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Memoirs of Art in Pakistan

by Sajida Ali

Marjorie Husain is an integral part of the Pakistani art scene on several levels: artist, art critic, curator, writer and documenter, lecturer, a close friend of the art community, and a dedicated patron of Pakistani art. She has been a constant on the art scene for four decades now, and shares her memories of the history and evolution of art in Pakistan.

Marjorie and her husband were both art students, and when they moved to Pakistan from the UK in the sixties, it was natural for them to land in the local art community. Art and artists speak the same language and have the same culture across the world and she felt she had come home.

“Those were interesting times,” she recounts. “There was vibrancy and a palpable energy running through the art world - a small and talented group with a distinct individual style. There was Jamil Naqsh, Saeed Akhtar, Masood Kohari and Bashir Mirza. And there was the Lahore Group. The young emerging talent painted with a passion and sold art for a bare minimum.” Marjorie remembers two students in the Lahore of Shakir Ali who were ‘officially’ studying engineering to please their families, but were actually studying art. It was two years later when their work won acclaim that their families found out they were artists and not engineers. 

In the late sixties, Marjorie joined the printmaking workshop organized at PACC by the well-known American printmaker Michael Ponce de Lyon in which local artists were exposed to print making for the first time. Twenty year after independence the dust was settling on the country. Karachi was the capital, and it started shaping up with smart new offices and buildings. People were making beautiful homes and wanted to decorate them. Suddenly there was a market for art.  Young foreign ambassadors and consuls would host ‘art’ parties where artists were introduced to society and their work sold. Many artists including Bashir Mirza and Masood Kohari made their debut in these parties.

In 1965 Bashir Mirza opened the first commercial art gallery at Kutchery Road in Karachi. When he moved to Germany in search of a lost friend, The Gallery relocated to SMHS and urged by the artists, Marjorie took it over for a year in 1970. Many now renowned artists such as Colin David held their first solo exhibitions here. This was just before Ali Imam set up the Indus Gallery in 1971. Karachi became the hub for the art market; Lahore caught up later and slower. 

After a brief stint at PTDC in her desire to discover the country, Marjorie continued with curating shows. “At that time you curated artists, not their work and it was called arranging.”

In those days the circle of art critics who wrote for the papers was a closed society. As the Editor of Daily Newspapers, Sultan Ahmed dedicated a lot of space to art reviews.  Amjad Ali and Hameed Zaman were also established writers. Marjorie appreciates the support she received from the women in the media. Najma Babar encouraged her to write for Dawn’s Tuesday Magazine in the 90s. She wrote for Zohra Karim at She, and for Fawzia Naqvi at Zameen. Her articles were also published in The Star and The Frontier Post. Marjorie has been writing for over three decades now.

Besides writing art reviews, Marjorie is also passionate about cataloguing and archiving art and artists in Pakistan. “There was a great dearth and urgent need for information on Pakistani art and artists. There were no museums, no informative books, no research material and very little documentation of the local talent. Even till recently, art students could not find research material on a master like Chugtai.”

It is obvious that the painstaking documentation and research is a labour of love in memory of her friends. Her art books are mostly documentations of the artists’ art work and life and times. She has written on Ali Imam, Ahmed Parvez, Jamil Naqsh, Bashir Mirza, Anna Molka Ahmed, Rabia Zuberi, Iqbal Hussain, Colin David, Jimmy Engineer and Nahid Raza. Her book Artviews: Encounters With Artists in Pakistan is a compilation of her published articles on more than forty Pakistani artists.

Since Marjorie was a walking document on Pakistani art, she would often be called by local schools to talk about art and her personal encounters with almost all of Pakistan’s great artists, their stories, examples of work and other related information. There was no textbook for Pakistani art students and panicked students would call her up for tips before their exams. In 2001, Marjorie’s Aspects of Art, which combined both Western and Eastern history of art, was published by OUP. The book has been translated to Urdu and caters to graduate and undergraduate students and even basic art students.  To date it is the only art textbook in Pakistan.

