Pak­istani artists steal the show at Art Basel Hong Kong

The National - News - Arts & Life - - Front Page - Tahira Yaqoob

When Pak­istani artist Rasheed Araeen first be­gan mak­ing minimalist sculp­tures in the 1960s, the im­por­tance of his pi­o­neer­ing work was not im­me­di­ately recog­nised.

“No one ever re­ally paid much at­ten­tion,” says Kim-ling Humphrey, a man­ager at Araeen’s Hong Kong gallery Rossi and Rossi. “They would only ever read it in a post-colo­nial sense as a Pak­istani artist and not re­ally see it as an aes­thetic work in its own right.”

That seems set to change with an in­creas­ing in­ter­na­tional fo­cus on work pro­duced by Pak­istani artists, ev­i­dent at the re­cently con­cluded Art Basel Hong Kong fair (ABHK).

Pak­istani artists have been work­ing fu­ri­ously for decades, and while they are reg­u­larly featured in the UAE’s art fairs, only a se­lect few, such as Rashid Rana, have won recog­ni­tion on a global scale – un­til now.

The Asian fair brought to­gether former en­gi­neer Araeen and ris­ing star Waqas Khan in the En­coun­ters sec­tion, which in­volved 17 large-scale in­stal­la­tions dot­ted around the walk­way cross-sec­tions to con­front and chal­lenge vis­i­tors.

Areen’s House of Red Bam­boo was a nod to the dizzy­ing scale of con­struc­tion in the high-rise city, mir­ror­ing the bam­boo scaf­fold­ing of­ten seen erected in Hong Kong, while re­flect­ing on geo­met­ric forms and a utopian ide­ol­ogy. La­hore- based Khan, mean­while, trained in minia­ture paint­ing, ex­plored form on a dif­fer­ent scale with In the Name of God II – thou­sands, per­haps mil­lions of his tiny pen strokes unit­ing in a med­i­ta­tion on spir­i­tu­al­ity and per­fect sym­me­try, un­fold­ing over a giant parch­ment made of hand­made wasli paper, which was his­tor­i­cally used to paint minia­tures. “With Pakistan there has al­ways been a grow­ing in­ter­est be­cause of its geopo­lit­i­cal po­si­tion,” says Karachi- born artist Naiza Khan, whose Boudicca- like ar­mour sculp­tures cast in metal, ex­hib­ited at Rossi and Rossi’s booth at the fair, ques­tion themes of fem­i­nin­ity, re­pres­sion and the fe­male form.

She prac­tised and taught in Karachi for more than two decades be­fore mov­ing to Lon­don two years ago. “Peo­ple want to see what else is hap­pen­ing and what other sto­ries are there.

“From within the in­sti­tu­tional art space and art mar­ket, in­di­vid­u­als are pick­ing at that big moun­tain and slowly mak­ing works vis­i­ble.”

Bi­en­nales are set to go ahead in Karachi and La­hore this year.

For Pro­j­jal Dutta, a part­ner in New York’s Ai­con Gallery, which has been cham­pi­oning Pak­istani artists for years, recog­ni­tion can­not come soon enough. “Pakistan is like Ber­lin in 1936,” he says. “The po­lit­i­cal cli­mate is on a trip­wire all the time. That pro­vides an edge.”

Con­flict and ten­sion, he says, spark cre­ativ­ity. He com­pares the art scene to the end of the Mughal em­pire, the “high point of Urdu po­etry even though the gov­ern­ment and em­pire were go­ing down the tubes”. At ABHK, Ai­con has an eye-catch­ing booth fea­tur­ing one of Anila Quayyum Agha’s con­tem­pla­tive black cube sculp­tures, tak­ing its inspiration from the Kaaba and daz­zling with its light and geo­met­ric forms, as well as her laser-cut paper works.

By con­trast, the booth also fea­tures post-apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scapes by Bri­tish-Pak­istani artist Saad Qureshi. They might be at op­po­site ends of the spec­trum, but both rep­re­sent soul- search­ing trea­tises on spir­i­tu­al­ity.

What is fas­ci­nat­ing about the ris­ing breed of Pak­istani artists is how many have taken tra­di­tional tech­niques such as minia­ture paint­ing and in­ter­preted them in their own way.

La­hore-based con­cep­tual artist Hamra Ab­bas, ex­hibit­ing in Lawrie Shabibi’s booth at the fair, takes ev­ery­day sub­ject mat­ter – the mi­grant work­ers who form the back­bone of life in Sin­ga­pore – and el­e­vates their sta­tus with a se­ries of de­tailed minia­ture paint­ings on silk, mar­ry­ing tech­niques she learnt in Pakistan with Chi­nese gongbi paint­ing.

Alexie Glass-Kantor, cu­ra­tor of the En­coun­ters sec­tion in ABHK, was surprised by the “level of can­did en­gage­ment and open­ness” she dis­cov­ered on a re­cent trip to Pakistan, and is plan­ning to re­turn in Novem­ber to ex­plore fur­ther.

She went to Is­lam­abad last year as a judge for an art com­pe­ti­tion staged by the Swiss Agency for De­vel­op­ment and Co­op­er­a­tion along with the United Na­tions and met young art stu­dents to talk about their work.

“They com­pletely ar­tic­u­late the com­plex­ity of the con­text in Pakistan,” she says. “There was an open­ness that was re­ally dis­arm­ing for me.

“There is a great new gen­er­a­tion do­ing great per­for­mance work. I am ex­cited to go back.”

art­slife@then­ational.ae

Cour­tesy Ai­con Gallery

From Rachid Ko­raichi’s Se­ries La Priere des Ab­sents.

Cour­tesy Ai­con Gallery

Re­gen­er­a­tion IX by Anila Quayyum Agha.

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