Pakistani artists have immense talent and when they get appreciation and assistance, they put the country’s name on a global map. This time, it is Pakistani contemporary visual artist Marium Agha, who was awarded the Public Vote Prize at the Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2022, recently held in Hong Kong, for her work, ‘Hear Hear’. The Sovereign Asian Art Prize is one of the most prestigious art award programmes, welcoming finalists from 16 different countries, with the aim to boost engagement and provide vast exposure for artists. It was launched in 2003 to increase the international exposure of artists in the region, whilst raising funds for programmes that support disadvantaged children using expressive arts. Held annually, the prize is now recognised as the most established annual art award in Asia-Pacific. It invites mid-career contemporary artists, nominated by a board of independent art professionals, to each enter up to three artworks online. The winner of the award, who is voted out of 30 shortlisted candidates, receives a prize of $1000.
Marium’s piece portrayed at the exhibition is a tapestry (embroidery) which has its own cultural importance in the field of art and crafts of Pakistan. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, and pursued her Masters in Fine Arts from the University of the Arts London. This week, Marium speaks to You! about her win and the concept and creation of her art…
You! What was the inspiration behind your winning piece Hear Hear?
Marium Agha: Hear Hear is a tapestry, which was finally shaped from the deconstruction of two different tapestries, I found at a Karachi flea market. One tapestry had a horseman as its major subject while the other tapestry was scenery. In deconstructing, we actually have to change the narrative of different tapestries being used in the new created piece. We can’t just combine them just for the sake of it. I tried to alter the language and effects of that particular era (rococo of mid-18th century), originally depicted in those tapestries. The purpose was to change the art theme of that era into a contemporary one to make it relevant in present times. The deconstruction of those two tapestries presented a horseman, wearing a mask of a wolf, coming along with his friends (dogs) to grab his victim, which is a piece of flesh. The greed and lust of that horseman for the flesh also denotes the illicit sexual desire of man. That is the whole concept of my work.
You! How important is this Sovereign Asian Art Prize for an artist?
MA: It is quite important, as this prize is awarded to the winner after strict scrutiny. There are three categories in the prize; the Grand Prize, Public Vote Prize and Vogue Hong Kong Women’s Art Prize. I won the Public Vote Prize in which the public can choose their favourite from any work selected to be exhibited (about 30 pieces) in the contest. This vote has both an online option and in-person cast as the work is displayed on the website as well besides at the gallery in Hong Kong. As far as the Grand Prize is concerned, there is a jury which looks into the details of every piece like their artist, their region of work, concept and quality of art work besides too many other criteria. Then there is Sovereign Vogue Hong Kong Women’s Art Prize, which is exclusively awarded to a woman participating in the contest. This year, the Grand Prize and Vogue prize were awarded to Iranian artists while for the Public Vote Prize, two artists were selected from Pakistan, Ayessha Quraishi and me.
You! Did you go through some difficult times while becoming an artist?
MA: In any profession, a woman has to look into many other things besides her work. In our culture, when a woman gets married, her responsibilities get double-fold if she is having a career at the same time. The added responsibilities of managing the house and children sometimes tend to limit her in professional life. But if she is lucky to have an accommodating spouse things become easier for her on both fronts.
You! Pakistan has been a victim of extremism and terrorism for more than two decades, so how do you think these things have affected an artist’s work?
MA: Whatever is happening around us, no one else can present this picture in its true sense than an artist. Artists, with different mediums of work whether through paintings, sculpture, drama, film or documentary narrate the real picture of society, or political scenario of a country. And yes, they get appreciation for this as well because people always want to know the reality.
You! Do you think there is any support for artists on a state level in Pakistan?
MA: In Pakistan there isn’t much support for artists from governments. If artists don’t have personal support or assistance from private galleries and organisations, they can’t produce and promote their work with peace of mind or any kind of satisfaction. We are highly dependent on other jobs in order to support our passion for art and manage our houses. Most female artists get this assistance from their husbands, fathers or other male members of the family at the initial stage of their careers and then they progress and get some work (generally teaching art besides creating art work). So, it is a fact that artists cannot solely depend just on their art work. It cannot run their kitchens. We don’t have any grants for artists, like other parts of the world, we don’t offer any subsidised living to artists (male or female). We don’t have these facilities in Pakistan, which I believe, if offered, would greatly assist artists to produce better work.