“It’s sad that a lot of art students neglect their own art history. They may know all about Rembrandt and Cubism but they don’t know much about their own art evolution and how it developed. Not many students know about the very important role of the `Lahore Group’ that started in the 50s, or Professor Shakir Ali who set the benchmark for local art and came up with new techniques and styles, and Mariam Habib, a fine painter who was the first woman to write about art and paintings.”

Marjorie is part of that history. She travelled frequently to Lahore and would go straight from the Lahore airport to NCA to meet Shakir Ali and the art fraternity, including Saeed Akhtar, Ahmed khan, and Colin David. She would often visit other artists with Saeed Akhtar, travelling on the back of his motorbike.

She empathizes with the artists who gave so much of themselves for so little. “It’s not an easy life to lead, and it’s especially difficult to continue when you expose your innermost to the public and they reject it - you need encouragement to keep your passion going.”  She appreciates Wahab Jaffer’s role in this context. “Wahab did not buy art for investment; at that time art was a fledgling and no one knew who would be famous. He bought art to keep art and artists alive and going. In the end he had bought so much that his wife had to put her foot down and he had to give away the overflow as gifts to friends. He offered his entire collection of Ahmed Parvez to the National Art Gallery in Islamabad, with the condition that they dedicate a room to Parvez, but surprisingly no one took up his offer of a gift of a room full of valuable paintings.”

Marjorie Husain’s art reviews also seek to promote art with her distinct style of critiquing. She does not analyze the art; in very simple language she only explains what the artist is doing. Her aim is to tell people go see the art and perhaps buy something that may appeal to them if possible. Another distinction is that she is not elitist. She reviews the work of masters and students, from renowned and unknown art schools, in the same tone. “Art is an inherent talent,” she explains. “You can’t teach talent. Jamil Naqsh, Sadequain and Gulgee were all self-taught; Jamil Nqash’s recent exhibition at Albemarle received glowing reviews. Shahid Sajjad would say that all one needs is six months in an art school to get to know the technique, the brushes, the media, the chemicals, the process, and then the rest that is needed for success is talent.”

When asked about the current prominent artists, Marjorie is her usual tactful self. “There are too many artists to mention. There is so much talent now, and one has personal preferences that tie up with the individual's experience. Art has expanded considerably. There are a lot of schools and galleries and institutes with varying degrees of talent, and sometimes even a mediocre piece can also sell for a great amount. Nonetheless the growth is appreciable.”

Although she continues to promote art unwaveringly, her respect for the art pioneers is obvious. Her friends are displayed through the art on her walls. Her friends and memories are displayed through the art on her walls. She points them out not as investment or décor, but as fond mementos of her dear friends: “There’s Anna Molka’s painting from the time when she was not well and would go out in the evenings for therapeutic painting. These are the works of Colin David and Jamil Naqsh and water colours by Quentin Blake who coordinates with my brother in London on the Nightingale project. The red chair is one of my own paintings.”

 

Another of Marjorie’s paintings is displayed at the Lahore Museum. “The painting is a portrait of a friend who was in Karachi, in the early 70s. I was interested in painting portraits in that style in those years.  It was with Jamil Naqsh, who liked it a lot, and eventually gave it to the Museum.” 
Marjorie Husain. Untitled.Oil
on Canvas. 28 x 18

Art is a part of Marjorie’s family. Her brother and a sister are also painters, and there is a claim of relationship to Gustave Doré.  Her own painting took a backseat when she became engrossed by the art activity around her. “To be a full time artist, you need drive, time and focus. You have to give up a lot to be a painter. Nahid Raza is a prime example of a woman’s struggles and success in the field of art. Without neglecting family or home she has been immersed in the creative process and has travelled from art student to national award winning principal of an art school.”

Marjorie continues to promote Pakistani art and her initiative on three distinct tiers has made local art a dynamic movement: her accessibility and approachability to the media, public, academics and artists; her understanding of the audience and the market – she promotes art in a simple language devoid of arty jargon and weighty terminology that would leave most in the dark; and her inclusive love, encouragement and ownership of the art and artists in Pakistan.

In 2004 Marjorie was awarded the Fatima Jinnah gold medal in recognition of her role in the promotion of Pakistani art.

 

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