A Good Curator Brings the Fireworks to a Show

I’m a curator. And I have to confess I have not done the art industry in Pakistan any favors. But it was clear to me at the onset that any show I curated must, at the very least be accompanied by a referential text. But there have been many instances when my text has not seen the light of day and has in fact, more than once, ended up in the garbage heap.

Curatorial efforts in Pakistan are restricted to a singular responsibility and it is perhaps because of this constraint that curators in Pakistan often feel compelled to change hats and widen their ambit. Their obligations are circumscribed to assembling a few artists under the purview of a thematic premise and showcasing their work in a gallery or museum. Most often artists are selected by little more than a whimsy; “I know this guy, he’s a good artist. I’d like to give him a break”. In its larger paradigm of documenting research material for a particular art institution, cataloging acquisitions, raising funds and grants, buying works of art for galleries’ permanent collection, curatorial management does not exist in Pakistan because sadly, state art institutions do not exist, nor do private ones for that matter — except perhaps the Karachi-based Rangoonwala, a family-owned enterprise that had the vision to set up Green Cardamom in London with a well-informed curator Hammad Nasar at its helm. Of course, the project was disbanded in its infancy because of the limited vision of the owners. Only recently, collectors Amna and Ali Naqvi have initiated a residency for Pakistani artists in Spain which we hope they will sustain.

But talking of hats, everyone has a few in Pakistan. We know art and activism are natural collaborators; they’re a match made in heaven. Artists, or art teachers turned curators bring their own perspective to the table, an insight they have gleaned from personal experience and study. But collectors writing and publishing critical essays on artists they represent or commercial gallerists involved in decision-making processes of educational institutions may be too close to the red line for comfort. Yet again, these become subjective arguments when you visualize the tiny pool of people who comprise the art industry in Pakistan. In a population of 200 million Pakistanis there are perhaps 50,000 who are associated with art, including peripherals like framers. I may be off by a few thousand, but it is still a drop in the ocean.

                          Too many hats, Too few wearing them

All art in Pakistan is a commercial enterprise; not to say that there is much of anything esoteric or altruistic or sublime left in the practice of art in any part of the world. Still there are collectives and activists who devote their lives to raising consciousness. The things that raise art from the mire are pedagogy, research and criticality and though pedagogy leaves much to be desired in Pakistan, we can be thankful it exists in some measure. But what has truly given us hope for the enrichment and elevation of art in recent times has been the two Biennales held in Karachi and Lahore in 2017 and 2018 respectively. And within the Biennale, it was the curatorial aspect that was the stimulating factor. The fact that for those few days, art was wrenched away from commercialism and enjoyed by people who would not normally see a work of art were both stirring and strengthening factors for art. Kudos to all the curators involved in the Biennales. It would have been wonderful if the events had opened with catalogs in hand but according to Niilofur Farrukh, Managing Trustee of Karachi Biennale 17 it will be publishing its catalog at the end of 2018. And as per Qudsia Rahim, co-founder and Executive Director of Lahore Biennale 01, there were two publications that assisted viewers to the placement and artist’s framework regarding the installations. A more substantive publication is in the works.

It should go without saying that a curated exhibition should always be accompanied by documentation. Curators must at least insist on the shows they bring to a gallery to be accompanied by a referential document. The Sanat Initiative, in Karachi has since its inception in 2014, made it an imperative to print a catalogue with every show put up in its space, and has not suffered any undue financial loss for it. But if a catalog is not the norm for every show, it is as much a fault of the curator as the gallerist, for curators are grateful for the extra money they earn and are quite content letting go of trivialities such as accompanying text. Also, if galleries and artists were to divvy up the amount to be paid to the curator it would be a more equitable solution.

In Pakistan, we want to be everything – curator, artist, writer, critic, film-maker, orator, designer… which is wonderful if you’re the renaissance man or woman but absurd unless you have ambitions to build yourself into a giant of the art industry. In such instances, not only do boundaries become nebulous, you set yourself up for inconsequentiality.

A good curator brings the fireworks to a show. He/she creates links where none were to be expected or previously perceived. A curator encourages the artist to push the envelope, and expresses through discourse, when some innovations just don’t work, instead of encouraging artists to innovate only because it’s a newfangled idea. To innovate successfully, good curators create epistemological conditions within which the artist can thrive and create.  Artists and curators must create an ongoing dialogue within which there is no hierarchy, and while no emotional connection is required whatsoever, professionalism plays the supreme role toward accomplishment. On the other side of the coin however, curators know the art of framing ideas and serve up notions so ingeniously that emptiness becomes palatable and even savoury. High on the Richter scale of obscenity, I give you Damien Hirst’s new Veil Paintings — muddied splotches of paint on what must surely seem a lowly canvas to him after grandiose tanks of formaldehyde. The marks or dots or blemishes he says “ultimately give you nothing but a visual buzz”. He is heavily touted by that god of a salesman of contemporary art Larry Gagosian who it is said can sell canned feces (No idea if he actually did sell it to the Tate). But to give credit where it is due, Gagosian would never call himself curator or critic. He is a gallerist and art seller and he would not be pretentious enough to be anything else. In Pakistan, we want to be everything – curator, artist, writer, critic, film-maker, orator, designer… which is wonderful if you’re the renaissance man or woman but absurd unless you have ambitions to build yourself into a giant of the art industry. In such instances, not only do boundaries become nebulous, you set yourself up for inconsequentiality. We don’t let it become apparent but in Pakistan, it’s quite a rambunctious jamboree happening at any given time — one big carnival. But it’s all wonderful because it means we don’t take ourselves too seriously and can enjoy the sublimity of art as much as the Mad Hatter enjoyed his tea party.

