The recent art boom before the recession has given rise to the demand for art from Asia. But, too often, Asian art has been dominated by Indian and Chinese artists. However, there is one gallery that is making inroads by introducing contemporary Pakistani art which is getting noticed by the major galleries and museums. Green Cardamom has worked in partnership with the British Museum, Tate Modern, Tate Britain, The Whitechapel Gallery, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Asia House and the Royal Geographical Society; all of which have raised the profile of art from Pakistan.
The gallery develops and runs visual arts projects in collaboration with leading public museums and galleries and have included projects with organisations from US, France, Turkey, UAE, India and Pakistan. The organisation works on a not-for-profit basis and is supported by the Rangoonwala Foundation.
The brainchild behind the gallery is the duo Hammad Nasar and Anita Dawood who give credit to Asif Rangoonwala for his support and contribution. Anita Dawood in London talks to Blue Chip about the gallery and the Pakistani art scene.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in the art world?
Anita Dawood: “The visual arts had been in the backdrop of my life for quite a few years. When I was studying in London, I met my husband Hammad Nasar. We would visit galleries and museums regularly, and collected a lot of artwork. When we lived in Karachi in the 1990s we would often visit the Indus gallery and talk to Ali Imam, or visit the shows at Chawkandi Gallery. What I think changed things for me, was coming across contemporary miniature paintings by Muhammad Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid. Their work was focused in drawing an immediate connection between imagery in the contemporary world and the historical tradition. This thought inspired me to explore the historical connection to the place I belong and I felt art was the perfect tool for it.
We came across Khwaja Shahid and Yasmin Hosain, a wonderful couple based in London, who had just renovated their antiquarian bookshop on Connaught Street. We suggested setting up the shop as an art gallery. The Hosains were wonderful and very supportive. Even though it didn’t work out in the long run because we couldn’t make ends meet, it was a great experience. We had exhibitions of works by Usman Saeed that almost sold out, and had an exhibition of Saira Wasim and Hasnat Mehmood, which resulted in sales to four museums around the world.”
How did the idea for the gallery come up?
AD: “We wanted to create an accessible knowledge base about art from Pakistan through a combination of exhibitions, commissioning critical writing and developing publications. Also, we wanted to provide a wider stage for art from Pakistan that would receive more coverage. But we didn’t have the funds to set up anything like this and renting spaces to do a few exhibitions a year was not a sustainable proposition.
When we finished our second major publication, Beyond the Page; at that point, despite the success of the exhibition we were at a loss as to how to continue to make this work financially. Asif Rangoonwala had come to the opening of the exhibition and showed an interest in what we were doing and decided to help us.”
How has Asif Rangoonwala contributed towards Green Cardamom?
AD: “We went to Asif with a modest proposal to fund a small publishing project we were doing, and he challenged us to come back to him with something more substantial. He had seen or heard enough about our work to have an opinion about us and he had already made up his mind that he wanted to do something significant to highlight Pakistan’s cultural output in a positive way. I remember him pointing out the Nehru Centre to me, the Indian cultural centre in London which is opposite his own office, and how they were doing event after event with people pouring through their doors while absolutely nothing was going on to highlight Pakistan; even though we had so much to offer.
Asif sent our proposal to the Rangoonwala Foundation, who generously agreed to partly fund our programme for the next three years. While the Indian art market was beginning to pick up in 2006, the Pakistani art market was trailing behind. While our own interests were not purely commercial, we had to set up an operation that was financially sustainable; and lowering prices of Pakistani art meant that sustaining a wider programme of public exhibitions and projects through selling art from Pakistan wouldn’t work. The Rangoonwala Foundation basically agreed to plug the gap. Asif understood where we were coming from and what we were trying to achieve. As he put it ‘look, you guys are crazy but I am crazier.’ And that changed everything. The programme that we put forward to Asif for funding consisted of developing public projects in the form of exhibitions and publications, running an annual residency programme for artists from Pakistan to spend the summer in London, at Gasworks; a well-respected London art space; and in collaboration with Vasl; a Pakistan-based artists’ network. Asif’s assistance has helped us to work independently. We never wanted to apply for public funding from the UK for our core programme. We always felt that the buy-in for what we were doing had to come from Pakistan. This was about giving exposure to Pakistan’s cultural output. Asif completely understood that and invested in our idea. I may not be wrong in saying that he has helped raise the profile of Pakistani art internationally. This has also provided the opportunity to project Pakistan from a perspective that is too often overlooked by the media.”
How is the recession affecting the art market?
AD: “The art market is quiet at the moment. The auction houses that drove the Indian art market to giddy heights are now significantly quieter. In terms of new trends, currently, there seems to be an increased interest in art from the Middle East, which, after Indian art, looks to be the next big thing. The quietening down of the art markets is challenging for us in running our commercial operations but it just means that we need to be more creative about how we market the work we are selling. The previous hype in the art markets demonstrated that art can be a good investment and so increased the demand for art. However, I also feel that the stratospheric price increases has had an adverse effect on the quality of art. The Pakistani art market was never commercialised to that extent and there is still a core of Pakistani artists who are creating art that is firmly rooted in their own artistic journeys, not the demands of the market, which I feel results in more engaging and contemplative work.”
Has the current geo-political situation of the region contributed an interest in Pakistani art?
AD: “In one sense it has, but it has also meant that the sorts of stories on Pakistan that the media are primed to take has more to do with the political situation in Pakistan and sometimes it is difficult to get the media to write on something that does not sit comfortably with the general consensus of Pakistan being a basket-case of a country. It becomes a challenge for us to get something into the press and when we do it, it is very rewarding. We had Bani Abidi on the front cover of Art Monthly in the UK when she exhibited at Green Cardamom last year. Pakistan in the UK is not as sexy as India for the media to write on. But thankfully, there are enough people around who do recognise the content in Pakistani art.”
What are the future plans for the gallery?
AD: “We want to continue doing more of what we are doing. We want to work with artists from Iran and the Middle East. Our recent exhibition, Safavids Revisited, includes works by Muhammad Zeeshan and Khadim Ali from Pakistan and an Iranian artist Saedegh Tirafkan. This is a result of collaboration between us and the British Museum in response to their blockbuster Shah Abbas exhibition. We already have linkages with artists from other countries in South Asia. The exhibition Lines of Control, where we explored the impact of the partition of the subcontinent on our visual culture, included some of those artists. We are also working on projects which involve schools in the UK. There are loads more artists we want to work with, both within Pakistan and in the region, there are lots more publications we want to get out and lots more exhibitions we hope to plan.”