Pakistan’s National Art Gallery Naming Controversy


The opening of Pakistan’s much-delayed National Art Gallery in Islamabad has hit another speed bump after the March 26 inauguration ceremony, already pushed back due to construction delays, was postponed indefinitely due to a conflict with President General Pervez Musharraf’s schedule. The country’s visual arts community is up in arms against the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), the body overseeing the USD 7.53 million federal project, over alleged plans to change the institution’s name to Pakistan Centre of the Creative Arts and designate parts of it for the performing arts, claims refuted by PNCA general director Naeem Tahir.

The ensuing controversy has caused a rift between the visual and performing arts camps, with each lobbying to ensure their stake in the country’s first substantial national arts institution. Senior members of the Pakistani art world have floated petitions protesting the “Gross encroachment of the National Art Gallery” by the performing arts insisting that the institution retain its original name and function. In response, the performing arts community has rallied around Tahir, himself a performing artist.

Plans for a National Art Gallery were first drawn up in 1981 as part of a multi-venue cultural complex also including a National Theatre and a National Museum. However, bureaucratic inertia and a lack of funds resulted in the structure remaining only partially built in 2005 when the project was entrusted to Tahir The recently completed four-story glass and concrete building includes a 400-seat state-of-the-art auditorium, a reference library and an open-air theater, in addition to galleries, administrative offices and educational facilities.

With much at stake and emotions running high it is unclear who is to blame. However, the controversy captures the visual arts community’s growing frustration with and suspicion of PNCA claims that the allocation of three galleries and the auditorium for the performing arts is a temporary solution as plans for the National Theatre on a nearby plot have yet to get underway.

In addition, members of the National Gallery’s independent curatorial committee, commissioned to organize thematic exhibitions for the inaugural program, have voiced concerns over frequent, unannounced delays and last minute shuffling of gallery spaces, authorized by a recently created advisory committee. Curator Atteqa Ali’s exhibition of diaspora artists, originally planned for a ground floor space, was shifted to an upstairs gallery, possibly after Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi’s film poster style digital prints Clash of Civilizations (2002) and West and the Rest (2002) were deemed politically problematic.