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The Unkind Truth

by Aasim Akhtar

When the entrepreneurial artist Umer Butt founded Grey Noise in 2008, as a platform to promote younger artists working independently, it was hailed by some in the art world as a novel addition to the ever-expanding universe of private art galleries. Others dismissed the event as a publicity stunt aimed at self-aggrandisement with a door leading to the corporate dominion. But, three years on, its impact is hard to dispute. One doesn’t have to be an Umer Butt fan to see that enabling talented artists without dealers to represent themselves and to offer works directly to collectors and the public is a great way of cultivating fresh talent.
In the midst of the financial storm roiling the world’s economies, rumours flew that galleries were about to close. But some dealers figured out ways to stay afloat. And others forged ahead: Grey Noise simply buckled down and strategised. It participated in eclectic art fairs and cut back on bloated production budgets. Old Masters’ dealers took over the catbird seat, as a segment of collectors opted for the young and hip over the tried and true.
Never mind statistics when it comes to the surge of Pakistan on the world scene, look at the art market. Here, Umer Butt of Grey Noise, speaks to Aasim Akhtar about how taking advantage of slumping values and slackened competition to reemerge, a slightly younger generation of art aficionados has taken advantage while the nation’s billionaires have fallen off the map. Excerpts:
Aasim Akhtar: Grey Noise was borne of a new conception, a new agenda in art, about how art should be presented and eventually marketed? Could you tell us about those factors that gave birth to Grey Noise?
Umer Butt: I was introduced to the art scene in Pakistan in 1998 when I joined the National College of Arts, Lahore. It fascinated me, initially, but after three years in college I sensed a void – a deliberately constructed void. The transparency of love/hate relationship between an Ustad and a Shagird, the poetics of Lahore as the cultural hub of the country became cumbersome. I can’t recall seeing a single exhibition during my student years that could first engage and then sustain my interest.
I was lucky to travel extensively across Europe before joining the NCA, and each time I travelled, I wondered why the gallery space in Pakistan is so different in comparison to the ones in Paris or London? How difficult was it to create a white cube in Lahore or Karachi? Why were we hanging pictures with fish wire (what continues even today, just because you save 3000 PKR worth of paint and make the art work look dreadful hanging in mid-air!). These were some of my queries. I could not stop asking myself: Is it possible to make an art gallery, which represented experimental art that is unique and conceptually rich? It was possible, but since we are mediocre Pakistanis, we like to resort to short cuts!
Grey Noise operates with an ‘Angrez’ agenda (quite literally). It feels proud to exhibit sophisticated art in a made-to-measure installation space for each show that is hung. Grey Noise concentrates on a focused professional practice, which is often met with a raised eyebrow. Grey Noise is Pakistan’s first art gallery, which took artists to an Art Fair; looked at representing works beyond the ubercool, sensational miniature painting, which has very conveniently misled people to believe that that is the only true Pakistani Art!
AA: Given the crosscurrents in art making in Pakistan, how would you classify art in Pakistan? Is there a common thread among all the trajectories of art making that qualifies art made in Pakistan as ‘Pakistani?’
UB: I am thinking out loud! Let’s look back at how artists are made in Pakistan!
A vast majority of young enthusiasts line up to get admitted to drawing schools, found dime a dozen these days. What these schools do best is to try to make you draw like Leonardo da Vinci. And what these paid crash studio courses end up producing is:
a) Razor-sharp observational skills.
b) To draw from life without ever figuring out where the collar or the hip bones are, as models come wrapped in 2 metres of cotton cloth.
c) Rendering (a study of shade versus light).
d) Eventual obsession with the human form.
All the above keep re-emerging as constant themes in every undergraduate’s art portfolio in the final thesis project popularly called ‘self’, in the art jargon. Most themes in Pakistani art come from an intimate/ private source; it could be an object of emotional value in one’s closet, disturbed childhood, melancholia/ nostalgia, etc. Aesthetics as a concept around which narrative could be constructed, is also being widely addressed in the current art making process (which I personally find more engaging).
