in an artist studio and wrote, as correspondent, for some Italian newspapers and specialized magazines. After a year, I received a proposal to open and direct the Roman seat of an International Art Gallery and I moved back to Italy.
AN: You have been associated with Italian Art and artists in more than one capacity. How was the experience of working for an Italian Museum? What was your area of interest: Contemporary, modern or classic? And what issues did you face in terms of curating, collecting and attracting viewers?
LF: After 3 years at the gallery, I received a job offer as consultant, anchor-woman and correspondent for a TV art show on the Italian National Television (RAI) and when, 4 years later, the Director of the TV channel was nominated Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Museum of Contemporary Art – Castello di Rivoli, he asked to join his team.
Castello di Rivoli is the first Italian Museum ever dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. Founded 30 years ago in an historical Royal residence, the Museum, in a beautiful and unique location, had to face many difficulties, especially because of its isolated position. In fact, despite its great permanent collection and high-level temporary shows, it had a limited number of visitors. Therefore, we decided to create an innovative and fresh project, that would at the same time attract more people to the Museum and spread over its content: castellodirivoli.tv, the first web-TV of a contemporary art Museum in Italy.
AN: You have been closely associated with the contemporary Italian art, how do you perceive it, in terms of its different movements, such as Futurism, Arte Povera and Transavanguardia? You think these have some links with the tradition of classical Italian Art? Did artists own their/this tradition or discard it, or re-interpret it?
LF: I think Italian Contemporary Art is strongly related to the traditional and classical art, from the time Italy didn’t even exist as a modern nation. All the movements you mentioned, Futurism, Arte Povera and Transavanguardia are very different from each other, but in all 3 you can trace some strong connection with the past.
Futurists were actually reacting to the past, and wanted to abolish and cancel it, together with traditions and anything that was “established” before them. Arte Povera was also a revolutionary movement but it was also deep-rooted in the territory and the art installations of the main artists were often very classical in their aesthetic. Transavanguardia, instead, was about going back to traditions both in the means and in the content. Hence, no contemporary artist in Italy seems to be able to remain unresponsive or indifferent to history.
AN: Which brings to the place where you have been living for the last three years, I mean Pakistan. Our society has witnessed a spectacular and strong response and relation to tradition, of Indian miniature painting. How do you comment on the revival of miniature in modern day Pakistan?
LF: I think it’s a very interesting phenomenon. For populations who have a long and rich history such as Italians and Pakistanis, past is at the same time a source of inspiration and a limitation, in the sense that one cannot ignore it, while trying to define oneself and to find a unity. The past will always re-emerge. It’s not surprising that neo miniature started in Lahore, the cultural capital of the country.
I think that it is both a way to pay homage to an ancient form of art and communication from pre-British times, and a way to debunk it.
In fact, miniature is a sophisticated technique that requires discipline and resolution. Some of the artists who have been using and developing it in the past decade, reached such a level of dexterity and freedom that allows them to totally master the media, setting the miniature free from its “historical cage”. Today, miniature painting has been taken out of wasli paper, frame, exhibition spaces. It has been mixed with very innovative media, like video projection in Shahzia Sikander’s work, or transformed in environmental art, like in Imran Qureshi or Aisha Khalid’s pieces.
AN: Do you think it has a different meaning for an outsider then for a local audience?
LF: Probably yes. For an “outsider” it’s fascinating to see how a traditional technique can be updated and reach such a level of independence to express strong contemporary messages. While for a local audience it’s in a way reassuring to see that such freedom comes from an old, established, conservative and traditional technique.
AN: Is there a parallel of this phenomenon in any other society, where a genre, lost to past, is picked and promoted to become the most potent symbol of art from that society?
LF: Not that I know. In Italy there has been some phenomena of revival of some traditional techniques, but they were short-term and never became as big and relevant as neo-miniature for Pakistani contemporary art. I am thinking about a movement from the ’80s called “Anacronismo” (anachronism), where the artists where reacting to the extreme conceptualisation of art, by going back to classical aesthetic in the form and to humanistic themes in the contents. Or even Trasnsavanguardia, where an artist such as Enzo Cucchi creates sculptures, using traditional techniques to knead bronze or marble. Luigi Ontani, another established Italian artist, often uses ceramics to express very contemporary and provocative messages. But in all these cases the artist designs the work and turns to some artisans for the concrete realization.
AN: What other movements, apart and along with miniature painting, do you find in Pakistan?
LF: Well, I see three main ways in Pakistani Contemporary Art: Neo-miniature as a conceptual, and not only “technical”, movement. Then, I see what can be considered as a derivation of “Karachi Pop”, with works inspired or quoting the aesthetics of the local movie industry or the truck art or any other image and content that is part of today’s Pakistanis everyday lives, including weapons, camouflage patterns, calligraphy, embroidery…
Finally, I see a more hidden but also deep-rooted, “third way”. It’s a minimal, abstract, geometrical research that might have started with Zahoor ul Akhlaq or even before, and that is now going towards an impoverishment of the existing system of symbols and the definition of a “new alphabet”. This is evident in the works of Mohammed Ali Talpur, as well as in the last pieces by Imran Channa, where he gradually hides the figurative, recognizable themes. But it can also be traced in the works of some of the most established artists, from Rashid Rana, to Imran Qureshi. Obviously this is very streamlined and the topic would need more in-depth analysis.
