Canvassing for Art: Sameera Raja
"I am not just a businesswoman; I am also a promoter of art. I exhibit works because I believe they are important examples of creative expression – commercial success is not the factor that should judge good art."
For the past fourteen years Sameera Raja, the director of Canvas Gallery, has been contributing to the development of Pakistani art in more ways than one. Her gallery in Karachi, the commercial and industrial capital of the country, focuses on the new art of Pakistan, especially by modern and contemporary artists. In this course, her gallery displays works of cutting edge nature and experimental quality – ranging from digital prints, installations and video installations.
Sameera graduated as an architect from National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1991. After some years of architectural practice, she founded Canvas Gallery in 1999. In the span of fourteen years, she has had a visible influence on Pakistani art and has extended her scope of work in an effort to move beyond the mere act of selling or exhibiting art items. She has collaborated with a number of galleries in USA, UK and the Middle East to promote the contemporary art of Pakistan. Recently, Sameera participated in a conference on Pakistani art in the US and presented different aspects of new practices from this country. Besides contributing to various auctions and art fairs around the world, she also provides services and advice for authenticating and locating works of important painters and old masters of Pakistani art.
Through her gallery Sameera is determined to transform people’s current perception of art as merely a visual pleasure or an accessory to match their furniture, curtains and carpets, or even as an investment. She would like people to view art as a testimony of its time. To create this awareness she takes risks by exhibiting a lot of young artists as well, and not just those who are well-known or commercially viable, because she believes in their works. It is a way to convey to the viewers that art has the power to transform ideas about life and an understanding of the world.
The institution of art gallery is a tricky one for an idealist like Sameera, because on the one hand it aims to promote high quality art, but at the same instance it sells works of different kinds. On the issue of maintaining a balance between the two, Sameera reflects, “I am not just a businesswoman; I am also a promoter of art. I often exhibit works because I believe they are important examples of creative expression, even if they may not sell. Commercial success is not the factor that should judge good art. If one exhibition is not a financial success, it doesn’t matter, because the other one will be; if something is not sold today, it will be sold tomorrow or day after. People need time to look at, understand and appreciate new art, and we try to provide that occasion and opportunity.”
In her attempt to move beyond the mere act of selling or showcasing ‘commercially viable’ art items, Sameera works towards bringing together artists from various parts of the country. She encourages young talent and also promotes well-established artists like Anwar Saeed, Iqbal Hussian and Ijaz ul Hassan, who exhibit here regularly. Some of Pakistan’s most prominent names such as Huma Mulji, Risham Syed, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Mohammad Ali Talpur and Khadim Ali started their career at Canvas. Sameera’s inclusive and yet analytical approach has helped define and shape the contemporary art of Pakistan.
Canvas Gallery, Karachi.
On the present Pakistani art scene, Sameera shares: “There is an increasing awareness of the role of art in our society, and internationally too one can see a growing interest in Pakistani art. People are beginning to realize that there is such a thing as Pakistani art, and its future has immense potential. Since there is a lot of competition in the international art market, in order to get an exhibition abroad one has to show a great deal of professionalism. Our artists participate in a number of international exhibitions, solo shows, biennales and triennales, and this exposure and opportunity has made them more professional. This has also made them become conscious of the fact that they are not the big fish in a tiny pond but a small part of a larger picture, which is probably a better position.”
How does a gallery make its choices when it comes to exhibiting fresh art graduates? Sameera find the difficult task an enjoyable exercise. “I follow individual artists’ progress and visit their studios; it is all part of staying abreast with the art scene. After my research, I usually give one exhibition to new artists on the basis of their degree show. If they perform consistently, it is a sign of quality. It means they are not just working, they are evolving.” It is not possible that if an artist creates 15 works, all of these will be great pieces of art, Sameera observes. No artist can guarantee that, not even the prolific Picasso, but artists should not feel pressurised by galleries to exhibit all works produced as this sometimes bears negative results for everyone involved.
Canvas Gallery is a well-known venue for showcasing and appreciating art. The reason behind this success is Sameera’s thoughtful, pleasant and positive attitude towards artists and art in general. Many artists feel at ease dealing with her because they have come to realize that behind the smart businesswoman there is a sensitive person who understands, responds to and cares for them and their activities – art!♦