The debate of promoting regionalism through contemporary art practice is kind of boring. Let’s wake up to the fact that we live in the 21st century! This year, I saw some fantastic photographs by Jean-Luc Mylayne in ILLUMInations curated by Bice Curiger at the Venice Biennale. Mylayne mentions, quite aptly, in the catalogue that he “lives and works in the world”. Why always make work that proclaims who you are and where you are from?
AA: What parameters truly define and identify art from Pakistan – the vernacular, the Oriental sensibility, the post-colonial discourse, or something else? It appears that the personal and the private take on a secondary seat.
UB: Pakistani artists are terribly skillful. And that’s it! At times, that becomes a major obstacle for their egos to grow. (I think we have already discussed this syndrome in the answer above). After all, what is so ‘Pakistani’ in Pakistani art? I think, it’s naïveté. Conceptually, these art works are too honest and too precise. Notwithstanding how pretty a bomb or a missile can look in miniature format, it’s boring, isn’t it? Is that good enough? I don’t think so.
AA: Do you agree with the common notion that what catapulted art from Pakistan to international fame was miniature painting? Was it miniature painting that carved a niche for art from Pakistan in the global art market initially?
UB: Every connoisseur of art seeks a new visual trend or material or concept to live by. The new mantra, ‘miniature painting’ came to be known in the West in the early ‘90s. It was Shahzia Sikander who took formal education (in miniature painting) from the National College of Arts, Lahore, continued her art practice in the US, and eventually, researched the aesthetics of miniature painting at the post graduate level. She was bright, confident and could articulate her concerns with utmost precision.
She did represent herself as a ‘Pakistani’ in a few important exhibitions prior to becoming an American citizen. (I guess many took a much serious interest in miniature painting since it was unique, followed up by Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid who have also come a long way). They were probably among those very few artists who had galleries to represent their works, back in the late ‘90s. Both Imran and Aisha show with Corvi Mora, London. Tomasso, the gallery owner, did what gallerists are supposed to do: he took their works to the fair and introduced them to the world as “a third world country’s hidden gems”.
Miniature painting became the king: private collectors began to stock it for their December /winter vacation sales – perfect time to get a gift for a cousin’s wedding coinciding with the National College of Art’s Annual Degree Show – and hand-carry the precious wasli, and get it framed at a posh framer’s in London or New York.
By mid 2000s, a rising number of students were taking miniature painting as their major (without even knowing what it meant). All that they knew was that it sells and that it draws attention.
On the other hand, Rashid Rana gained some critical attention for his show at Peter Nagy’s Nature Morte in New Delhi, and at Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal’s Chatterjee and Lal in Mumbai. He became the voice of the new cutting-edge art movement, and of artists whose practice looked beyond convention in art making process. Artists like him were not making art for the sake of representing Pakistan. To put it abrasively, they were a selective breed of intelligent, aware, knowledgeable, and open-minded individuals who were not thinking money or cheap thrills, and were, instead, committed to inquiry and innovation.
AA: As a recent phenomenon in Pakistan, most business cards have gone from gallery assistants to curators. What does it take to become a curator?
UB: That’s a tricky question. If you look at the literal meaning of the word ‘curator’ it does create a blur. We have few museums and art galleries in Pakistan; they house permanent collections as opposed to rotational collections or they run a yearly-planned programme.
Curatorial practice is a relatively new venue, which is currently being explored, in visual arts. I guess ‘everyone’ is attempting to become ‘someone! In a much broader context, a curator is supposed to organise or put together an exhibition within a context based on a curatorial outline. I don’t know of many shows which present ideas like that here with the exception of a few: for instance, Poppy Seed in Karachi has been focusing on a curated programme; and the recent exhibition ‘The Rising Tide’ at the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi, was curated by Naiza Khan. Quddus Mirza has also curated a few exhibitions. These ideas are loaned out to the international circuit by a few ‘curators’ we have in the country, as the international art market demands a curatorial premise to hang a show on. When it comes down to Pakistan, we just doze off.
