Textile designer, painter, curator, educationist, activist; these are but a few of the titles used to describe the luminary, Noorjehan Bilgrami. With numerous achievements to her name, it would be impossible to describe all in one compact essay. Instead, I would like to highlight her latest success, the Art Project at the new Islamabad International Airport while also lightly touching upon preceding key moments that include the making of IVS and her initial dive into the world of textile.
Trained in painting, which began at National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore for two years and later continued at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC) when she moved to Karachi, Noorjehan Bilgrami had no idea about block printing. Karachi’s, art scene was thriving; artists like Ahmed Parvez, Shahid Sajjad, Bashir Mirza, Jamil Naqsh and Ali Imam (who also ran Karachi’s first gallery, Indus Gallery) were prominent on the scene. An interest in the crafts sparked which ultimately led to the birth of KOEL and the revival of hand-block printing in Pakistan. Looking back, Bilgrami speaks about her first encounter with textile:
Noorjehan (NJ): “As you know, Akeel, my husband, is an architect and we worked together on an interior design project for a small hotel near the airport called ‘The Inn’. I wanted to use textured , block printed fabric. Rahmani ‘s on Drigh Road used to weave and block print fabric but they didn’t have the colour we wanted so I started looking and found a small shop on Lawrence road that block printed on Dastarkhans (napkins). Though the printing was clumsy and bad, it was the first time I saw the process and was totally fascinated by how the colour was transferred by a wooden block on to a fabric.
Eventually, I started frequenting that place more and I realised they had beautiful, intricate blocks tucked away in shelves covered with cobwebs, not used for centuries these became my first set of blocks. I found more printers in Lee Market who had stopped printing to become bakers and electricians. Through my research I found out that Karachi, in fact, was a big centre for block printing pre-partition and saris were printed here and sent to Bombay, Dhaka and other bigger cities. It was from learning from these printers that I ultimately decided to set up a table in my friend’s garage with literally four blocks and used them with different colours to create myriad new combinations For me it was like working on a canvas and the whole process of working and engaging was so rewarding that it has become part of my existence.”
Bilgrami also did great research on natural dyes including Indigo, a valuable dye that used to grow naturally along the upper Indus. Her research led her outside Pakistan, to Dhaka, India and also Japan where she travelled extensively through a year-long Japan Foundation fellowship which allowed Bilgrami to carry out a comparative study of indigo in Pakistan and Japan
In an architectural conference in Korea, Bilgrami, along with colleagues, realised the need for an improvement in the art education of Karachi. Taking on yet another adventurous route, the group proved successful and began the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in 1989, which today, is ranked the third highest art and design institute in Pakistan. Bilgrami recalls how IVS came about:
NJ: “Studying from CIAC, my loyalties lay there but gradually we could see the whole quality of education plummeting. A few of us like Imran Mir and Shahid Sajjad started thinking about how we could help improve the institute but were met with hostility when approaching the board. Our friends at NCA, such as Zahoor-ul-Aklaq & Naazish Ataullah then suggested that we should not waste our efforts but have our own institution, a concept that was very daunting at that time. At the same time architects like Arshad Abdullah and Akeel were also independently thinking on the same lines, about the dire need of an architectural institution in Karachi. We strongly felt the need to give back to the city from where we had received so much. this was in fact a shared dream and we needed to do it.
We had gone to South Korea as a group for an architectural conference and I think it was here, in our bedroom where the idea originatedThus IVS began with a group of people with no money, no background of education, simply brought together with a strong desire to do something positive for the city. Shahid Abdullah found a philanthropist, Haamid Jaffer, who we consider as a founder and he allowed us to use the building of a nursing school on Tipu Sultan Road that was empty for one rupee a year until we could find land to move. We started out with 8-week long courses with a group of students and faculty Many of them continued on to the formal program as the first batch of students and faculty. I was the first Executive Director and legendary Professor Karrar Hussain the first Chairman of the Board ”
The building of the new International Airport in Islamabad began almost 15 years ago and finally commenced full operations in May, 2018 ARCOP Associates run by architects, Mehboob Khan and Yawar Jilani, are the local architectural firm who along with a Singaporean firm specialising in airports, spearheaded this project. Bilgrami was invited by ARCOP to curate the art for the airport…
NJ: “They had asked me to curate the project and I thought this would be great opportunity to curate Pakistan’s finest traditional crafts and the best contemporary art in this large scale venue, which will have passengers international and domestic weaving through. There is so much Indigenous craft in Pakistan that many may have not seen and I thought it would be great to have an interaction; in the perfect space for an amalgamation of craft and Fine art. It was also important to give equal respect to both, the master craftsmen and Pakistan’s leading contemporary artists and I thought a shared platform in this very contemporary glass structure.
In regard to the overall theme, the only concerns by the government were not to have abstract art, but something like calligraphy instead. I avoided figurative works.
For my curatorial team I requested Naazish Ataullah to help curate the Lahore-based internationally renowned artists, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid and Ali Kazim. For ceramics, I requested Sadia Salim to come on board and she designed and curated as well. Munawar Ali Syed coordinated the truck art mural for the Baggage Claim area, which was a collection of diverse techniques of truck artists from all across Pakistan. It was our largest mural spanning 550 feet..”
There were over 100 artists and master crafts-persons that contributed to the art project, many of whom had never worked on such large scale and yet rose to the challenge. All work was made elsewhere and installed in the airport except for a mural in the State Lounge- a Fresco using lime plaster, exquisitely painted by Ustad Rafaqat Ali and his team. When asked about her experience working with the government, Bilgrami acknowledged that though it was an up-hill journey, it was a great learning experience and she received great support from both the government sector and ARCORP who shared her sensibilities of witnessing local craft progress. Increasingly there is a hope that the country’s image also progress…
NJ: “I think it gives passers-by a huge insight into a more holistic and richer aspect of our country by having both our traditional heritage and our contemporary art on display. However, there are a few areas for improvement. Firstly, as the work is spread all across the airport, a passenger can only see the art on their route rather than the whole airport. Newsline has been commissioned to make a video of the art works, as well as interviews and footage of the artists and artisans at work in their studios and hopefully this can be played for larger audiences to view at the airport. The project was so challenging and exciting but sadly the works seem to disappear in the massive space of the airport perhaps more three-dimensional works need to be displayed. So, hopefully when things politically settle down, we will urge the government to get some more art works
I sincerely hope that apart from passengers, professionals would also see the contemporary use of traditional craft at the airport and eventually use them for their projects as well and with this kind of support hopefully our local crafts will flourish. Thankfully you can already see this happening with ARCOP commissioning craftsmen for their projects in Hyderabad. It’s bound to happen, maybe not immediately, but in a few years’ time; more and more will see and ultimately create an awareness of our heritage.”
It is vital that such projects continue to happen in Pakistan. Along with a group of like-minded colleagues, Bilgrami has formed the Pakistan Craft Council, which is a recent initiative that has been registered as a body and recognised by the World Craft Council to represent Pakistan. It is through this initiative that Bilgrami hopes to continue reviving the craft by, for example, urging the government to create a policy stating that all government-made building must incorporate traditional art.
- Interview with Noorjehan Bilgrami.