The art of the matter

Pakistani art publications are claiming their space on coffee tables, bookshelves, and in stores, e-shops and libraries. This new surge is in tandem with the changing face of Pakistani art and goes beyond earlier compilations of historical surveys and documentation of art and artists. Editions devoted to critical discourse on major art issues, supported by lavish visual reproductions of related imagery, log art in the public psyche thereby rooting it in the environment from where it germinates.


The current swell in art books translates as a mini boom in the light of a deficit spanning several decades. A 1954 Pakistan Publications edition, Art in Pakistan by Jalaluddin Ahmed, updated and republished in a bigger edition in 1962, and Ahmed’s monthly journal Contemporary Art in Pakistan (1960-64), surface as the earliest record of publications on Pakistani art. F.S. Aijazuddin reviewing the book in 1991 for Libas magazine states, “Ahmed’s pioneering introduction to the state of art in Pakistan up to the 1960s had covered the work of 60 painters whom he categorised not according to movements or schools — 15 years (i.e. 1947-1962) is too small a period for this”, Aijazuddin maintained — “but according to generations”. Another book with a different approach, sourcing past glory, tradition and reconstructive thought, A.R. Chughtai’s magnificently illustrated collection Amal-e Chughtai based on Allama Iqbal’s verses was self-published in 1968. Under the hammer at auctions, this luxury edition is now in the collectible publications category.


 Clippings of journalistic texts of the last three decades of the 20th century preserved in Fomma Trust’s Ali Imam archives reveal that art writing continued through the ’70s and ’80s in spite of a stark absence of major art volumes — (an art journal Artistic Pakistan by Bashir Mirza had a brief run from 1968-1971). Much later in 1991, the second widely known art book, Painting in Pakistan (Ferozsons), written by artist Ijazul Hasan, came on the horizon. Reviewing this compilation for Libas (in 1991), Aijazuddin observed that Hasan “has tried to see the subject in the historic continuity and in the context of the various aesthetic, cultural or ideological influences — instrumental in its fruition. His concern has been less with the artist, he admits, than with his work, for the ideas and intentions of an artist may largely influence what the artist creates but it is through the work alone that we must judge the artist.”


 Within a year, in 1992, another Ferozsons publication, Contemporary Painting in Pakistan by Marcella Nesom Sirhandi, also framing post-Partition art within a historical perspective, referred to the art of the ’70s outgrowing European influences and moving towards its own culture and identity. In art critic Amjad Ali’s Painters of Pakistan, printed by the National Book Foundation in 1995, leading painters were grouped into categories with an analysis of their styles. The jubilee year of Pakistan’s creation was marked by two publications. One was 50 Years of Visual Arts in Pakistan by Salima Hashmi and Quddus Mirza. Asia Art Archive cites it as “an experimental book which documents the thinking and the philosophy of the artists of Pakistan”. The second, a scholarly investigation of the history and development of modern and contemporary art in the subcontinent, Image and Identity: 50 years of Painting and Sculpture in Pakistan 1947-1997, an OUP volume, was authored by critic Akbar Naqvi. Unlike previous publications, contemporary sculpture was given due space and he devoted a chapter to women painters to capture the articulation of self and gender concerns in their art. In 1998, critic Niilofer Farrukh’s Pioneering Perspectives, a Ferozsons publication, was the first exclusive focus on three female artists — Scheherezade Alam, Nahid Raza and Mehr Afroze — whose work questions established conventions in a changing urban landscape.


 After the lapse of modernism the emerging post-modernist strains in art hit fertile ground in Asian countries in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The new game-changer art surfacing in Pakistan in the early millennium years (particularly the miniature renaissance) shared common causal forces of postcolonial flux, identity crisis, political tensions, religious constraints, socio-economic crises, gender inequities, ethnic strife, violence and state censorship, with other Asian countries. While Asian countries ushered in the era of radical art it was not they who defined and guided the new era into the future. Directional guidance was set by art curators from the West funded by wealthy museums and galleries. International survey shows of Asian art in Western art capitals and phenomenal worldwide growth of art fairs, biennials, triennials, residencies and spaces for experimental art exchange created a huge need for comprehensive, incisive introductory catalogues and books.


 Since domestic art text was nonexistent or inadequate the vacuum was initially filled by foreign curators and writers. Soon analysts began to realise that jet-setting curators lacked detailed local art knowledge, broader perspective and long-term impact of new art at home as compared to native writers who were part of the art milieu. This need kick-started the rise of local art book writing.


 Today books are necessary for the art milieu here because the international spotlight on edgy, subversive, politically-spiked Pakistani art and the emergence of globetrotting local artists exhibiting in foreign locales requires the presence of supportive, descriptive and analytical catalogues, monographs, and art books as representative and explanatory text.


 The growth of art schools and colleges in recent years, from Faisalabad to Multan, Gujrat, Bahawalpur, Quetta and Rawalpindi, has increased the number of art graduates who require art books for knowledge of national art history and the evolving nature of contemporary thought. Just how many have access to or are consulting local art books is another debate, but indigenous art writing is growing, and in various directions. Catalogues — simple or lavish, with soft or hard-bound covers — are by far the most in number. Monographs have gained currency and Pakistan now boasts some standout publications profiling master artists as well as established and mid-career ones. Tomes on contemporary art history, criticism and international interaction are far fewer in number but most are of a commendable level.