I think it’s rather engaging to see how an individual or a group puts together a show and creates some conflict of interest among the works exhibited. Of course, I detest bookkeepers and archivists given the title of a ‘curator’. It’s just insignificant and lame.
AA: Do you agree that most buyers, collectors and investors in the contemporary-art field are enthusiasts rather than experts? Should they be educated?
UB: Collecting art comes with varied interests: some collect with a passion for collecting while a majority of collectors like to flaunt or throw a few blue-chip names hung in their door-to-door, colour-matched living spaces. Buying art is a luxury: a good work of art comes with a big price tag. Gallerists from all parts of the world work with private and public collections. They direct, and educate on what to buy and why. It’s part of my profession to educate the collector about my artist, and why he should invest in his/her work.
I work with some wonderful people who have been regularly consulting me. I am not a cloth merchandiser; I know my collector is passionate and I can’t fool around with him by escalating prices. One has to maintain a long-term relationship with keen buyers, and, whenever possible, educate them about various means of art collecting.
AA: How about inexperienced collectors (read nouveau riche) – what are the challenges of working with someone just starting out?
UB: This breed of collectors is found in abundance in Pakistan, unfortunately. I think I know my threshold; I would give it a try but not push it too hard. I’d like to save up some energy – let them buy what they like (if at all). I am an art dealer – I sell art of fine quality, which is rather rare to find in Pakistan. And I can prove it! Selling art is not a joke. At least, I don’t look at it as an overnight money-making venture.
The irony is that I don’t see many seasoned collectors of Fine Art, especially contemporary art including 3-D and new media, in Pakistan. This is a rather new phenomenon – to collect art. We are all part of this new-fangled market, let’s face it. I don’t hear of a trend of buying Pakistani art in the ‘60s or the ‘70s.
I would like to educate an upcoming collector on what to secure and why. That is the ethical part of my profession, to gain mileage for my future relationship with the same individual.
There will always remain a market for those who buy a work of art not for its longevity but to fill a wall with yet another ordinary work.
The artists who I represent at Grey Noise are curious, intelligent and indulge an open-ended art practice. They innovate rather than just make art. If someone inquires about them, we are glad to direct him, keeping in consideration the aesthetic level they can relate on, and understand.
AA: After the softening of the stock market in 2007 and 2008, people gravitated toward the art market, which was relatively strong, because they saw the returns that art was bringing. The media also fuelled that. The feeding frenzy began, and people who were not traditional collectors came in. What is your take on this phenomenon?
UB: It’s only natural – another opportunity for the money-minded to explore another situation. It’s a temporary fever. I don’t care about trends and would rather spend time with collections/ collectors who are seasoned.
AA: What do you say to a client who is holding on to some works by an artist whose prices have become significantly inflated either because he (the artist) has sown his wild oats or is about to kick the bucket?
UB: I don’t work with investors! I have only worked with a few collections, both private and public. And I have yet to represent blue-chip artists. So I am not much experienced in the auction circuit. I’d let the buyers decide what they want to do with their art, but a smart brain would always test the water before diving in.
AA: Is money the only barometer of evaluating art?
UB: It certainly is important, in many ways. I am speaking in the context of running a commercial art gallery space here. One can evaluate the content to start off with. There have been various instances when I was sure that the work would gain some critical mileage, even if it is priced low or is apparently of no value. Grey Noise represents quality not quantity. It might be a while before I start saving up and making profits!
AA: The practice of signing up particular artists, and taking their work overseas with a marked escalation in the price structure is synonymous with hegemonising art. On the one hand, art is being monopolised while on the other, artists are being singled out as exclusive and hard-to-touch even with the long pole. How do you justify the motto: Art is for the select few?
