Impossibly impassable

December 27, 2020

At the start of the year 2020, nobody could have imagined the strange and painful days to come

Salman Toor: 'Tea'

For decades, weeklies Time and Newsweek, have been publishing ‘the personality of the year’ in their last issues of December. This choice is often controversial, detested and debated. It seems that Covid-19 would be the most important entity of year 2020 on account of the way it affected everyone around the globe. Causing death, disease and depression, and halting the routine of life, it changed the notion of normal in every sphere of existence.

In the art world, too, at the dawn of 2020, nobody could have imagined the strange and painful days to come. The year started with usual activities, events and exhibitions. January witnessed one of the most ambitious shows: the Lahore Biennale 02 (LB02). Curated by Hoorul Qasmi, ‘Between the Sun and the Moon’ comprised works of 44 artists from several parts of the world. Scattered around the city, the exhibition was a phenomenal display that included paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations, video installations and performances by a number of leading names such as John Akomfrah, Amar Kanwar, Rasheed Araeen, Vivan Sundaram, Wael Shawky and Diana Al-Hadid.

Just before the outbreak of pandemic, another significant exhibition, the solo show of Hamra Abbas was inaugurated at COMO Museum of Art, Lahore. Every Color is a Shade of Black presented her mixed media installations, sculptures and sensitive small portraits of transgender community “painted with extreme precision using Gongbi technique on silk”. Whether abstract compositions or representational paintings, her work seemed to be embedded in religion (or tradition, if the two are separate). In January, there was another museum show, Staying On: The Art of Hal Bevan Pitman at Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi. Pitman was a peculiar painter. Born in Gloucestershire, England (1894) “to parents who had a history of service in India”, the young man decided to come to the subcontinent; and on Partition, opted for Pakistan and lived in Rawalpindi till his last breath (1980). The well-researched and curated exhibition not only showcased paintings by an Englishman, but re-presented fragments of our history, through portraits of powerful men, pretty ladies, scenes of war, and portrayal of soldiers - probably all commissioned works. Still, Pitman’s paintings mapped the political, cultural and societal scene during important phases in the history of this country.

The year also caught the last days of Bani Abidi’s major survey exhibition, Funland, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi and Natasha Ginwala at the Sharjah Art Foundation. The exhibition had her videos, photographs, sound pieces, installations, digital prints, watercolours, confirming the density of her concerns and delicacy of her approach. Abidi observes and picks fragments from history, and constructs works which denote spatial, political and societal divide. Her exhibition provided opportunity to view works relating to marginalised, dispossessed, and threatened sections of society. Drawing references from popular aesthetic practices, increasing concern for security, and endangered sects, she built a landscape that was not fun-land.

Around the same time, Rasheed Araeen’s solo show, In the Midst of Darkness, was held at AiconArt, New York. It consisted of canvases built on the scaffold of geometry. Araeen reclaims geometry as an identity marker for a person who happens to be an heir to the legacy of Muslim contribution in the realm of knowledge, as well as the one who is well aware of the language of abstract art. It featured stripes of strong hues, based on geometry and Arabic text referred to the names of Muslim scientists, mathematicians and philosophers.

One of the works from Araeen’s exhibition Ishq Haqiqi, Ishq Majazi, created in 2014, held a special meaning for 2020. If one translates Haqiqi as ‘real’ and Majazi as ‘illusory’ or ‘virtual’, Areen’s title foretold the situation that was to unfold. Around April-May, when it was not possible to visit galleries, meet artists, or even step out of one’s house – the only solace was to see art on a tablet, phone or computer, and try to imagine what it would be like physical.

From early summer to late autumn, no one knew what was real. Covid-19 altered hardened habits of many, including the writer of these lines, who had previously refused to review an exhibition without seeing it in person. The pandemic forced one to write on shows which were held thousands of miles away or several years ago.

Covid-19 restricted people to their houses, but it also brought them venues from across the globe that had not been accessible before this calamity. So, being stuck in one’s room opened up a vast world as one could visit galleries, museums and other art activities without leaving one’s home, applying for a visa, boarding a plane and booking an accommodation. Comfortably sitting at your table, you could travel continents and view and review art events. A possibility, rather an opportunity and a freedom never exercised before.

Irrespective of whether one looks at the works in physical presence or virtually, what matters most is how long they stay with us. Certain works are forgotten as soon as we leave a gallery, while others remain in the mind even though we have seen them reproduced in print or posted on media. Eventually, all works occupy memory, which does not discriminate between the tangible and the transitory.

Perhaps, this phase will change not only the way we comment on art, but also the making of art. There have been other modifications in our personas, safely concealed inside our living quarters; which, usually were fortified due to security crisis in the country. A social, political and urban scenario, dealt with by Seema Nusrat in her exhibition. Brave New World, held this year at Canvas Gallery.

Even though, there were travel restrictions for human, the art was free. So, several group shows were held without the presence of many participants. These included an exhibition at Pera Museum of Istanbul, titled Miniature 2.0: Miniature in Contemporary Art (curated by Azra Tu zu no lu with Gu lce Özkar), featuring artists belonging to different regions. Works of Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Hamra Abbas, SairaWaseem, Noor Ali Chagani and others interpreted miniature painting in diverse ways - to the extent in some of the works that the link to miniature painting appeared a distant and disagreeable.

Another significant museum exhibition, that started in 2020, and will continue till April 4, 2021, is Salman Toor’s solo show, How Will I Know, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. After the news of his painting being auctioned for the highest amount paid for a Pakistani artist, the exhibition has acquired a new value. The show reflects the incredible painterly quality of an artist who approaches his work formally along with its multi-folded meanings and context.

The year will also be remembered for some other solo shows, like Aroosa Rana’s at Canvas Gallery, Mohammed Zeeshan’s at Sanat Initiative, Atif Khan’s at Tanzara Gallery, Rabeya Jalil’s at Canvas Gallery, Masooma Syed’s at O Art Space, David Alesworth’s at Canvas Gallery, Huma Mulji’s at Canvas Gallery and the group show Mera Safar (works by artists from Sindh) at Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery, NCA, Lahore.

Along with these and other exhibitions, there were publications, awards, artists’ residencies, virtual talks and tours; but the year that began with LB02, ended with another of its projects. Installing art works of 16 artists on billboards in Lahore in November-December. The project brought art to the threshold of ordinary citizens just as they were saying adieu to 2020 – with a sigh of restrained relief.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Impossibly impassable