Aerial view of Lahore. Photo by Sonya Rehman for ArtAsiaPacific.


Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

On April 26, the Pakistani Supreme Court convicted current prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of contempt of court for not reopening graft cases against president Asif Ali Zardari. Less than a week before, a discount airline crashed in Islamabad, killing all 127 passengers; this was later attributed to company negligence. Sources of entertainment, political talk shows dominate prime time—all alarming signs of an anomalous environment.

Urban planning in Lahore has taken a bizarre turn. The city is increasingly dominated by gates, checkpoints and defensive four-foot-high walls—which protect soldiers while supporting the barrels of their guns, pointed at passing cars. These transformations are shrinking civic space, encroaching further on the rights of citizens, in the name of security. While queuing in line, waiting for the armed soldier to feebly wave one to enter their own domain, the eye wanders over the surroundings. Hand-painted flora-and-fauna motifs, outlined with cut-outs of bright patent leather, embellish trucks, rickshaws and food stalls, alongside lively cinema posters showing women in suggestive postures and exaggeratedly valiant men.

Such raw, crude images are publicly acceptable in “mullah” culture, but when rendered by the fine artist, the same imagery is banned. Works with images of women with uncovered heads are censored at the Alhamra Art Gallery, run by the Lahore Arts Council. Private galleries are hesitant to show works with any element of nudity. In February, Saira Sheikh’s solo exhibition “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” at Rohtas 2 Gallery, which included nude sketches of the artist, was limited to private viewing out of concern that the Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami would create mayhem.

In this chaotic scenario, Beacon House National University and the National College of Arts are producing a profusion of artists who struggle to exhibit in the limited spaces available. Gallery culture in Lahore is almost nonexistent, with a few fighting to survive. Most venues are commercial, selling to clients who walk in with swatches of cloth to match paintings to their interior decor.

Likewise, national support for arts and culture is almost nil. Before 1995, the ministry for culture was joined with that of sports and tourism. In 2006, separate ministries for culture and sports were created and art world experts were called to draft a revised cultural policy, finalized in 2008—with no visible results as yet. Like other government branches, the ministry lacks a vision and a good leader. The current minister holds a master’s degree in agriculture. With a series of incompetent governments, it is still too early to expect a cohesive national policy for art.

It is commendable that in these circumstances Lahore is nevertheless producing artists with international reputations, introducing new genres to the world, such as the “Neo-Contemporary Miniature.” Locally, however, most artists are going unnoticed. Rashid Rana, who has made waves internationally with his large images composed of micro ones, is booked for international exhibitions and talks for the next two years, but is largely overlooked at home.

The reason is obvious, yet not articulated. Eminent Pakistani artists hardly exhibit their works at home due to the limited number of local platforms, and the dearth of curators, agents and art dealers. Artists of international repute, such as Imran Qureshi, Bani Abidi, Naiza Khan and Hamra Abbas, have established a network of buyers and dealers abroad. Following their lead, the majority of artists in Pakistan wait to be picked up by either New York’s Aicon Gallery, Green Cardamom in London or Gandhara Art Gallery in Hong Kong.

When there are few local buyers or collectors, galleries cannot survive for long. Established in 2008, Grey Noise aspired to be a Pakistani gallery with global clout—it moved out of Lahore to Dubai earlier this year. As for Rohtas 2 Gallery, it has barely survived the last two years, as its curator Asad Hayee strives to explain the importance of supporting local artists.

Yet, with an ever-growing number of artists, and due in part to the phenomenon that art from places of conflict garners attention from the global art world, interest in local artistic production has increased. And it is this international attention that many Pakistani artists are grappling with. International patronage for Pakistani artists, rather than domestic support that trickles down to artists in the local market, is sadly a more viable option at the moment. Our artists can only survive if they first shake hands with the rest of the world and return victoriously, hoping by then that they are recognized for their achievements.