A 2013 visit to the National Museum of Pakistan in Karachi revealed an uncomfortable sight. At the central foyer of the Museum was an exhibition of photographs glorifying the Bhutto family, well known in Pakistan as a political royal dynasty. The artistic quality of these photographs was itself questionable, but more than that, the use of the entrance of the museum to announce so loudly such a thing was intriguing in itself. It showcased the importance of the role of this public display institution in showcasing art and its large influence as opposed to private display spaces.
That moment led to a range of questions – why are our public museums in such a dilapidated state? And who determines these display methodologies? In the absence of a larger body of art historical research, one has seen the current state of Pakistani art display to be limited to private collections and writing, with the state having almost absented itself from such a role. This is in contrast to India where some of the largest Pakistani art collections in private hands, such as with the Devi Art Foundation and the Kiran Nadar Museum are now displayed in museums, allowing a degree of access to the public. In the public realm itself, the national museum in Delhi was recently appreciated for an excellent exhibition of Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia. A similar art focus is present in Bangladesh, historically through the work of the Shilpakala Academy, the principal state sponsored national cultural center of Bangladesh.
The question then arises is why is it that in Pakistan, where art patronage has certainly not been limited and art education so foremost through the National College of Arts, Punjab University or Beaconhouse National University we have not been able to find a longer relationship to public art collecting and writing and dissemination that has continued to the present day.
Within our national history, we find a precedent to public art collecting. The Lahore Museum has over three hundred works of modern art collection. According to Sumaira Samad, director of the museum, this consciousness of collecting works of art was certainly part of the state patronage in the post-1947 era. At the time, B.A Qureshi, chief secretary of West Pakistan, and chairperson of the Museum recognized the need and led the effort of collecting works for the Lahore Museum. Some of the earliest works acquired were of Chughtai, whose role as a modernist within South Asian Muslim identity has been explored at length by Iftikhar Dadi and other art historians. Indeed, while it was the British Raj’s presence in the subcontinent led to the establishment of museums and most historical and classical collections of works, our postcolonial moment and the need to create a national identity led to a rise and awareness of national art forms.
A visit to the Lahore Museum and further discussion with the director reveals that while there excellent classical and historical collections, one finds, that in particular, there is an excellent collection of not only early Chughtais, but also Allah Buksh, Amrita-Sher Gil, Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali, Ahmed Parvez, Gulgee, Anna Molka, Salima Hashmi and more. Today, these names are a mainstay of our modern art scene, with incredible art historical research on these figures rapidly being disseminated into global academia.
Notably, records are absent as to how these works came into the museum. In addition to not being able to determine the provenance (although one can be sure that these works are genuine), their original cost, and the very question as to whether the state did indeed purchase these works, or they were otherwise donated is unanswered. We know that the last work was collected as late as the 1990s (a work of Tanveer Hassan).
While the art scene of the mid-century Pakistan was not as commercialized, certainly, as the contemporary era, it is surprising to find how many homes in elite areas of Karachi and Lahore have works by Chughtai Shakir Ali and other modern artists. Unfortunately, due to a lack of restoration practices, these and works in public collections are in fragile states. As Samad explains, “Restoration is highly technical – certainly many of the paintings require restoration but we are not touching them. We cannot think of restoration because of the lack of resources.”
A unique artist in this regard is Sadequain, whose large-scale murals make up many historic buildings in Pakistan. He was also patronized by the State Bank of Pakistan, which has some historic works on display at The State Bank Museum in Karachi. In addition to its collection of Sadequain, the State Bank also has an important work by Zahoor ul Akhlaq on long-term loan by Ava Cowasjee. It was one of the few instances where Dr. Asma Ibrahim worked long-distance with an international restoration expert team to facilitate conservation of this work and bring it up to standard for public view.
The Pakistani art market has indeed picked up significantly in recent years. Nour Aslam, who previously worked with London auction house Bonhams, explains that “it has to partially to do with the economy – but when you talk about collecting, people are only looking at the usual suspects. Sadequain, Bashir Mirza, Shakir Ali have done significantly well in the international market.”. She clarifies that most of the buyers willing to purchase these works are based outside of Pakistan. This is a clear indication that more local buyers are needed to retain some of our great works within the country.
She contrasts what is going on in Pakistan to what is currently at play in the Arab World, where rich Gulf elites are buying large number of works by modern artists but are opening their doors to more public access. Institutions such as the Barjeel Art Foundation has facilitated research on modern arab art through loans and large scale exhibitions, including in international museums such as Whitechapel Gallery. Similar processes are occurring on the other side of our border, in India. We have witnessed a rise in institutional shows and scholarship around Indian modern artists. A highlight in recent years has been the V.S. Gaitonde retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York and Venice. Recently, in Iran, a large group of international collectors visited Tehran for the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which was connected with rising interest in Iranian modern art, and the work of the contemporary Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Such a process allows for a more sustainable and long-term market to exist rather than raising hype around art from a region or period for short-term gain.
On the other hand, we are witness to a rise in number of galleries in Pakistan, especially in Karachi, long a hub for collecting in Pakistan due to its role as a financial powerhouse. While such a rise in the number galleries, leading to more competition and higher exhibition quality is welcomed in the market, again the buyers remain largely private, albeit in this case also resident in Pakistan.
It seems that perhaps we are making similar mistakes to ones made in the modern era: many artists are patronized, but the patronage remained undocumented, apart from efforts such as by NuktaArt Magazine, and others. There has been very little written on these collections, including those in such institutions at the Lahore Museum. For strong exhibitions and dissemination, these collections require research and documentation.
True sustainability and ownership of art in Pakistan will only come when there is further dissemination of art through public collecting, and outreach around them. For a cohesive art market to exist, one that is not facilitated through international buying, or indeed local private collectors, the importance of a strong, well curated and documented public art collection cannot be dismissed.
Aziz Sohail is Public Engagement Manager at Lahore Biennale Foundation and Visiting Faculty National College of Arts. Aziz recently profiled art collector Hameed Haroon.