Three memorable shows, two held in Karachi, Pakistan and one in the US have been milestones in the history of curated shows of Pakistani artists. These included The Rising Tide, New Directions in Art from Pakistan 1990-2010 held from November 2010 to March 2011 curated by Naiza Khan at the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi and Lines of Control by Hammad Nasar, an exhibition that travelled to three cities, Dubai, Karachi and London in 2009, and Hanging Fire, held in New York under the auspices of Asia Society, New York, curated by Salima Hashmi in 2009. They were all thoughtful, significant, relevant and larger than life shows. They left an impact on audiences; not only regular artists, students, critics and collectors but a much wider segment of society. What set them apart from other exhibitions was an element that every curator hopes for but rarely achieves: the wow! factor.

Salima Hashmi recollects the challenges she faced curating Hanging Fire which should make us all stop and listen for a minute. Hashmi had already learned the ropes of curating when she co-curated ‘An Intelligent Rebellion -Women Artists of Pakistan’ with Nima Poovaya-Smith for Cartwright Hall, Bradford City Museum in 1994 that toured the UK and went on to the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. She has also been part of curatorial teams that worked for the Rockefeller Foundation Show of contemporary art from the Muslim world, part of the Venice Biennale in the 90’s titled Memories and Modernities. She says it taught her “about curatorial team ups, always a challenging task”.

Hashmi comments about the Asia Society show in New York in 2009: “Hanging Fire was the first big Museum Show that I undertook from scratch, beginning with a presentation to the Exhibition Committee two years before the Exhibition I outlined my premise/concept for what was a very ambitious project at that stage. As it took off, the usual constraints kicked in, mainly to do with budgets, sponsors etc.

Through all of that one had to keep one’s mind on the actual vision- balancing so many ideas with what was feasible. I know I annoyed some of my dear friends and former students who could not be part of the show. I had a job to do — bringing some of the best and most thoughtful of what was happening in Pakistan, and also conversations with artists who balance the diaspora and home. It was not a linear survey, nor in any way a comprehensive one- it was my take as a curator on the multi/ layered, quirky, witty worlds we live and work in- by necessity it had to be pared down.”

“What did it mean in terms of curating? It was a tough call, but I think Pakistani contemporary art no longer needed the identity label after the show. The catalog is a document which grew wings thereafter — thanks to Ayesha Jalal, Carla Petievich and the other writers!”

Naiza Khan won the 2013 Prince Claus award for her complex and nuanced artworks. Add to that an epistemological understanding of geographical and psychological spaces and the insatiable need to uncover the workings of the human mind and Naiza Khan’s practice will become a little more overt. She talks about her experience in curating the Rising Tide exhibition:

“As a visual practitioner I see my role as encompassing a number of aligned goals; from art education to curatorial intervention and mediating artistic projects.  These multiple roles have been fluid and challenging and have afforded me the possibility to engage with the process of art making / art viewing, from the most intimate to the most public scale.  As a visual artist, I am interested in the potential of curatorial practice and how it sets up a site for dynamic exchange.

The project of conceptualising and curating ‘The Rising Tide: New Directions in Art from Pakistan 1990-2010’ was an exciting project which took two years.

It allowed me to investigate a set of ideas which were interwoven with my own interests in the city and the problematics of art making in South Asia.  Thus the curatorial premise lay at an intersection to my own work as a visual practitioner, and was a way to shadow the course of contemporary practices mapped out by my peers.  I was deeply interested in how art making had evolved in Pakistan over the two decades that straddle the events of 9/11.  I was also aware that the rhizomatic relationship of the artist to their politics and to the elasticity of the urban space was a riddle that had to be laid open to investigation.

The Museum offered a space that was public facing, accessible to diverse audiences, and in this process, the outreach for the exhibition was immense.  This curatorial project also compelled me to think about the role of the museum within the framework of a city like Karachi.

In the creative industry over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to develop models of art education, alternative platforms and curatorial approaches that are relevant to us in Pakistan, and to our needs on the ground.  To contribute to this ongoing effort has been an important personal project.  For me the role of community building is at the heart of this effort; to engage practitioners and the public in a wide range of exchanges that can create a common ground in our fractured cultural and social sphere.”

Few artists have seen the curatorial process from such varying perspectives as Abdullah M I Syed, who is an internationally recognized, prolific artist. “On the one hand, the artist/curator has the advantage of being in a position to visualize an idea, understand the technical limitation of the project as well as imagine the possible outcomes of the project. But this is where the curator’s role is determined – if he/she holds back and allows the artist to go ahead and bring the project to its conclusion, no matter what the level of success or failure, the curator has been objective. But often, the result is tainted by the curator’s own resolution which they eventually communicate to the artist, resulting in creative interventions that should not exist.”

“I have been working with curators for all my solo exhibition projects in Pakistan since 2010. Before that the burden of curating my own exhibitions, micro-managing it down to the last detail would drain me, leaving me unable to enjoy the process of art making. Since I freed myself from the burden of curating my solo projects, I can see a marked difference in my approach to editing and exhibiting and even in the articulation of my ideas. Furthermore, not curating one’s own show allows for a distance from the artworks.

A curator brings a fresh perspective to the entire creative process and plays the role of mediator between the gallery and artist as well as gallery/viewer/collector. I have curated exhibitions or projects by Pakistani and international artists and I can even see a distinction in my curating for others. I feel I can empathize with the artist as well as the gallery and find creative ways to solve conflicts and visual challenges and wherever necessary, allow the artist to see the larger picture.”

More than anyone, curators have their hand on the pulse of the zeitgeist which is the stuff of which artists are fired in the kiln of their careers. It is this spirit of the age that throws up ideas and increases chances of impacting possibilities. It opens eyes and doors. It leads us to unravel the wonders of the human psyche — its virtuosities and its iniquities; the space wherein lies all art that was ever made.

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