Lahorenama in Karachi.
The exhibition at Sanat Gallery titled Lahorenama -Behind the Scenes in an Artist’s Studio curated by the vibrant artist Adeel uz Zafar consisting of works by newcomer miniaturist Ahmed Javed is an example of a show that has fallen off the rails and plunged into the abyss in terms of content and curatorial practice. The recent article Everyone’s a Curator on this website seems to have sorely missed its mark and the title failed to register as sarcasm. This show is a ringing example of what was mentioned in the second paragraph of the essay as to how some curators choose artists for exhibitions. (https://www.artemesiaartinpakistan.com/everyones-a-curator/)
When Shahzia Sikander broke new ground, what seems like eons ago, and re-engaged with the traditional genre of miniature, she created an ideation that dealt with contemporaneity and its ruptures. She said in an interview “My work is really about painting and thinking simultaneously and less about making works related to a genre. I’m interested in that distance between a point of origin and one’s current relationship to it; it fascinates me. Is it important to define what you’re looking at or doing with what you reference? There’s a whole myth around tradition, but how do you define tradition? Who makes tradition come into being only at a certain point in history? When you study how miniature painting has been understood and written about in art history, those definitions can be quite stale.”
The problem that arose after Sikander’s meteoric rise to stardom was Sikander’s meteoric rise to stardom. She went on to become one of the 100 most famous artists on the planet. Suddenly everyone in Pakistan thought “This is it! This is my ticket to fame and fortune too!” The following tier of artists who graduated in miniature painting after Sikander were thoughtful and selfless in their career choice and believed deeply in the tradition and its contemporary possibilities. They are artists of caliber; Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Risham Syed, Ali Kazim, Irfan Hasan, Muhammad Zeeshan Wasim Ahmed, Mudassar Manzoor. They carried upon their shoulders a heavy responsibility and a contiguous relationship with Pakistan and its art. The art industry under their guidance profited hugely in terms of intellectual evolution, pedagogy, stimulated dialogue and diversity as well as financial gain. But then as with all good things, there came the dastardly bandwagon.
There have been all manner of charlatans hanging on to that raft in the past decade. Mostly we manage to ignore them and allow them to fall over and drown of their own doing. But when a well-meaning, successful artist decides to curate a show of one of these well-meaning but fly-by-night artists, you are compelled to question why. Ahmed Javed’s works are wonderfully large, almost five feet by 3 feet in their expanse, upending the fundamental notion of miniature. But we must question Javed’s purpose in pursuing a voyage of discovery into the studios of well-established artists to paint them in miniature. If the works are laced with humor, they are far too nuanced to be apparent. If they are made to honor his teachers, the works should have been presented to the artists as gestures symbolizing his affection and gratitude. If they were made to tell the world, he was taught by famous artists, it is a show of sycophancy. In history, famous artists have painted their peers: Van Gogh painted Gaugin, Chuck Close painted Jasper Johns, Renoir painted Monet. But the emphasis is on peers. Here, there is a hierarchy and the hierarchy fragments the argument and purpose.
The write-up in the accompanying text tells us nothing. It is an uninformed, un-apprised piece of literature. It is true that Javed’s skill is remarkable and his eye for detail impressive but his role as voyeur is slightly disconcerting. The artists depicted in the works are profoundly engrossed in their studios and we feel less like a fly on the wall and more like intruders. These spaces are the artists’ inner sanctums and Javed is making a claim that he has had the privilege of being allowed into the recesses of the artists’ private realms. It is a statement of conceit, which was done with the full consent of the artists so Javed is not making a fabricated assertion, just a self-important one. This show is apparently the first part of a series but if Javed is to continue in the same vein, it would be beneficial to the artist to determine the end goal and accommodate his viewers while he carries on with his mission.
The conundrum here is that the referential paradigm is valid. If the show had been in a gallery of insignificance and the curator an artist of irrelevance, the notion of any criticality would not even have been an issue. Many of the galleries mushrooming in the major cities are art shops. To be sure they have a place in the peripheries of the art industry; but which artists they show or what they write does not influence judgment or merit review. In this case however, viewpoints have to be put forward and critical analyses must be presented in the sincere hope that there will be a rejoinder and this opinion will be challenged.