Nimra Khan: What was the motivation behind establishing this space and what do you hope to achieve through it?
Seher Tareen: The motivation behind COMO was to celebrate the contemporary and modern art of Pakistan and in doing so create a space for public engagement. The goal was to create museum going culture in Pakistan. We have a very strong art footprint in the region, both with our modern masters and contemporary artists. And though many have achieved global recognition I felt that it was equally, if not more, important to preserve and promote their work within Pakistan.
NK: How has your educational experience informed the actualisation of this project?
ST: I conceptualised the idea for a contemporary art museum in Pakistan while I was doing my masters at Central Saint Martins (University of the Arts London) in 2012. That academic experience and creative environment contributed to the conception of COMO. At the time I focused on art curation, with five artists from war zones in Pakistan, for my thesis. Working on that project laid the foundation for my immersion into the art community in Pakistan. The people I met along the way, artists, professors, writers, all contributed towards the actualisation of COMO.
NK: What made you decide to pursue art curation instead of the more popular and obvious route of art making?
ST: Art curation is my passion, it’s what I enjoy more than anything. Being an artist is a completely different ballgame. I’ve always said that just because you can draw doesn’t mean you’re an artist. Being an artist is a deeper calling. And so I have immense respect for artists. They are the archives of our times, they record the human experience in the most personal yet universal way. That is what makes people connect with art, the shared human experience of it. Not everyone has that gift.
NK: Tell us about the design inspirations for the building architecture and layout and a bit about the planning and execution process?
ST: I had a very clear vision for what I wanted from the COMO space; a white cube feel but with the quintessential ‘Lahore’ elements that would breathe life into it. I found everything I was looking for in this diamond-in-the-rough property a couple of years ago that transformed into the perfect space after a year-long renovation. Although it was a little run down to begin with, I knew it was the perfect space for the museum as soon as I walked in. It was designed by Nayyar Ali Dada in the eighties as a residential house but it had the bones of an art gallery.
In terms of specifics, we replaced the wooden fixtures like banisters and railings with glass, we knocked down multiple walls to create open galleries, one leading into another and we developed the rooftop garden which serves as an outdoor auditorium for talks, performances and events. Our current site also houses some of the most beautiful, colossal, old trees which we were careful to preserve. Overall the design philosophy of the space is white cube contemporary within a quintessential Lahore framework. The building itself has a very ‘old Lahore’ feel about it. I really believe this space was meant to be COMO!
NK: Will the space feature a permanent collection on display? Which artists and art works do you have in mind for this and why?
ST: For now COMO is an exhibition centric museum rather than a collection model museum. The fact that there is no commercial aspect to our shows, allows the artists great freedom of expression and gives us the liberty to exhibit boundary-pushing art. For the first couple of years we plan to focus on the strength of our shows. However we do plan to start acquiring a permanent collection as the museum grows. The wish list of artists for the permanent collection includes modern masters such as Bashir Mirza, Sadequain and Gulgee as well as contemporary powerhouses such as Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi and Hamra Abbas and so many more. Salman Toor’s ceiling mural at COMO (titled ‘Upside Down Party’) is the first art work in our permanent collection.
NK: Tell us about the inaugural show ONE and what you were aiming to achieve through it.
ST: The first show was critical, it was going to set the tone for COMO. I made a wish list of dream artists I wanted for the show. I had a personal reason behind wanting each of the artists, I had connected with each of them or their work over the years and slowly the list was assembled. It was an equal number of male and female artists. For me the six artists that became a part of ONE, were absolutely perfect for the show and their work came together in harmony perfectly. Rashid Rana, Risham Syed, Ali Kazim, Naiza Khan, Salman Toor and Saba Khan were a pleasure to work with and I’m forever thankful to them for believing in COMO and being our first artists. I titled the show ONE and am including a little note on what it means here: ONE “The beginning, the first, the only. A universal unit of singularity that can hold the concept of the divine. One is the paradox of the finite and the infinite. It is the start, the end and all that lies in between.”
NK: How do you think museums can shape the trajectory of art practices and aesthetic tastes in a country? Is this responsibility to represent and promote certain forms of expression something you consider in your curatorial process?
ST: I think museums, of all kinds, have the power to shape societal trajectories IF used in the right way. With COMO we plan to invigorate a strong partnership with the academic institutions in the city. Starting with schools and colleges, we hope to engage an entire generation of students with our collective art history and provide a platform for them to engage with contemporary art and artists alike. With the first exhibition at COMO, we held multiple field trips for school children and hosted talks and discussions with four of the six artists on display. And this is just the beginning.
NK: How was your experience working with the LLF, and what other partnerships are you looking forward to in the future?
ST: Working with the LLF was a delightful experience. Their support, with Razi Ahmed at the helm, has been invaluable to COMO. One of the first events we hosted at the museum (on the rooftop) was a LLF talk on Zahoor Ul Akhlaq. In the future we are looking forward to partnering with the LBF (Lahore Biennale Foundation) as Qudsia Rahim has been one our first and most important supporters to date.
NK: What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started working on this project up till the opening of the museum?
ST: The main challenge was the uncertainty of not knowing how people would respond to it. Since it was the first project of its kind, the unpredictability factor was huge. Having said that, I must admit, I had complete faith that it would not only work but it would thrive. I knew there was a vacuum in the city for something like COMO, a cultural hub where one can go to be inspired, to engage with art and just take it in. I suppose it can be challenging to believe in a vision so completely and try to convince everyone to believe in it even though it isn’t tangible yet. However most everyone I approached along the way to participate in the project in any way was very supportive. From the artists who were part of the first show, Rashid Rana, Risham Syed, Ali Kazim, Naiza Khan, Salman Toor and Saba Khan to Yasmin Khan and Zahra Khan of Cosa Nostra who set up a pop up cafe at COMO, to Aysha Raja who agreed to set up her bookstore The Last Word (which also serves as our museum gift shop). I am very grateful to all of them.
NK: How do you feel about the current state of museums and art collections in the country, especially on the state level?
ST: I think there is some amazing art hiding in private collections which I plan to show at COMO through a series of loan exhibitions. There is also some incredible art housed in public institutions, which I believe should see the light of day and be shown to the public. I don’t think there has been an emphasis on art and culture in the way that there should have been on a state level. However, this is changing with private endeavors such as the Karachi Biennale, the Lahore Biennale and hopefully COMO will be able to add to that culture shift in a substantial way as well.
NK: What’s next for you and for COMO?
ST: We have a calendar year of events lined up at COMO. I’m particularly excited about our next exhibition, SELF PORTRAITS IN THE AGE OF THE SELFIE. We held an open call for the exhibition as we wanted to include undiscovered and upcoming artists in the show and received hundreds of applications. That was very encouraging. That exhibition goes up mid-August! See you there!!!