Accessing public art

December 22, 2019

How does state patronage shape the history of Pakistani art?

If an international celebrity, Imran Khan, occupies the Prime Minister’s House, so does another renowned figure – Vincent van Gogh. Despite being dead, Dutch and a dabbler in paint, the post-impressionist’s work sits in Islamabad’s most prestigious official residence – in the form of sunflowers, one of the most widely recognised, admired and exhibited paintings in the world. Alas! It is not the original canvas – housed in the National Gallery London – rather a pathetic forgery by some immature painter, who managed to land his work in the collection. We do not know the name of the artist who made ‘our’ sunflowers, however one comes across the reproduction in an information catalogue, listing the painter as Van Gogh.

This painting, apart from being a piece of forgery, represents the way public collections are built in the Islamic Republic, a public collection that is not ‘public’ at all. Works of art purchased from various sources are installed at prestige locations, normally hidden from the general population. Recently, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) has published a three-volume (2014, 2015, and 2016) compilation called Heart Strings of Heritage which include works from a total of 79 collections housed in Islamabad and the provinces. It documents art placed at security-sensitive locations such as the Presidency House, PM’s House, Prime Minister’s Office, Senate, National Assembly, Foreign Office, Governors’ Houses and Chief Minister Houses of all provinces, Karachi’s National Museum, Museums in Lahore, Peshawar and Taxila, Sindh Museum in Hyderabad, Bhit Shah Museum, Shakir Ali in Museum Lahore, Pak Army Museum in Rawalpindi, Pakistan Maritime Museum in Karachi and several other government buildings.

The effort of recording the images and data of all works housed at different institutions is a remarkable feat and the PNCA must be applauded for it. They have made resources and information accessible for researchers, academics, artists and tax payers alike – especially the latter, since it is their money that is spent on acquiring these art works.

Throughout the world, places of power housing public collections lend a certain prestige and national ownership to the art in question. The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace regularly showcases works from the royal collection. Similarly, other institutions attain pieces, which represent the art of a nation, alongside a variety of art from various continents and centuries.

Leafing through the book series, one comes across A R Chughtai, Allah Bux, Zubeida Agha, A J Shemza, Sadequain, Jamil Naqsh, Gulgee and other prolific artists. However, by and large, the works and names, are mostly unknown to mainstream art. The copy of Van Gogh is perhaps the worst example. One still sees landscapes, figures, calligraphies and abstract surfaces imitating or replicating works of well-known artists – alien to Pakistani art.

Due to the logistical and national importance of these artworks, and subsequently the literature that records them ­– the inclusion and exclusion in record might shape a new history of art. Whether it is a book or a visitor ­– from a foreign royal prince to a rural police officer visiting the provincial offices – they would formulate their opinion of Pakistani art based on these artworks.

There may be a few donations, but most of these works are accumulated through recommendation of politicians, public servants and personal friends of rulers. In different periods, a few individuals have been instrumental in expanding these public collections. Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was such a prime minister, genuinely interested in art, often buying works for her personal residence from private galleries; her support of Bashir Mirza is why one sees his works housed at the PM’s House.

During Bhutto’s era, Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali, Pakistan’s foreign minister (1993-1996) was active in acquiring works by major artists for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – being a painter himself. His involvement resulted in purchase of paintings by Khalid Iqbal, Ijazul-Hassan, Ghulam Rasul and Iqbal Hussain. Another such enthusiast, actively decorating the corridors of power was Kamal Azfar, the Governor of Sindh (1995-1997) who collected works by artists such as Zahoorul-Akhlaq. Tassadaq Suhail, Salima Hashmi, Musarrat Mirza, and Unver Shafi for the Sindh Governor’s House.

Apart from these renowned Paksitani artists, the mix varies. Shamefully, the Sindh Civil Secretariat owns seven paintings made in China, depicting scenes from Paris and Venice. Such renditions are easily and cheaply available in any local market. Notwithstanding the quality of canvases and identity of artists – most of our public collection is derivate, substandard and downright mediocre. Moreover, this will be recorded in history, forging a parallel narrative of Pakistani art.

Having works of art at public places, whether government buildings or state galleries, is not merely a matter of who to oblige and who to reject. It is like writing the local history of art through objects. One understands that it is not the president, prime minister, a governor or chief minster, who chooses what to adorn the walls of their official residences, but some bureaucrats or a minor functionary. Yet their decisions have far-reaching consequences on the future of national and subsequently international art.

Some action towards permanent collections is required. All over the world, state purchased-art is made relevant by rotating, re-hanging and re-arranging based on themes. This is also possible in Pakistan, considering the state owns a substantial number of works housed at places accessible only to a select few.

Given the present government’s policy of opening the doors of state houses for the public, perhaps the next step would be to curate exhibitions, based on works from official houses at public places, such as the National Art Gallery, Islamabad.

In doing so, access need not be granted to important, security-sensitive places, to showcase what has been accumulated over the decades, rather their art can be showcased at various locations throughout the country. This might make the future of public permanent collections more public and less permanent.

Accessing public art in Pakistan