‘Art is a means of stepping into someone else’s reality’

Zahra Khan talks about her passion for curation and contemporary Pakistani art

The News on Sunday (TNS): Please tell us about your journey as a curator.

Zahra Khan (ZK): After studying at the University of Philadelphia, I moved to New York City for my first job out of college, at the Ronald Feldman Gallery. It was amazing because Feldman had represented Andy Warhol while he was alive. It was a great place to work and learn. I had attended the Marina Abramovic solo show at the MOMA and was in awe of the exhibition. The exhibition had participants reenacting each of her performances. The experience was intense, and unlike anything I had ever seen. It was transformative for my own understanding of the role of curation in generating responses from viewers.

I moved to London for my master’s in the history of art and archaeology from the School of Oriental and African Studies. I also worked for Sotheby’s as a Graduate Trainee, part of a prestigious programme, spending several months in specific departments of the auction house. It was a holistic experience of the inner workings as a specialist with certain privileges that even some of the employees did not have. I was participating in various roles. This allowed me to see both visitors and artworks. I had the chance to work with old masters’ artworks, to help with sales, hanging Islamic works, watching phone bids and being in the auction room where only Sotheby’s highly trained staff were granted access.

At Sotheby’s, I observed, Pakistani art was bought at auction level but the prices achieved were not as high as the works deserved. There was little demand for their work in the market and little supply. I wanted to get back to living artists and promote patronage. This is the role of Satrang Gallery which I curate for and Foundation Art Divvy an art venture I initiated, both actively educating the general public on contemporary art and providing institutional recognition to contemporary Pakistani artists.

TNS: What was the creative process behind Fakir Khana Museum and Plaza Cinema as exhibition spaces?

ZK: I, Too, Am A Part Of This History, 2018 and Sagar Theatre On Queen’s Road, 2020, were both collateral exhibitions of Lahore Biennale, inviting artists to create installations within these historical buildings. Fakir Khana is a private museum in the Walled City of Lahore. They have a fantastic collection of Rajput, Mughal and Japanese art and relics that are preserved as a family collection. They host tours, yet not enough people had engaged with it. I wanted to show that contemporary art draws a lot from older art forms creating a shared history between centuries of Lahore artist histories. I didn’t move anything, keeping the main rooms as I found them. Creating a carefully curated viewer walk, the show spread throughout the haveli like a treasure hunt. The artists visited the building beforehand, took tours installing the show together as a team. I loved the way the artists pushed themselves and the way the public responded.

TNS: Walk us through Manora Field Note featuring works by Naiza Khan at the Venice Biennale?

ZK: While in partnership with Rossi & Rossi Gallery in London, I had been hosting and curating exhibitions of Pakistani artists. I decided to expand Foundation Art Divvy’s international reach even further and got in touch with the Venice Biennale wanting to create an official Pakistani presence and through a series of proceedings managed to make it work. All my shows are dependent on choosing specific spaces and in this case, I wanted the viewers to feel immersed in Manora while being in Venice. I found that Pakistan as a country had never officially taken part there, making the show an inaugural exhibition. My decision to choose Naiza Khan came from having spent my dissertation researching her art during my master’s. I had also been thinking about Karachi earlier connecting it with a particular series of Khan’s works on Manora Island.

TNS: Can you describe your curatorial practice?

ZK: Art is a means of stepping into someone else’s reality. When you watch a film you are in the mind of the director; when reading a book you step into the world of the author. An art exhibition should be like that, you… enter the world of the artist. So in Venice, you entered into the world of Naiza Khan through Manora. In Fakir Khana, you entered through a group exhibition, you entered an old building and found the secrets it held. In Sagar Theatre, you were not only entering a building built in 1933 but into the mind of the artists and how they view the building. I want to give people access to how artists respond to this space that has seen so much history, happenings, stories and generations.

TNS: What recommendations and suggestions do you have for curating during the pandemic?

ZK: The artist talks currently happening through Art Divvy came from my resistance to recreating a physical exhibition as virtual. Instead, I decided to host interviews where viewers have the chance to meet and ask questions. There were interviews across cities, countries, disciplines, communities and curatorial practices within the arts. It has been a rewarding experience and has opened up doors to unfamiliar practices and individuals such as Feroze Gujral, Nadia Samdani and Hammad Nasar. The interviews are an important public resource.

The writer is an artist and an art therapist

‘Art is a means of stepping into someone else’s reality’