Despite the economic downturn, London’s booming Asian art market is still attracting buyers, curators and art dealers from across the globe. This escalating demand for Asian art goes beyond the Mughal miniatures and Chinese ceramics as there is an ever-increasing interest in contemporary art that is both inventive and cutting edge. In the past, artists from India and China largely dominated the art scene in Asian galleries. However, the upward trend in showcasing exotic eastern art has led buyers to explore contemporary artists from other countries. So, art from Pakistan is fast gaining a recognition that has not been witnessed before.
One look at the list of exhibitions in the Asian art galleries will reveal that most of them are showing work of at least one Pakistani artist. Between 14 May and 7 June The Noble Sage gallery exhibited the works of Faiza Shaikh, a Pakistani artist living in London. Aicon gallery organised an exhibition called Failing States to show the latest miniature style paintings of Tazeen Qayyum and sculpture pieces made from kitchen utensils by Adeela Suleman. On 17 June, Rossi & Rossi arranged an exhibition titled Anomalies: from Nature to the Future. It was curated by the Indian artist Jaishri Abichandani who has included the work of fourteen South Asian women artists, among them is Hamra Abbas, a former graduate of National College of Arts. Green Cardamom organised an exhibition of the latest work of Ali Kazim.
In the late nineties, the established artists like Sadeqain, Gulgee, Jamil Naqsh and Tasaduq Sohail gained prominence in the art market. While the work of these old masters is still being sold in auction houses like Christie’s, the ever-evolving art scene of London which is eager to seek the new and inventive has rapidly led to the demand of work which is a crossroads between artist’s sensitivity and symbolic reflection of the culture and present-day environment. Tazeen Qayyum’s contemporary miniatures renders playful yet thought-provoking message showing the artist’s feelings towards the ‘War on Terror’. She uses cockroaches as a symbol of degradation in human values. But the use of entomology in an age-old painting style calls forth to further penetrate into the symbolic use of keera makoras. An exhibition of her recent work was held at the Aicon gallery, and the depiction of cockroaches is still a predominant theme of her work. Hamra Abbas, a sculptor and an artist, is fast gaining recognition with the label as ‘the artist to watch.’ Her three-dimensional work has echoes of the religious issues faced by the Islamic world. One of her recent works was short listed for the Jameel Prize, an international art prize launched by the V&A Museum, which is similar to the Turner prize in modern art. It is awarded to a contemporary artist or designer for work inspired by Islamic traditions of craft and design. Hamra showcased work entitled Please do not Step: Loss of a Magnificent Story. The work takes the form of a floor covering composed of an intricate and delicate pattern drawn from Islamic sources. Its position in the gallery means that visitors are compelled to walk over it, despite their natural reluctance to step on a work of art. This contradiction provides the work the power to evoke responses to the role of Islam in today’s world. By covering a large area, the work will convey a feeling of inescapability from the issues involved.
Whether it is the centrality of Islam in society, extremism or the social concerns, the issues related to the geopolitical situation of the region are recurrent themes in the work of the new generation of Pakistani artists. The frenetic political environment and complex social issues come across “in ways which are mediated, subtle and nuanced” – as described by Niru Ratnam, Director of Aicon gallery. As an academic and a writer on contemporary art, he sees the economic downturn as a turning point for the evaluation of art from markets other than European: “Collectors are thinking about buying works for their collections but in a more measured way. The trend to observe the emerging markets or parts of the world previously ignored is still there.”
The infrastructure that London provides for art has helped the city to become the second largest art marketplace after New York. Where the commercial aspect of selling art in other emerging art marketplaces has been affected by the recession, the dramatic expansion of contemporary art in London remains visibly intact. In 1992, the city had 10 galleries of modern art and now the number has risen to 110. This aspect of being a dominant force in contemporary art has renewed the appeal for Asian art and buyers now feel comfortable to invest in work that remained previously obscured.
Jana Manuelpillai is the Director of the gallery The Noble Sage, which showcases South Asian art. His eleven years of experience of working in major galleries in Europe and USA paved way to establish an art gallery that is purposefully dedicated to the “display and propulsion of South Asian contemporary art in the European art scene.” He claims to include a large number of works from Pakistani, Indian and Sri Lankan artists. Giving the example of the commercial value of Tasaduq Sohail’s work, he explains how Sohail still remains in demand, “Targeting a certain group just because the work is from that area of the world is rather limiting whereas opening up the market to all collectors is not. I try to do the latter. Tasaduq Sohail is perhaps the best example of this. Being an extremely collectible artist in Pakistan, we receive a number of offers of his work every week from clients in Pakistan. We also, however, sell a great number of his works to Indian, Sri Lankan and English collectors here in the UK from our gallery wall. He does not appeal solely to Pakistani clients; he has a strong British clientele who follow his work.”
