Valuing art

August 21, 2022

The group exhibition at San’at Initiative included artists from a range of professional standings, pictorial strategies and conceptual issues

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t is rather odd that rooms for showing art on a commercial basis are not called showrooms, but galleries whereas places to sell vehicles, building material and furniture are usually called showrooms and not shops. In general usage, shops display and sell books, toys, clothes, accessories, medicines, weapons, electronic goods, hardware items, convenience products, hosiery, grains, fruits, vegetables and groceries. The products are numerous and may be small, large, cheap, expensive, affordable, local or imported.

Galleries, showrooms, shops, stores, stalls and online websites all represent middlemen. They getting a product from the manufacturer, provide the venue for marketing it and dispose of it while making a commission, cut, margin or profit. Yet the difference in the nomenclature of these sales points is crucial.

Imagine a man or a woman who, in the duration of a single day, visits an art gallery to collect a painting; goes to a car showroom to select the latest model of a certain make; drops by at a fashion outlet and picks up a few dresses; enters a furniture place and chooses a sofa set; finds a pharmacy and gets prescribed medicine; stops at a corner shop and buys a pack of milk, a bar of chocolate, a crate of cold drinks; spots a vendor to order two dozens of bananas and 3 kilos of mangoes; clicks on a website and purchases six pairs of socks from an international chain. The same person behaves differently on all these points of commercial transactions, even though everywhere a similar business takes place. Selling and buying.

The varying attitude of a consumer for his diverse needs is important to understand the way an art gallery is not a (framer/ furniture) shop, an expensive showroom, a designer’s outlet, a cosmetic store etc. It is the value of items on sale that distinguishes a gallery from other commercial joints. The worth of artwork on offer is determined in more than one way. Like its imagery, content and meaning, its monetary value is also unclear and subject to change. A gallery deals with objects that have a better resale value than most other items in the market. You may buy a grandiose car, an expensive mobile phone, a luxurious wedding dress, a pair of designer-shoes; the moment you own them, they become ‘second-hand’, hence of lesser price.

There are of course some like jewellery, currency exchange shops and the stock market where your possessions might increase in value. In antique shops, older stuff is likely to fetch a bigger price. (The paradox is brilliantly illustrated by the joke: A tourist comes across a Buddha skull at an antique shop and asks for its price. Finding it unaffordable, he asks for something cheaper and is offered a smaller Buddha skull for half the price. “When Buddha was a child,” explains the salesperson.)

Works of art are not necessarily valued on the basis of their connection to the past, or for representing the present or the future (like the latest model of a car, computer or other gadgets). They exist in an air of doubt, and a bit of love. Ideally, marketing art is among the rare activities conducted as an intellectual, emotional, personal and friendly endeavour. Because what a gallerist offers to a collector is not just a piece of paper, a length of coloured fabric, a block of carved wood, an object cast in plaster, resin or metal but also an idea that cannot be pinned down to a ‘price’. Ideas, like birds, fly to undetermined altitudes and directions, reach unknown locations and land in unfamiliar places.

The Fixed Price exhibition at the San’at Initiative, one presumes, was also a way to reassert the worth of an artwork beyond that of some tableware, a cabinet, a decoration piece or a second-hand bed, for which haggling and negotiation precedes the final deal. We are so used to buying and selling stuff in our daily routine, that we often treat artwork no differently than a pricey bag, a necklace or an expensive dress that must be acquired after a reduction and a discount. In curating this show, Abid Merchant, the co-founder of San’at Initiative, “reflects on his experience of the last eight years running a commercial gallery in Pakistan”.

Even if the meaning, content or context of an art work is not precisely determined, one realises that Abid Merchant, like many other gallerists, hopes that works of art are not negotiable products in a shop. One must respect the amount determined by the artist, because accepting that sum is also a way of acknowledging the maker’s authority over his ideas and images.

The group exhibition, held from 2nd to 11th August, included artists from a range of professional standings, pictorial strategies and conceptual issue. Adeel uz Zafar’s impressive drawings of human form (or a toy) covered in a bandage muslin/ strip suggests a painful existence in a society, in which everyone is grieved, injured, hurt. Or feels like this; since the moment a TV reporter sets his camera rolling, the interviewee turns into his expected position/ utterance of misery.

How could you admit you are happy on the national media? It’s uninteresting, boring, ordinary, so the expected job is revealing misery.

Adeel uz Zafar’s work is not just about injured figures. It also represents another aspect of human body in its circumstances; loneliness and alienation as witnessed in remarkable rendering of the body by RM Naeem, Muhammad Zeeshan and Scheherazade Junejo.

If Naeem depicts a female protagonist in a strange surrounding (made believable through his immaculate skill), and Zeeshan seems to be preserving personal and pictorial archives of characters posing for him as if for a colonial transcriber of native inhabitants, Junejo creates an intelligent and impressive cartography of how the human body and the female flesh may be marketed as a label or seen in its essential state.

Female figures with animal skulls, back of naked torsos ending in inflated love shaped articles, and a hand emerging out of a sea of sensuously painted folds of red fabric, allude to how a body is perceived and exists, in a surrounding, so that it’s image also becomes a commodity.

The supremacy and sophistication of Junejo’s depiction of the body, drapery and popular items signify that the artist is addressing our present cultural psyche. However, our present is not divorced from our past. They are often intermingled, as observed in Meher Afroz’s meticulously constructed works with Urdu words such as love and faith. Afroz’s way of building her imagery, through rich layers, sensitive surfaces, varying textures; and blending of metal and paper, makes her work distinct. It also demands a deeper scrutiny of each line, mark, segment or letter.

Fixed Price conveyed a strong, stern and sensible message to artists and collectors; but on another note, the art world is not about prices or fixing those. If an artist is free in his/ her imagination, why should he/ she remain fixated on price, imagery, technique? In his/ her art nothing is fixed, everything is – like a critic’s comment or a connoisseur’s verdict.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

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