 The shift from traditional printing methods to the availability of new technologies has vastly facilitated art bookmaking and printing in Pakistan. Vexing problems of image sharpness, colour reproduction, bookbinding and above all book designing that once needed supervision are now considerably eased with the use of computerised formats and procedures.


 In-house motivation is another book-boom factor. In the early millennium years Fomma Trust’s publishing wing catalysed art book publishing considerably by emphasising the necessity for art books and then proving how doable it was. Functional since 2002, it was successful in organising teams of authors, book designers and printers, so crucial to book production. It is the only art book-specific publishing body in Karachi and has to date produced over a dozen monographs and contemporary art volumes. Essentially an art and culture repository, the Mohatta Palace nonetheless has some outstanding art publications like The Rising Tide, Jamil Naqsh’s A Retrospective, and Labyrinth of Reflections — The Art of Rashid Rana to its credit. The sentiment that Sadequain was larger than life gains admirable portrayal in their towering publication, Sadequain: The Holy Sinner, centred on his philosophy of mystic figuration.


 The role of art journals in expanding the art discourse was primarily initiated in 2005 by Nukta, an impressive contemporary art magazine; Nukta went out of publication in 2014. ADA (Architecture Design Art), published from Karachi, also gives generous space to art. Keeping in view the future of publishing, Nigaah, Pakistan Art Review (PAR) and Art Now are already operating as online art publications. Nigaah, in circulation since 2010, focusing largely on South Asian art, is also available as an affordable monthly print journal. Launched in 2011, Art Now and PAR are only accessible online. Catering to domestic and diasporic art audiences, all three feature art essays, profiles, interviews, reviews, studio visits, news items and updates from around the world.


 Art school, college and university publications, unlike before, now often have publicised book launches which garner critical reviews thus gaining advantageous projection and promotion. Born of Fire — Salahuddin Mian by Noorjehan Bilgrami is the first Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture publication about Pakistan’s first and foremost ceramist, published in conjunction with his retrospective exhibition in 2007. An early National College of Arts (NCA) publication, Intercultural Encounters in Mughal Miniatures: Mughal-Christian Miniatures (1995) edited by Khalid Anis Ahmed, is an informative book, dwelling on cross-cultural and artistic exchanges during the 16th and 17th centuries between the Mughal courts and the West. Khalid Iqbal: A Pioneer in Realism, written by Mussarat Hasan was the first book in a series on the leading artists and craftsmen of Pakistan being jointly published by the Research and Publication Centre of NCA, and Ferozsons. The story of Punjab University’s Fine Arts Department becoming a well-reputed College of Art and Design (CAD) is the latest among CAD publications. Their earlier 2012 production, Landscapes, Cityscapes and related Conceptual Paintings, was also laudable.


 Urdu art writing, cutting through the somewhat elitist hold of English art books, can make art comprehension far easier for a local readership keen on art. A member of the Urdu press, Shafi Aqeel pioneered this trail with his publications Dou Musawwir (2003), Chaar Jadid Musawwir (2006), Tasveer aur Musawwir (2007), Musawwiri aur Musawwir (2008), and Pakistan ke Saat Musawwir (2011). His contemporaries, artists such as Ozzir Zuby, Ahmed Parvez, Bashir Mirza, Kutub Shaikh, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Sadequain numbered amongst his personal friends. Penning art reviews since those early years, his books are a recount of the art climate of his times, with emphasis on the artists he knew personally. Urdu art writing is almost virgin territory and with Aqeel’s demise the trail has lost its initiator.



 Since the year 2000 a varied art book list catering to a diverse readership has been emerging. In a random mention of volumes that gained note at the time of their launch, Athar Tahir’s Pakistan Colours (2001) was visually entertaining. It concentrated on artists’ paintings of the many splendored vistas and venues of Pakistan. Salima Hashmi’s unveiling the Visible — Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan (2002) was a seminal publication surveying the last 50 years of women’s activity in the visual arts. The book captures the gradual shift in attitudes as her subjects move from an era dominated by women art educators towards their independent engagement with art as artists. A 2007 Pakistan National Council of Arts publication, Moving Ahead, merits mention because it was issued at the inauguration of the new National Art Gallery of Islamabad.


 The comprehensive, full-colour catalogue accompanying the first US survey exhibition, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan at the Asia Society Museum New York is another significant Pakistani art publication. Essays by distinguished contributors from a variety of fields, including Salima Hashmi, historian Ayesha Jalal, and novelist Mohsin Hamid, place contemporary Pakistani art in a cultural, historical, and artistic perspective. Buoyed by a steady issuance of some very striking monographs, catalogues and critical text in recent years, art book publishing can step up further if the readership index rises and books become easily affordable and obtainable. Art is relevant to the times it is produced in and art books give formal definition to this relevance. By informing, describing, critiquing and evaluating the artist and his art they take the reader far beyond the proverbial thousand words.

Published in Dawn: https://www.dawn.com/news/1197575


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