Preserving art

By Iqra Sarfaraz
Tue, 11, 19

In a candid conversation with You!, Zubair Ahmed Madani - the only art conservator in Pakistan - talks about his journey as a conservator and all things related to it...


Belonging from the city of Allahabad, India, Zubair Ahmed Madani inherited great passion for art and was free to chase his dreams. He was the son of poet and freedom fighter Nayyar Madani who was a student of famous poet Asghar Gondvi. Zubair always wanted to be an architect but even he didn’t know what the future had in store for him. “My grades were not good so I couldn’t get admission in NED or Dawood University for further studies. I thought of looking for a job instead. During 1981-82, I found a job opening at the Karachi National Museum where the management was planning to build a conservation laboratory. The thought came after General Zia-ul-Haq received a handwritten Holy Quran based on 14 scriptures during his trip to Quetta. The unique and priceless Holy book was brought to the National Museum as Zia sahab wanted it to be rebound and preserved,” shares Zubair.

At that time, there was no conservation laboratory in Pakistan. Masood Nabi Noor, the then Secretary Culture of the museum, suggested to send two of the scriptures to Germany and Italy where art conservation was very common. However, it was very expensive and Zia-ul-Haq asked to build museum’s own laboratory in September 1983, where all conservation related work would be done. Chief Editor of the Jinnah Papers Dr Zawwar Hussain Zaidi’s wife Parveen Zaidi who worked at UNDP and was receiving training for archives in Tehran was actually associated with British Museum. She was called to the National Museum for conservation work and to train more people under her guidance. “After a long hiring process, I, along with three other girls, was selected. I started work in the laboratory as a Senior Paper Conservator/Head of Conservation. We got our training under Mrs Zaidi and after she left, I took the charge and have been training and working with people since then,” he adds.

In the beginning, Zubair and his colleagues only worked on the manuscripts. After that, they started with miniature paintings and illustrative books which are brilliant pieces of art in their own capacity. Gradually, they took over all the paper-based art in the National Museum and conserved them till 1990. Later, people also brought wall painting and all sorts of art pieces for conservation. Interestingly, today Zubair Madani is the only conservator in Pakistan who is known for his exceptional conservations all over the country.

Currently, Zubair Madani is helping Marriott Hotel Karachi by conserving paintings for them apart from other works of renowned artists such as Amrita Sher-Gil, Bashir Mirza, East Pakistani painter Hameed-ur-Rehman, Anna Molka Ahmed along with Karachi Arts Council’s project. In a candid conversation with You! Zubair Ahmed Madani talks about his journey as a conservator and all things related to the conservation of art...

You! What is conservation of art and what materials a conservator use for conservation?

Zubair Ahmed Madani: Conservation of art is engaged with preventing damage and deterioration of any art work. It is also done to enhance the life of a piece of art. A conservator who does this job uses diverse materials and tools to perform conservation. Unfortunately in Pakistan, the tools for conservation are not available and everything is ordered from abroad. The main tool is the handmade Japanese paper made in Japan made from the tree of Kozo. Then there is western paper which is also used. Apart from that, there are very expensive brushes used in the process of conservation. Each brush costs around 11 Lac. Last but not least, there are chemicals of analytical and conservational grade, which are used to conserve artistic pieces as the normal chemicals have impurities and can’t be used.

You! What are the different methods of evaluation before you start conservation?

ZAM: There are several steps of evaluation when we receive any piece of art. First, we have to validate the work that whether it is original or not. Also, there are two ways of validation. One is the stylistic analysis in which you compare the style of the actual creator and check how much it resembles with that. For example, it can be the style of strokes or use of colour pigments that the creator often uses. Other method is called provenance which is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical art piece. Sometimes, people fake art with such perfection that you can’t even judge them easily. They even do artificial aging of a piece by keeping it in the sunlight (which we do in the aging chamber where these works are provided with humidity/moisture) or by the use of substances such as coffee. When it is assessed in machines, the time of its creation is easily gauged. We also check style through scientific ways such as the infrared rays. Moreover, we do spot tests to validate the pieces by putting a water drop on the canvas. The older the canvas, the more time it will take in absorption.

You! What is included in a condition report of an art piece?

ZAM: A work of art is first received by the corrector. The corrector has to see if there are any signs of damage. If there are, he sends it to the conservator. Then the conservator does its visual inspection and assesses the damage. Apart from this, he does the calculation about how long will it take for the damage to spread or if it is not going to spread any way. After this, he makes a condition report in which he adds the size of the art, damage etc. Following this, he makes a treatment proposal and then sits with the curator or the museum’s director. The discussion on conservation details the risks so that the conservation can start working on it.

You! What is your speciality in terms of techniques and tools for conservation?

ZAM: One is the indigenous method in which we try our desi methods. For instance, we often preserve with Neem leaves. Second is the western method and third is the Japanese method (chemicals and papers) which is the best yet a very sensitive tecnique. I did a project in 1995 on amalgamating all three techniques. What we did was, we picked different materials from the three methods in order to restore our Persian and Islamic miniature paintings. This was done in Canada and I also wrote a paper on it called ‘A Scientific Approach for the Preservation of Islamic Miniatures’ published in 2002 which I read in the Baltimore Conference.

You! What is the approach when conserving a piece of art?

ZAM: We should try to educate people about our history and for that we need to preserve art. All we try to do is to slow down the process of decay so that our future generations might get to see the important art work and the history associated with it.

You! What are the pieces are you working on currently?

ZAM: At Marriott, I am going to work on Iqbal Mehdi’s painting present at their Crystal Ball room. It is a great initiative by Mr Sadruddin Hashwani and his family who are contibuting significantly for the promotion of art conservation and that too of local art and artists. These days, hotels are more like art galleries as they use paintings from various local artists which is a great thing.

You! Is there an element in your work you enjoy the most?

ZAM: I enjoy doing challenging pieces such as the ones with the iron gall ink. Also, I conserved 40 marble slabs of Surah-e-Rehman by Sadequain in 1995 which is one such example of one of the challenging tasks I have ever taken.

You! What is the most frustrating part of your job?

ZAM: There is no law against fake art in the ordinance. People steal art and fake their copies to sell at heavy prices. They claim art which is not theirs. It is sad to see art lovers buying things with such love and admiration but eventually they get fooled by fake copies.

You! Which is the oldest work of art you have conserved?

ZAM: My oldest work is the preservation of 3rd century Quranic scriptures. Also I have preserved 7th century Holy Quran written by Yaqoob who was a renowned calligrapher. This is curated at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

You! A favourite piece of art work which you have conserved?

ZAM: Sadequain and Shakir Ali’s work who brought abstract painting and the form of cubism.

You! How should one protect art over time?

ZAM: Unfortunately, in Pakistan, people are devoid of the basic necessities let alone think about art. It is up to private organisations or independent art lovers who should take the charge and help in the preservation.