With twenty odd years to its name, Canvas gallery in Karachi shows no signs of slowing down. Since it’s inception in 1999, the gallery has seen itself through four different spaces, innumerable exhibitions both local and international and has even recently ventured into setting up residencies for local artists.
Sitting down with Sameera Raja, the powerhouse behind the gallery, I was able to get a better sense of the space, its journey thus far and also the owner, herself. Sameera Raja is a trained architect from the National College of Arts, Lahore and after a few years of working back in Karachi she realised that the art she was accustomed to, the art that she had grown with in those four years of education was non-existent in Karachi, let alone to the Pakistani public. So in 1998 Raja began her extensive research, which included frequent trips to Lahore and in-depth conversations with her contemporaries and teachers listening to their concerns and understanding their responsiveness.
With all the gathered knowledge, Raja finally opened her first space on Main Clifton in 1999 and thus began the legacy. However after going through the first three spaces, simply redesigning an interior was just not enough; Canvas needed its own unique design catering to its specific purposes. Subsequently, just a mere 4 years ago, a new design was developed and built on the current ground that the gallery stands on today. The present-day space is a three-story building, with each floor sporting a different flavour. For the ground floor where exhibitions are held, two important factors came into play: light, hence the massive glass walls at the entrance so that an ample amount of sunlight can enter and second was view of the work. It was important that upon entering the gallery, the viewer was able to get a glimpse of as much work as possible in one go. The second floor, which holds the office and permanent collection of approximately 1000 pieces, was made to be more intimate, allowing clients time with the work at their leisure. The top room was kept bright and open as a space for fresh air.
Graduating from NCA proved advantageous to Raja. Her colleagues and teachers were receptive about displaying at the newly opened space. However, what was challenging was getting the public interested in what Canvas wanted to show. Raja recalls that their first space was located amidst a rather commercial neighbourhood and at that time, Canvas would quite literally have their doors open to anyone, even personally asking passers-by to come in and look at work. Though it wasn’t the easiest thing, it also wasn’t torturous; audiences would readily come in but it was more of a question of getting them to see something they were not accustomed to. To tackle this, the gallery showed work by many of Raja’s teachers who were all big names in Pakistani art such as, Colin David, Salima Hashmi, Anwar Saeed and Quddus Mirza, though they were sparingly in shown in Karachi in the past. These big names eventually attracted audiences and Raja would cleverly add in a few young contemporaries like Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi into the show, which meant that the audiences would have to see their work as well.
“And these were group shows of about 8 to 10 people with the whole point being to show work that hitherto had not been seen. My contention was always, its not that people were not responding but more likely that these people are, in fact, not aware of the artwork. However, by giving them something to be aware of, people are likely to respond. Nobody took the plunge before; its like putting your money on a horse that has not been packed which is very difficult for most people but I felt like it needed to be shown.”
Bringing something new and daring to a virgin market is rarely ever easy. Raja recalls that there have been countless hits-and-misses on her journey with regards to the audience and her clients but what was important was that they were finally receiving the exposure; “at least it got their minds thinking and that was what was important.” Eventually there was an understanding that the art coming out of Pakistan was on a spectrum; there was and continues to be an evolution in the contemporary practices that have been emerging and though it may be met with a friendly reception today, it wasn’t so, two decades ago.
Canvas was one of the first international galleries in the Pakistani art scene. Besides working with international galleries and receiving worldwide exposure, the gallery has been successful in bringing in curators from across the globe and exposing them to Pakistani art. There were times when diplomats came to Karachi solely for a stopover at Canvas and after spending a day engaging and learning about the artworks, would return on the next flight back.
Looking back, Canvas’ first international exhibition was with Aicon Gallery, New York. At the time, however, much against Raja’s wishes, Aicon insisted on holding a show of Pakistani’s masters instead of contemporaries like she suggested. Nevertheless, even this introduction to the art scene was important as a few years later, realising the potential, Aicon agreed to present contemporary talent and has been doing so regularly ever since. Alongside, Canvas has worked consistently with Grosvenor Gallery, London, participated in two Dubai Art fairs and has hosted copious international exhibitions.
Understanding the need for it, Canvas had recently begun sculpture residencies. Over the years Raja noticed that though three-dimensional art was growing, patronage towards this art was declining which resulted in the sculptors themselves resorting to two-dimensionality for sale purposes. To help, Canvas held numerous sculpture exhibitions and alongside, Raja supported upcoming artists by purchasing their work at thesis shows. Nonetheless, this was not enough; there was something that needed to be done and after years of witnessing the fall in sculptors, a simple opportunity arose and Raja was not going to let it slide.
One fine day, Raja received a modest table-calendar that read ‘Pioneer Cement’ from a client. Intrigued, she called up the client to find that he was in fact the owner and it was this conversation that got the ball rolling. With space and access to lodging, the space seemed perfect, and after a proposal and agreement with the company, the first Sculpture Residency Programme took place at Pioneer Cement Ltd, Khushaab on 31st March 2017. Since then, two more have taken place at Pioneer Cement and International Steel Mills Ltd. with another on the way. The residency provides a stipend and is a non-commercial programme so as to allow the artists to go into it with no holds barred and allow their imagination to take over.
Since its inception, Canvas has aimed at educating the public on new and contemporary art; starting the conversation in a welcoming space and after almost 20 years, the gallery continues to promote fresh talent. When asked how Raja decides which artists to display, she replied, “I look with my gut not with my ears, so if somebody is coming to me and saying to look at the work it’s amazing, I won’t think it’s amazing unless I look at it, and if I see something there, I will follow that artist…” The gallery has also participated, humbly, in innumerable charitable events such as benefits and fundraising.
With such diverse talent despite the lack of government support, Raja concludes that she cannot help but be blown away. Though, this talent probably wouldn’t have been even showcased today if one woman hadn’t decided to go into it, head first. Canvas has set a standard for other galleries to follow and in deed many have. Today more and more galleries have begun showing contemporary art further proving how important and impactful the existence of Canvas has been and will carry on to be in Pakistan.
 Interview with Sameera Raja
 Interview with Sameera Raja
 Interview with Sameera Raja