AN: How do you view our contemporary artists and their acceptance and presence both in the country of origin and abroad?
LF: Pakistani art is generally elegant in the form and solid in its content. It hence blends aesthetic values with powerful messages.Moreover, I admire the sense of community that unites the artists in Pakistan and the fact that almost all the more established one are teaching art with dedication, even with very busy schedules of international shows. I am also always very impressed with the willingness, competence and humbleness of the majority of the artists, even the most established ones.
AN: In your opinion what are the main concerns, issues and themes in today’s art from Pakistan?
LF: I think the issue of finding an identity is a very important concern for Pakistani contemporary artists but it’s also very important for art in general. The social and political situation and the religion, that scan every moment of the day, affect everybody in Pakistan and give the artists abundant raw material to build their research.
AN: You have been writing regularly on Pakistani artists; why do you think our artists are obsessed with politics?
LF: I think it’s normal, it makes perfect sense. The political situation is predominant in Pakistan and the country is still working on a definition of its’ contemporary identity. Being a huge country, in terms of people, that includes many different realities, and having being defined only little more than 60 years ago by external decisions based on mere political and religious boundaries, the current quest for a comprehensive Pakistani identity may still require some time to level off.
At the same time I wouldn’t limit Pakistani contemporary art to that, I think artists such as Naiza Khan, Risham Syed, Farida Batool and many others are able to balance those topics with more universal and timeless matters.
AN: Do you see any common elements inthe Contemporary Art of Italy and Pakistan? How do you see the divide between East and West? Do you think it exists, or is it a notion of past?
LF: Yes I do. Both countries have a long and rich history, but are recent, from a purely political perspective, as nations. Italy exists since 1861 and Pakistan since 1947. In a way both countries love and respect traditions and, even though very differently, it is not always easy to transmit something new, revolutionary in any of them.
Another thing that contemporary art has in common in the two countries is the accepted presence of decorative inputs and love for beauty.
The divide between East and West exists and I am happy it does. I don’t think there is a right and a wrong lifestyle, every country, every continent should choose what is working for it and this makes, art, travel and life much more interesting. That said some universal values go beyond borders and across centuries, and some artists play an important role in underscoring them.
AN: In this year you conducted a workshop on Arte Povera at the National College of Arts Lahore, How was it, especially working with students, and how do you comment on their works?
LF: It has been a very positive experience. Working with the students was very important for me. For the workshop I asked them to meditate on some concept and create an art piece about it, using materials that were part of their everyday life, as did the artists of “Arte Povera” in the 60s-70s in Italy. I knew it was challenging because, if on one side the indications provided allowed a lot of freedom, on the other side, the limits to respect were firm.
All the students involved in the workshop surprised me with some very good ideas and accurate achievement. NCA is a unique institution with very high-level and talented professors-artists. I am really happy I had this fantastic opportunity and hope to be able to do it again in the future.
AN: You are co-curating the exhibition of Pakistani and Italian art being held in Italy now, please tell us the concept of the show, selection of artists and general experience of working with artists from here?
LF: The project, “Stills of Peace and Everyday Lives”, is about the dialogue between our two cultures and about Peace. The show will open in Italy in mid July. I was asked to select some videos and photographic works by some Pakistani artist. I asked Sajjad Ahmed, Farida Batool, Shalalae Jamil, Lali Khalid, Naiza Khan, Nadia Khawaja, Aroosa Naz and Rysham Syed to participate. I realized only recently that out of eight, seven are female artists!
I had a very good experience working with all of them and I think the body of work will give an idea of the level and diversity of the Pakistani Contemporary scene. The other curator in Italy selected the Italian artists, who were working in the region where the show will take place, and together we tried to underline the presence of similar concerns.
I am very much looking forward to the show, the works are very powerful and the set up will be challenging. In fact, the exhibition space, the crypt of Atri’s cathedral, is a very special and unique location.
AN; Since your arrival in Pakistan three years ago, you have been buying and collecting a large number of Pakistani art; what features and qualities you seek when you decide to purchase a work for your collection?
LF: It depends on the works. Some of them are love at first sight. For others I first choose the artist I want to buy, I follow his or her research, I try to meet him or her, and I wait until I see the work I would like from him or her.
AN: What is the most exciting about the Contemporary Pakistani Art?
LF: The most exciting for me is to be here now. I feel something very important is happening and I am lucky to witness it. I am moving to London in a few months, but – InshAllah – I will keep on working with Pakistani artists and follow the local art scene, also through regular visits.