Interview with Mobina Zuberi – painter, art collector, and former gallery owner – conducted in Islamabad by Aasim Akhtar. Excerpts follow:
Aasim Akhtar: Let’s start at the very beginning. You have always nurtured a fondness for art, having dabbled in painting yourself. About twenty-four years ago, you realised your long-cherished dream of setting up The Art Gallery in Islamabad, to showcase, educate and create a discursive platform for the arts. Building an art collection, on the other hand, is a whole other commitment, altogether. What ignited the passion for collecting art?
Mobina Zuberi: I grew up in a house where art was constantly under discussion; where artists, writers and intellectuals would visit as a routine matter. My father was the principal of Islamia College in Calcutta. He became a great friend of Chughtai’s when we moved to Karachi in 1957. I was told that the very first art show I was taken to was Jamini Roy’s exhibition in Calcutta in 1946.
Being a professor, my father didn’t have much money but my mother would rather buy a work of art than jewellery from her savings. I remember her collecting old tapestries and Zain-ul-Abedin’s santhal maidens. Art was not anything unusual, and we used to take it in stride. When I got married and set up my own house, my mother gave me a Chughtai watercolour and a couple of etchings. When we were going to Lahore on honeymoon, we were asked to visit Chughtai who also gave me an etching of his as a wedding gift.
Interest in art was never a concentrated or conscious effort; it was part of our lives. My interest in painting came about as a result of my schooling in America where it was mandatory to take up art subjects. (When Ayub Khan came into power, my father was asked to resign from the post of educational advisor to the Government of Pakistan. He landed a job in the University of Iowa, Iowa City, as a professor of English). When my husband got transferred to the USA in 1967, it was a usual pattern of activity to visit art galleries in New York City.
But I never thought of building a collection; maybe, I was too young when I got married. I got a Shahid Sajjad panel as at wedding gift from a cousin. I remember going to Scheherezade Alam’s show of ceramics at the Arts Council, Karachi, in the early 1970s. I fell in love with her work, and wanted to get a piece or two: one for Rs.1200 and the other for Rs.400. My husband picked an argument with me over ceramics’ fragile nature, and we had a shouting match in front of everyone. I loved ceramics, owing to the fact that my mother used to collect pottery when we were growing up.
AA: Your collection has some of the finest examples of classical and modern works – how did you get about learning about the field? Was there a paradigm that you built your collection around or was it merely a passion?
MZ: Being a figurative painter myself, I was much attracted to the human form, especially the female figure. I have no interest in landscape, whatsoever. It’s true that I love travelling, and I love observing nature so much so that it tends to overwhelm me. But I’ve always felt that landscape painters do not do full justice to the awesomeness and vastness of nature. I don’t approach nature because I feel absolutely inadequate to paint it! As a collector either, landscape never attracted me; on the contrary, I would find the human form (and what you could do with it to express your feelings) far more exciting.
The classical collection is what my parents left me, comprising Chughtais, Jamini Roys and Zain-ul-Abedins. But I liked to collect Impressionistic figurative work by artists like Jamil Naqsh and Bashir Mirza. My passion was to get as many Naqshs as I could but I couldn’t afford that many, so I bought only two.
AA: How do you think your journey as a collector has evolved?
MZ: The first exposure came from the house followed by the desire to build up one’s own nest. It was from an exhibition at the Karachi Arts Council in 1966 that I bought the first ever canvas: a dreary and sombre painting of a tunnel in greys by a virtually unknown Bengali artist. For two years after my marriage I was in the States. Upon my return in 1969, I started buying art in Karachi from 1971 onwards but there was no concept of building up a collection per se. Around that time, I had started visiting Ali Imam’s atelier. (He had the gallery downstairs, called Indus in Nursery, PECHS). That’s where I bought a Jamil Naqsh self-portrait in 1972 for Rs.1200.
