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The Summer Show- A Lesson in Pakistani Art History

Canvas Gallery in Karachi exhibited The Summer Show, with works by prolific artists from Pakistan belonging to different generations, decades, and artistic styles. Taken from the collection of Rehana and Shakil Saigol (Shakil also paints) and curated by Hameed Haroon, these modern and contemporary works act like windows into the past where watercolours bring landscapes to life, abstraction eventually leads to conceptualisation, and miniatures offer a sneak peak into the past of the Indian subcontinent. It is vague however, the criteria upon which these curated works are selected from Saigols’ collection; in fact, works by giants of the country’s art industry almost diminish in their visual appeal with clumpy set up on the walls, dissimilar art styles placed next to each other, and almost inadequate lighting in the gallery space.

 

A lesson in art history, The Summer Show will offer the viewer (and the collector) individualistic works by some of the best from the country that stretch from the 50s till today; bold nudes from Anwar Saeed, calm birds in Jamil Naqsh’s, ideal landscapes from the South Asian painter Ustad Allah Bakhsh, Anna Molka’s expressive pastel portraits, Naiza Khan’s emotionally-stirring diptychs, and Imran Qureshi’s contemporary miniatures. Consider Molka’s Portrait- 1: made with pastel on paper, the drawn figure of a local man gives us a front view that is tilted a little to the side. Red, yellow, and blue pastels highlight his features and attire as he gazes somewhere in the distance, avoiding direct gaze with the viewer. Anna Molka (1917-95) headed the Fine Arts department in Punjab University in the late 40s, a role she continued after Pakistan’s inception. Formidable, yet subtle, Molka’s pioneering portraits of men (and women that are not a part of the show but greatly inform her career) allow a deep sensitivity to peek through that is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s expressive style in portraits. More works by renowned Pakistani art masters include works by Jamil Naqsh Pigeons-1 and 2 (1990), Mian Ijaz-ul-Haq’s pen and ink sketch of textured tree barks Cedars at Darya Sahi (1981), and Khalid Iqbal’s Landscape (1988). Nahid Raza’s Untitled (1992) is a luxurious, stylized, and semi-abstracted side profile of a woman; the rich colours from the painting reflect Raza’s dexterity with medium.

 

Notable contemporary works include Red Net Captives-4 (2012) and When Happiness Hurts (2010) by Anwar Saeed that comment on the unobserved fragility of the male body that is often rendered invisible and related gender dynamics in a sexually restrictive society. Completing the commentary on gender, internationally renowned artist Naiza Khan’s drawing Exhale (diptych) (2004) is a fierce attempt at reflecting restrictive norms on women, as the monochromatic work expresses the artist’s ability to pack the medium with new meaning. Other artists in the show include Jamal Shah, Khadim Ali, Khalid Iqbal, Moeen Faruqi, Mohammad Ali, Noorjehan Bilgrami, Quddus Mirza, R.M. Naeem, Sumaya Durrani, Tassaduq Sohail, Ustad Allah Bakhsh, Waqas Khan, and Zulqarnain Haider.

 

The Summer Show is mostly for collectors, offering them a preview of unique, scandalous, and valuable works of Pakistani artwork. As suggested in collector Rehana Saigol’s statement released for the show, some of the displayed works were put on sale as the owners might have run out of storage space. This offers us a perspective, what are the criteria that collectors follow to choose in determining which work to sell? While the works per se pack a punch, viewing a miniature by Qureshi next to the serene white birds of Jamil Naqsh quashed together did not help the viewing experience. Similarly,

 

highly expressive works by Anwar Saeed that reflect on male nudity and sexuality were chosen to be displayed in the corner of the gallery space that almost reduced the artistic merit that is associated with the artist’s works. Does this affect the commercial value of works; perhaps controversial ideas are best left almost hidden for selective collectors while landscapes and portraits fetch the most buys? And finally, does commercialisation entail a bad, clumpy curation?

 

The show is recommended to anyone—collector or art lover—as an insight into the works of Pakistani grand masters, that are rarely taken out of a collector’s home for public display.

 

The Summer Show ran at Canvas Gallery from June 18th to 27th, 2019.

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