This past July, as the crowds descended upon Europe for the Grand Tour of Venice, Kassel and Münster, a modest convergence of gallery shows in London and New York heralded Pakistan’s arrival on the international art market. From contemporary miniatures to digital prints and multi-channel videos, the work on view introduced new audiences to the breadth and vitality of Pakistan’s contemporary scene. And, on August 26, Islamabad received an important boost when the much-delayed National Art Gallery (NAG), Pakistan’s first state-sponsored arts institution, opened to the public.
Contemporary Pakistani art has benefited significantly from its growing international visibility over the past decade. The landmark 2000 exhibition, “Pakistan: Another Vision,” organized by London’s Asia House and Arts of the Islamic World, spanned the first half century of Pakistani art, presenting 63 artists ranging from modern masters like Shakir Ali and Ismail Gulgee to then-emerging artists Rashid Rana, Talha Rathore, Aisha Khalid and Mohammed Imran Qureshi—now all fixtures on the biennial circuit.
The contemporary miniature has become the dominant face of present-day Pakistani art abroad, in part due to the international success of individual artists such as New York-based Shahzia Sikander. Contemporary miniature exhibitions have spread around the globe, aided by the genre’s preciousness, ease of transport and identification as an “Islamic” form. Two London galleries showcased contemporary miniaturists this July. Aicon, collaborating with Karachi’s Canvas gallery, filled its new London space with work by Hasnat Mehmood and Rathore, while Corvi-Mora held showed husband-and-wife duo Khalid and Qureshi.
However, the contemporary miniature’s commercial hegemony has not gone unchallenged. Small but important group shows like “Painting Over the Lines: Five Contemporary Artists from Pakistan” at New York’s short-lived IndoCenter of Art and Culture in 2002, and “Playing With a Loaded Gun: Contemporary Art in Pakistan,” which debuted at New York’s apexart in 2003 and traveled to Kassel’s Kunsthalle Fridericianum in 2004, presented a broad spectrum of contemporary work. Similarly, while the London non-profit Green Cardamom—which supports itself through a commercial gallery program—has exhibited contemporary miniaturists like Mehmood, Saira Wasim, Usman Saeed and Nusra Latif Qureshi, it also pushes the conceptual and material limits of the genre by organizing exhibitions like the multinational exquisite cadaver project “Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration,” first presented at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 2005, and last year’s “Beyond the Page: Contemporary Art from Pakistan,” in London and Manchester, which treated the miniature as a conceptual “attitude” that transcends traditional media.
The emergence of Pakistani contemporary art’s new commercial profile can also be linked to the white-hot market in India, where much of the work is actually sold. New York gallerist Thomas Erben, who held a summer group show of Pakistani art including video artist Bani Abidi, contemporary miniaturist Hamra Abbas and the late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq, whose early experiments helped establish the miniature’s contemporary cachet, notes: “Contemporary art in India is considered ‘tainted’ by the market. The relatively high prices push the more prescient collectors into other fields. They are drawn to Pakistani work, which is close in terms of style and cultural content and shares a common history up to a point.”
After war was narrowly averted in 2002, relations between the two countries have been friendly. Indian collectors, curators and gallerists continue to cite travel restrictions as limiting access to and knowledge of the Pakistani scene, but shows such as “Beyond Borders: Art of Pakistan,” a monumental exhibition held in Mumbai in 2005, have provided important introductions. In their wake, New Delhi’s Anant Art Gallery has shown contemporary miniaturists like Nusra Latif Qureshi, Muhammed Zeeshan and husband-and-wife duo Khalid and Qureshi, while Delhi’s Nature Morte has exhibited Rana’s composite digital prints.
International auction houses and galleries already committed to the Indian market are expanding laterally. Green Cardamom co-founder Hammad Nasar concurs: “There is a lot of interest from members of the diaspora, who buy across borders.” Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s strategically used the more inclusive “South Asian” title for their recent auctions in New York. Christie’s, which began testing the market with works by Rana in its May 2006 Hong Kong sale, offered 11 Pakistani lots in New York, where Rana’s digital print, A Day in the Life of Landscape (2004), which reconstitutes a rural scene by Punjab Landscape School painter Khalid Iqbal out of tiny photographs of gritty, metropolitan Lahore, went for an unprecedented USD 133,000.
Nasar is apprehensive about the effects of the increased commercial attention and dramatically rising prices: “Suddenly there are two tiers: internationally recognized artists who command high prices and hop between biennials, art fairs and museum shows, versus those who experience some increased interest, perhaps in India, but not the same trajectory.” He reflects: “Perversely, Pakistan’s lack of commercial and institutional infrastructure enables artists to produce art they actually want to produce. Many rely on teaching or graphic design to make a living, and are not beholden to the market.”
Will the emerging international market compromise this almost inadvertent avant-gardism, privileging a more profitable “export quality” aesthetic? The answer may lie in the fate of the headline grabbing, surprisingly maverick NAG. While the Ministry of Culture asserts that the art displayed will not be censored, it remains to be seen whether the institution will support, collect and exhibit challenging work or whether it will capitulate to political priorities and quell criticism while projecting President Musharraf’s “soft, peaceful, tolerant” image of Pakistan to the world. Until NAG’s mandate is determined, artists in Pakistan may have to hold out for a local rallying point, even as they press on into the global arena.