We’d often run to the gallery downstairs to take a peek at the new artists’ works. Imam was showing Lubna Agha and Mashkoor Raza around that time. As time progressed, I bought Tassadaq Sohails, F.N. Souzas, etc. I came across an Ahmed Pervaiz at a framer’s shop that I picked up for Rs.800 in Karachi, and so forth.
I had a cousin called Abid Zubairi who used to work for United Advertisers. He was a collector and had amassed plenty of Naqshs – which inspired me a great deal. It was in 1973 that a friend of mine and I decided to visit Naqsh through Z.A. Bokhari. Naqsh used to live in an upper storey flat on Tariq Road in those days. We were not allowed into the studio, so he had four paintings brought out. He asked me to choose one but I was too scared to ask for the price. (I was a young mother with no extra cash, and in order to make some cash on the side, I started teaching at the PACC). I sold a necklace with gold coin-like guineas hanging down a chain to pay Rs. 4500 for a Jamil Naqsh.
I remember Ali Imam introducing me to Fayyaz Sahab of HBL – one of the biggest collectors of art in Pakistan ever – who wanted to sell a Chughtai. And it was with Imam’s help that I bought an early Wahab Jaffer. The rest of my collection belongs to the days when I opened up The Art Gallery in Islamabad.
AA: Apart from being an art collector, you were a full-time gallery owner and a painter. How did these parallel practices inform your penchant for collecting art?
MZ: Wherever we travelled, we ended up assembling a group of artists of multicultural backgrounds to come together, especially in Abu Dhabi where we stayed between 1981- 85. There were two British artists: Pat Athey, an abstractionist and Susan Dakani, a traditional portraitist accompanied by Yuki Saotome from Japan, an Egyptian artist and myself, holding exhibitions at The Hilton, etc. In those days there were no private art galleries in the UAE as such, and even if there were, they were state-controlled. (One had to approach the Ministry of Culture that made sure the content of the work was not offensive to the local sensibility). My experience of hanging shows, getting groups together, organising shows, owes to my interaction with the artists there.
When I moved back to Islamabad, I decided to carve out a career for myself as an art gallery owner. I didn’t have to support myself and money was not the driving force. A lot of art was coming to Rohtas Gallery from Lahore, in those days, with fewer artists from Karachi showing here. Rohtas used to be in Faizabad, Rawalpindi, where I held my first professional solo show in 1983. Salima Hashmi had seen my work at Ali Imam’s Indus, and she had asked me for a show while I was still in UAE. Rohtas had already made a mark and carved a niche for itself. Two years after my return in 1985, I opened up The Art Gallery in Diplomatic Enclave, Islamabad, primarily with the aim of bringing in artists from Karachi. The first solo show held at my space was Sumbul Nazir’s.
AA: Considering how long you have been collecting, have your preferences changed over time?
MZ: Frankly speaking, when I started collecting art after I got married, I made a lot of mistakes – I got pressured into buying works from artists which I didn’t really like. I would succumb to the pressure from the artists. I didn’t have the self-confidence to know what I truly liked or how to say ‘no’ to anyone. So I ended up buying some minor works at low prices. As time passed one, one became wiser. We came to know Bashir Mirza when he had just completed The Lonely Girl series – around thirteen of them. We used to go to his atelier in PECHS in the evenings. On my 30th birthday, my husband got me a Lonely Girl from the same series.
After moving to Islamabad, I bought two Salima Hashmis and a Quddus Mirza. With The Art Gallery in the run for two years, I picked up a lot of work that I would exhibit: Nahid Ali, Mian Salahuddin et al. I must have bought Jamal Shah and Mehr Afroz from Gandhara Art, and Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s The Long March from Rohtas.
I have always bought Pakistani art. I relate better with subcontinental art, and had never had the desire to buy art from Indonesia or Australia, for instance. Maybe, at the back of my mind, was the thought that art from Pakistan will eventually increase in value since we live here.
