How important are art collectors to the history of art?
Paul Cezanne once described his fellow French Impressionist painter, “Monet is only an eye, but my God, what an eye!” One can extend this homage to Wahab Jaffer, who is a collector but, what a collector! During a visit to his house several years ago, I was astonished and impressed to see the range of his collection; from paintings, books, artefacts – to reviews, articles and other printed matter on artists, which he stores in separate boxes. A segment of significant history of Pakistani art, usually lost, except in the archives of another enthusiast, Ali Imam.
We belong to a society that is more interested in story than history. Resultantly, in our schools, texts books on history are works of fiction rather than a corpus of facts. Not surprisingly, with each new ‘official ideology’, the curriculum is revised, hence the past is constantly corrected, edited and amended with updated ideas and agendas.
In the world of art, history is often layered beneath coats of paint, or is chiselled away like the excessive segment of a stone sculpture. One is accustomed to seeing paintings which have signatures, but no dates, causing a lifetime of work – and grants – for researchers to determine the period of these canvases. But when it comes to the written word on art, normally it is treated as a piece of trash, to be thrown the next day with the rest of the newspapers and magazines.
Just the fact that the collector, who owned some of the most important artworks – Zainul Abedin, Shakir Ali, SH Raza, FN Souza, Sadequain, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Shahid Sajjad, and many more – would care to cut sections on art from a daily or monthly publication and arrange it according to the subject; distinguishes him from a number of other collectors. Wahab Jaffer’s concept and concerns are not to accumulate big names, or invest in valuable pieces, but to preserve a tangible history of art.
After his collection was acquired by the ZVM Rangoonala Foundation, a selection was displayed: Father Figure (October 23-30, 2019) at the Asia House London, followed by another show planned at the VM Art Gallery Karachi (January 24 – February 21, 2020). The catalogue of the exhibition, with a text by Nour Aslam, the curator, provides information on works, background of the acquisition, and relationship of the collector with the artists.
Wahab Jaffer’s collection is different, because he is not just a collector, he is a painter too, with several solo and group exhibitions to his credit. His close connection with Ahmed Parvez is visible in his earlier paintings, which had influence of the master, but his later works reveal an unmistakable individuality. On Wahab Jaffer’s interaction with Ahmed Parvez, the catalogue quotes Akbar Naqvi’s Image and Identity: “A few years before Parvez’s death, Wahab Jaffer gave him a roof over his head and hospitality in his home. He had a studio to himself and plenty of colour and canvas to paint…. To have the master with him was a very exciting experience…. He painted some of his most serendipitous paintings under Wahab Jaffer’s roof, his last port of call.”
This is one example, but Wahab Jaffer has been an avid supporter of artists and art in our country, more than patron, he is a friend to his fellow painters, as well as writers. His association with Shafi Aqeel, that sole sane voice on art in Urdu, indicates that he gathered art, not precious products. To some of his guests, he gave Aqeel’s books as gifts, a rare piece of literature on art. In a sense, both Jaffer and Aqeel belong to an era in which boundaries between artist, art and the market were hard, high and solid. Artists created works, which were in conversation with critics, fellow artists and the public; though relatively a small crowd. Wahab Jaffer’s collection represents that lost period of our art, in which you can own a Souza, Sadequain or Akhlaq for not a humongous price, and have a conversation with the artist about his creative process. In which buying an art work did not mean investing in a valuable object, but establishing a relationship with the maker, because you admired his thought, his imagery and his style.
His? Yes, because the title of the exhibition Father Figure informs a predominant masculinity in the art world of an era, in which not only were major artists men, but their subject matter also emanates from a specific position on male gender. However, in the exhibition, along with names like Shemza, Rasheed Araeen, Murtaja Baseer, Kazi Abdul Basit, Bashir Mirza, Gulgee, Tassaduq Sohail, and Unver Shafi Khan, one comes across works by major artists such as Meher Afroz, Lubna Latif Agha, Salima Hashmi, Nahid Raza, and Riffat Alvi.
Actually more than gender, the show is divided on figurative and abstract imagery; the latter including landscapes and still life. An element that unites the entire exhibition is stylisation. Different subjects merge due to artists’ handling of paint and treatment of the visible world. These characteristics, if on one hand reveal the collector’s choice, at the same instance illustrate an approach popular in sixties and seventies in South Asian art. Perhaps the stylisation was an after effect of physical contact with European art, since many painters studied in the art schools of UK and Europe, or had exhibitions there. Some stayed over like Shemza, Raza, Sohail and Araeen.
The exhibition creates interesting links between practices of artists, distant in terms of time and location. For example, Sadequain’s marker on paper Sketch of Great Poet Ghalib (1968) seems similar to FN Souza’s pencil-on-paper Untitled (1962). In both works, nervous yet sensitive lines define the features and contours of the human body. Likewise, Ahmed Parvez’s acrylic-on-canvas Black Mound (1968) can be compared to Unver Shafi Khan’s oil-on-canvas Untitled (1986). Abstraction of forms, structure and layers of colour bind the two canvases, executed without the awareness of each other.
Although the title of the exhibition describes it as South Asian Art, in a sense, all of it belongs to undivided India, a region that was split into three countries, resulting in unresolved issues of national identities, since artists moved from one country to another, or their countries became different. Particularly those who were once part of narrative of Pakistani art but after the independence of Bangladesh, have been airbrushed from the art history of our Islamic Republic. Father Figure reminds us that despite political boundaries and territorial restrictions, the artists of the sub-continent spoke one language, with varying accents, before the crisis of identity became a crucial concern for many creative individuals, here.