UB: This is a rather touchy affair, at least, for me. There is no such motto! I am the one who introduced the idea of ‘artist-representation’ at Grey Noise, and it took me three solid years just to establish a relation with my artists. It’s simple! Commit to a gallery and it will take care of the commercial side of affairs while the artist can do what he/she is best at: making art.
It’s a precious relationship; one works hard to make the artist’s career – invest time/money in him, and then offer him a visibility in the art world. That’s what I have been trying to achieve for the past few years. There are ethics and means to approach a gallery if one is keen to exhibit one’s chosen artist. Unfortunately, such ethics do not exist in this country.
I have no reservations vis-à-vis sharing my artist’s work with other galleries, but I have the right to investigate how the work will be shown and under what context it’s going to be promoted. I am investing my life in making these exhibitions look international but for others the interest in work ends only with sales and in making 30-35% commission on each.
AA: Looking at art in an art fair is perhaps not the ideal way to look at art. A spectacular booth doesn’t quite compare to a good exhibition. You have no context in which to make assessments of new work. There seems to be a difference between art-fair-art and exhibition-art. One is a marketplace; the other is a cultural event. Is art-fair-art sort of a filler?
UB: Art fairs are kind of made-to-measure these days. Some focus on quality and a strict selection process while others just say ‘yes’, and demand the first installment (which can be anything between 3000 USD – 5000 USD, and more money to follow) without even giving you a day to get over your acceptance. Now, the gallery has to decide where to go. Actually, it’s wiser not to expect a curated booth at a fair: it offers polished frames and suitcase-sized artwork to go! But, I wouldn’t call it a filler of any sort. Art Fairs are networking grounds for professional galleries. One is bound to find work of one’s taste among the thousands exhibited.
Art fairs represent an aesthetic and bring together diverse visions to a four-day slumber party. I don’t know if I should call them a ‘cultural event’. The word ‘culture’ has its own complexities, and let’s not discuss them here. To date, I have only participated in two fairs. I think I have a lot more to explore. We are representing Pakistan at Artissima in Turin, Italy, in November 2011 (our first European art fair participation), and I am looking forward to it.
AA: Why should galleries continue to do fairs?
UB: I guess to exchange ideas and/or aesthetic trends of art works and artists represented in booths than merely representing their country of origin. Fairs are a meeting point for collectors (who fuel our business), curators, and museum representatives seeking new talent and fresher vision. Art fairs are a perfect setting to gauge business plans through networking skills, and to make a quick buck on the side, to be honest.
AA: How important is the critique for an artist or a gallery owner. How does it help shape or break an artist’s career? Why has the written word about the artist become almost indispensable for catalogue making?
UB: To be apt, a critic voices or, at times, strengthens the artist’s point of view that he aims at achieving through his work. To my knowledge, it’s essential to be written about in every discourse and dialogue, such as the interaction between the viewer and the work, why it’s exhibited and where it’s exhibited, etc. It is intriguing, and has fascinated people to express their sentiments.
A good critic would back his/her writing with facts and figures while addressing the reader. A good critic observes beyond the palpable, and sees what is there to be seen in an artwork. Reviews and criticism bring the artist’s practice to a wider notice.
A ridiculous example, on the contrary, is Gavin Turk’s Degree Show entitled, ‘Cave’ at the Royal College of Art, London. He flunked the thesis, but White Cube Gallery signed him up and Charles Saatchi bought that blue heritage plank.
Also, at times, one does not get to see everything until and unless it’s written about (Not in case of our country. I’m particularly referring to a bigger art world scene like Berlin or New York). Gallerists starve for a good review or even a mention in the local news media.
Catalogue texts can be dealt with in many ways. Some are rather descriptive and some abstract. Eventually it’s a collaborative project between the artist, writer and the gallery. These are documents which act as an archive for researchers and as, in my case, an aesthetic object. Sometimes words have a greater power to convince than visuals.
– See more at: http://www.artnowpakistan.com/articles.php?article=The-Unkind-Truth#sthash.gFb8jYHs.dpuf

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