I started to collect properly when I opened up The Art Gallery. A lot of work would pour in, and I would pick and choose work that I could relate to. That’s when I bought Iqbal Husain. I just didn’t buy because the artist is going to be big one day. If such were the matter, I would have bought an Askari Mian Irani for Rs.12,000!
AA: What personal philosophy informs the way you assess your art collecting practice?
MZ: I am drawn to the human figure, to figurative painting. The work should have intellectual depth, and should be shorn of decoration. It should push the boundaries, however subtly, either by way of daring application of paint or by sheer formalism. It should possess a mythical quality or carry an intellectual statement or merely a search for a clue. That’s what I look for in a work of art. My collection primarily comprises of paintings with a few lithographs, and even fewer pieces of ceramics.
AA: From your experience, what are the stages a collector goes through while putting together a collection of art?
MZ: There are two kinds of collectors: one is a ‘deliberate’ collector – a collector who puts his mind to having an art collection comprising of ‘must-have’ artists regardless of what they produce, good and bad alike. They want big names, and often begin with traditional Lahore-based artists, such as Ustad Allah Bux. That’s the only version of art they feel secure with because they don’t know any better. When it comes to modern art, especially the contemporary expression of the generation of 1990s and beyond, they get nervous because they do not ‘understand’ such art.
The other collector is the one who has evolved in maturity through time and age. He may pick up a work that may not be appealing in its early stage but as time moves on, he may develop an eye for it. He may get emotionally engaged with a work of art and gasp, “O! I cannot live without this work; I must have it as part of my daily routine where I can interact with it rather than have a gallery of big names on my wall”.
In Pakistan, a majority of collectors are still struggling including the younger generation who go with the conformist point of view. They feel comfortable with art which is not questioning or controversial but ‘safe’ and ‘easy on the eye’. The truth is that anybody with a keen eye and a genuine understanding of art will definitely go for the modernist expression. For instance, Sana Arjumand, who is a great painter. Conventional collectors may not consider her work art because it should either be laden with paint or painstakingly done, even though they may get tired of it staring back at them from the wall.
Ali Imam had been a catalyst in guiding collectors what to buy. The idea was to encourage people to own a genuine work of art than make an investment. The collectors were not confident enough to have an eye to discern between good and bad. I would say, Imam was the only one who single-handedly developed an awareness of art in Karachi. Lahore-based artists came to be known in Karachi mainly through miniature art.
AA: Where do you see your collection going? Are your daughters interested in continuing the collection you started?
MZ: Beginning with house-warming gifts, both my daughters grew up with paintings all around them. They have a sharp eye and a keen appreciation for the arts. Rather than buying jewellery and crystal, they too buy art. The younger one in Karachi has a new painting in the house every time I visit her. I have given two of the most prized artworks in my collection to my daughters: a Chughtai and a vintage Sadequain. Nowadays, instead of getting presents, I give away my paintings to my children from my collection.
AA: Is there any work that defines your collection?
MZ: A large canvas by Anwar Saeed titled Song to the Melting Ice Mount. The title borrows from one of the two figures in the painting enveloped in ice, perhaps symbolising melting away of inhibitions. I love the boldness of colours and the simplicity. I know it’s partly inspired by his African experience. The struggle with notions pertaining to sexuality is also manifest. It has all the elements in it that can declare a work of art adequately ‘provocative’.
Nowadays the market is so volatile that you can buy a work of art in the short run and make a quick buck. As a piece of advice to young collectors, they should buy from an artist when he is young and new. But they should be careful in shelling out money because of the risk factor: the artist might be a fly-by-night artist or he might be ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. With art school graduates today, you can’t even wait for a year before their prices escalate and become sky-high. That’s a dilemma that the youngsters face that we didn’t.
Aasim Akhtar is a visual artist, writer and curator. He lives and teaches in Islamabad.
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Interview with Mobina Zuberi
Interview with Mobina Zuberi – painter, art collector, and former gallery owner – conducted in Islamabad by Aasim Akhtar. Excerpts follow: