Lost works, last words

March 3, 2019

The accidental and intentional losses of art and artists who didn’t go to the right art school and lived far from major cities

Lost works, last words

In November1999, the Iranian born Australian artist Hossein Valamanesh visited NCA and held his solo exhibition at the NCA Gallery. These were works he had brought with him along with one piece that he created while staying in Lahore. Made of straw mat, straw cap, a circular mirror cut and placed inside the straw cap, and a flame burning from a small clay lamp filled with oil. He left this work after his solo show to be shown in a future exhibition.

I kept the piece in my office at NCA. One studio attendant had his eyes on the straw mat. He wanted it for his small quarter and kept inquiring why I had stored that ordinary stuff. One morning, I realised this integral part of Valamanesh’s artwork had disappeared. Whoever took it did not foresee the artist’s value was going to rise in the coming years. Another loss was a work by M.F. Husain that he had gifted to NCA during his visit to the institution in the late 1980s or early ’90s. A large-scale ink on paper, it remained hung for several years in the printmaking studio before a fire in the studio consumed it.

Apart from these, many works by famous artists have vanished or disintegrated, and now only survive in memory. A few were once part of important collections, and then suddenly went missing. For example, the twenty paintings of A. R. Chughtai from Alhamra Arts Council’s collection that were loaned to the State Guest House Lahore in 1974, but now there is no trace of those. Another important case pertains to a painting by Amrita Sher-Gil that disappeared from the offices of Pakistan National Council of the Arts in Islamabad during the 1980s, allegedly sold to a collector outside Pakistan.

The list is long: some were misplaced while being shipped, some perished in customs warehouses, some never returned after being sent for international exhibitions; a number of them were bought for Pakistan’s foreign missions, remained on display in the embassies but no record of their existence survives (perhaps those too were discarded like old furniture). If we can’t save a physical artwork, we cannot retain it in our discourse for long. We do recycle works of several artists or find some other function for them. In one incident, a painting by major artist Anna Molka Ahmed was bolted in a window frame to protect the room from rain and wind.

One can continue lamenting these accidental or intentional losses, but such incidents will keep happening till we consider the importance of documentation, the significance of history, and the value of an art work and of the an artist as well. It would be impossible to resurrect all the lost pieces considering our collective amnesia.

Not just artworks, we have deleted important artists from our art history, too, largely because they belonged to a region that became an independent country in 1971. It would sound strange today to discuss Pakistani art and mention the names of Novera Ahmed, Qamrul Hasan, Syed Jahangir, and Devdas Chakravarty. Even though almost all major writers on Pakistani art -- from Jalaluddin Ahmed to Ijazul Hassan, Marcella Nesom Sirhandi, S. Amjad Ali, Akbar Naqvi and Salima Hashmi -- have included all those artists from 1947 to 1971 in their works. But, for the present generation, these names are as distant as any foreigner’s. Sometimes a distance of years is enough to keep the history in a closet of oblivion. Today, artists and students cite names such as Haji Sharif, A. R. Chughtai, Allah Bux, Sadeqauin, Shakir Ali and Zubeida Agha with familiarity and ease, but are reluctant to recall figures from former East Pakistan, like Hameedur Rehman, Rasheed Chowdhry, Muhammad Kibria, Aminul Islam, not even Zainul Abedin.

Not just artworks, we have deleted important artists from our art history, too, largely because they belonged to a region that became an independent country in 1971. It would sound strange today to discuss Pakistani art and mention the names of Novera Ahmed, Qamrul Hasan, Syed Jahangir, and Devdas Chakravarty.

For a young artist, student and viewer, history of Pakistani art is about those who belonged to region that comprises the present-day Pakistan. Everything extra and everyone else is obliterated. This act of sifting from the past is a dangerous practice. In Lahore recently, Ayesha Jalal described the role and responsibility of a historian as one who, after an accident on a busy roadside, collects the differing accounts of twelve different people who were at the site, and gets to write the authentic version. Likewise, an art historian too needs to reach out to various sources and re-claim what is lost in the debris of time.

History, like any piece of literature, is authored by a single person. It blends views with points of views, actuality with impressions. And more than that, it is the limitations: of place, opportunity, and exposure that determine the tone and texture of history. One may excavate many who could have been included in the mainstream of Pakistani art, but were not because they didn’t go to the right art school, lived far from a major city, were not friendly with powerful people, never had the opportunity of showing at prominent art galleries, and were hence lost.

Occasionally, you find them, in different circumstances. For example, not long ago, I came across Bashir Haider, a painter of extraordinary talent based in Joharabad. His skill, understanding and ideas are as good as the best of mainstream, yet he is stuck in the beyond of beyond, away from the art world. Probably, there are several others like him in villages and small towns of the country who never had a chance to make their voice heard in the hall of Pakistani art, particularly in the three centres -- Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad

Arguably, with the shift in technology and access to media, the artists or sculptors in the periphery can now be accessible to a historian. They don’t need to go to a gallery in Karachi or an art institute in Lahore, or a collector in Islamabad. They have also got Instagram, Facebook and other forums of social media. It is only the job of an art writer to come out of the comfort of gallery space, educational institutions and late night parties to reach out for and reclaim all those who survive only as footnotes in our art history.

Lost works, last words