Lost in galleries

September 1, 2019

Many well-known and respected artists have disappeared from the mainstream narrative of Pakistani art, apparently for personal reasons

Lost in galleries

In 1997, a young critic compiled the interviews of several Pakistani artists for a publication. Not long after the book was out, a popular watercolourist confronted him, demanding an explanation for why he was excluded from the book. The writer tried to pacify him, giving justifications like limited budget, the book being a slim volume etc. When the artist persisted, implying that his ‘competitors’ (read enemies) must have orchestrated his omission, the critic was forced to utter the truth: "Your work is not worthy to be included in a book on Pakistani art".

One may disagree with the critic’s manner or his apparently insensitive response, but many writers on art have to encounter this predicament: artists being disappointed and becoming disgruntled and dismissive on not finding themselves or their works in such publications.

A few years ago, a painter of stature in today’s art world was frustrated on not making it to any book on Pakistani art while some minor artists did. He had to be consoled that in the coming years names printed in the books would be merely letters while other artists like him, neglected by historians and critics, might take the centre stage.

In the brief art history of this country, there have been books by Jalal Uddin Ahmed, Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, Marcella Nesom Sirhandi, S Amjad Ali, Akbar Naqvi, Salima Hashmi, Marjorie Husain besides others. These books focus on some important artists but also on others who have become almost unknown in the contemporary narrative of art. This not only includes artists who were popular during their lifetime but were soon forgotten, like Askari Mian Irani and Pirzada Najam-ul-Hasan, but also some who are still with us but have turned invisible.

This may be for several reasons: the transitory impact of their production or their decision (following some realisation) not to continue to work as artists. They may teach, write art criticism, curate exhibitions or enjoy a retired life after serving at a public post but are no longer active as makers of art.

Marriage, migration and incompatibility with time and space are other such causes. For instance, Muhammad Ali Afzal vanished due to incompatibility with his epoch and contemporaries.

Some of them still take pride in their legacy, and remind others of their shows held in the country and abroad. In a hangover of past glory, they fail to recognise new realities. Others may not care much about their lost prestige; they are interested in other pursuits or are content in their private lives.

One such painter in danger of being forgotten is Shahbaz Khan. In Painting in Pakistan by Hassan, there are a few lines about him. In that book, he is in the company of Imran Mir and Iqbal Hussain. In Contemporary Painting in Pakistan, Sirhandi has written in detail about Khan as well as quoted him, "I learned to look at new things and to look differently at old things -- to consider the social and political aspects of life". Another such painter, Asad Salahuddin appears prominently in Sirhandi’s book. He was trained at various schools in New York (including Art Students’ League), held his exhibitions during the 1980s, but has now disappeared from the art scene.

Akbar Naqvi’s subjective attitude is evident in Image and Identity. We get descriptions on Mobina Zuberi, Rooha Ghaznavi, Nafisa Shah, and Dure Ahmed who are hardly practising art anymore. Artists like  Saeed, Dabir Ahmed and Tariq Javed from the pages of Naqvi’s 5O Years of Visual Arts in Pakistan are still productive but have ceased to be part of the mainstream. In the same context, one remembers artists like Nilofar Akmut, Humaira Ejaz, Tanvir Fatima Rehman and Mubina Zuberi from Unveiling the Visible by Hashmi, who were prominent in the art world (outside Pakistan too), but are not currently registered as artists.

Even outside the scope of books, there are artists -- for example Samina Wajid, Nayyara Wajid, Sumbal Nazir, Muhammad Ali Afzal, Meezan, Liaquat Baluch, and many others -- who are remembered for their strong work but you seldom hear about their art let alone see it. This is a great loss because had they continued to work, Pakistani art would have had more variety, richness and maturity.

One wonders how to account for their absence from the art scene. Of course one can’t blame the writers who select their subjects on the basis of their critical judgement. Besides, they can’t predict what the artists might do or not do in the future. Ask any student or young artist, even a new gallery, about Siddiqua Bilgrami, Nighat Idrees, Arbab Sardar, Tayyaba Aziz, Sardar Mohammad or even Maqsood Ali, and you will get blank stares. There are others like Jamila Zaidi, and Muhammad Asif, respected for their teaching, but it has eclipsed their art.

There are many factors for the disappearance of these once well-known and respected artists from the mainstream narrative of Pakistani art. First and foremost are personal issues and constraints which may compel an artist to indulge in something else, mainly to earn their bread and butter. Marriage, migration and incompatibility with time and space are other such causes. For instance, Muhammad Ali Afzal vanished due to incompatibility with his epoch and contemporaries. Many leave art because it ceases to interest them; as other things like business, education, civil service or farming become more exciting. Marcel Duchamp confessed in his interviews with Pierre Cabanne, "I like breathing better than working".

Apart from personal reasons, there are pressures to raise children, to look after the family, to withhold one’s idea due to lack of financial support. Another important but neglected factor is the doubt in one’s work, ideas and understanding that often discourages a person. The market treats doubt with disdain. Most galleries are not prepared to invest in an uncertainty called the young emerging artist. Instead, they cater to established names (no matter if they are erased over the next decade). One can imagine how many precious artists are lost in the corridors of gallery business, family, house or workplace.

Thus, even if the artists’ names appear in books, reviews, gallery contracts, museum collections, awards and honours’ lists, no one can guarantee their future. At this point, we can count or remember many missing persons from the history of our art but who knows how many more would be forgotten in the future. In a Channel 4 documentary on him in the late 1980s, Gabriel Garcia Marquez viewed his world-wide success with suspicion: "it can be transitory, because a writer from Colombia at the end of nineteenth century was highly popular and respected, but nobody remembers his name any more".

Lost in galleries