Although recession has forced most of the galleries to tighten their belts and if many are running and open, they are reluctant to take on young art graduates. Instead, they are operating to lend, give and voice support for the upcoming talent. Green Cardamom gallery founded by Anita Dawood and Nasser Hamad has been a leading force in lending support to some of the young Pakistani artists, “The sorts of stories on Pakistan that the media here are primed to take in are to do with the political situation in Pakistan and sometimes it is difficult to get media to write on something that does not sit comfortably with the general consensus of Pakistan. It makes it that much more challenging to get something into the press but when we do it is very rewarding.” So, when Bani Abdi whose work was exhibited at the Green Cardamom gallery, was featured on the front cover of Art Monthly, a leading UK magazine of contemporary visual arts, it was a moment to rejoice. “We were all thrilled to have that coverage for her,” says Anita Dawood.
Bani Abidi’s documentaries are narratives which compel the viewers to see the humour and irony through ordinary happenings. The socio-political themes are canvassed through lenses, computer imaging and film-making. Reserved was a video that was produced for the Singapore Biennale in 2006. A single line, “A city awaits the arrival of a VIP” exposes the abuse of officialdom power in society. A contrast has been played between the smooth pace of the motorcade of a VIP and the chaotic outburst of children in uniform waving flags, traffic jams of rickshaws, families staring through the windscreens and officials wearing badges standing outside grand entrances. The history that has been shaped by similarities and disparities shared between Pakistan and India is also a dominant theme of Abdi’s work. The finer subtleties between the cultures of these two countries come across in her films as an element that is less aggressive and not prone to fanaticism unlike what is believed.
Among the Pakistani artists dominating the international art scene is Hamra Abbas. Her miniature Buddha-like sculpture sitting in the centre of Rossi and Rossi gallery is easily lost in the background of the white walls. But on careful inspection, the innocent image of a baby holding snakes in his hands recalls forth the invincible significance of a male child in the subcontinent. It is difficult to ignore her work. In the Green Cardamom gallery, her exhibit which is ‘Sound sample from Read’ is the recording of voices of the students rehearsing their Quranic lesson in a Madrassa. Her exhibit evokes a powerful reflection on the method associated with Islamic education enforcing the belief that ‘rote’ learning deadens all sense of inquiry and solely relies on memorisation.
The Pakistani art scene is at a crossroads where it is striving to interpret the culture hidden behind a complex façade of social issues and, at the same time, grappling to forge a separate identity. No doubt, 9/11 has generated fertile and new fields of work from artists who are eager to participate in the global platform.
A Q&A with Fabio Rossi
In the heart of London’s fashionable Mayfair area is the Rossi & Rossi gallery, renowned for showing Indian and Himalayan art. Over the years, they have also included contemporary Asian art. Last year, Pakistani artist Naiza H Khan exhibited metallic sculptures and a series of drawings which was part of a collection of work titled, The skin she wears. This year, the gallery arranged a group exhibition of fourteen Asian women, Anomalies: from Nature to the Future. Fabio Rossi (picture, right), the owner of the gallery, speaks to Blue Chip. Among other topics, he also highlights his interest in arranging the exhibition of Asian women artists.
Did you always wanted to become an art curator?
Fabio Rossi: “I have been involved with art, in particular Asian art, from a very young age. In my teens, I travelled extensively in Asia with my mother, who has been an art dealer since 1970. I am not sure whether I would consider myself an art curator, but I definitely enjoy the process of putting on a show and producing accompanying catalogues. There is a process of discovery that I find very rewarding.”
What type of Asian art do you exhibit in your gallery?
FR: “We exhibit both classical and contemporary art from Asia as both fields are of interest to us. We don’t see a dichotomy; on the other hand there is a lot of continuity. Our main focus is the Himalayas and South Asia.”
When you are selecting work for an exhibition, do you follow your instincts or there are some causes that you want to highlight?
FR: “The first element in the selection is my instinct and my aesthetic vision. Often, a more focused theme develops from these beginnings.”
Is Rossi & Rossi an art gallery that primarily arranges exhibition of work that is easier to collect, or work which requires commitment of maintenance and space?
FR: “I think we are open to ideas. Not all of what we show is ‘easy to collect’; there are a lot more challenging works that get exhibited. In principle, I believe collecting art is a commitment but it is also to be enjoyed.”
What motivated you to arrange an exhibition of the work of women artists from the South Asian region?
FR: “The genesis of this project was in meeting Jaishri Abichandani, the curator of the show. I had seen another show she curated in New York and I really liked her approach and her commitment to showcase the work of her peers. I also thought this was an important show for London as nothing similar had been done before.”
Judging from their work, is there a common identity that they share?
FR: “I think the common identity, apart from gender, is their diasporic journey and the fact that most of the artists are rarely included in exhibitions of contemporary South Asian art; instead they have forged their own paths.”
The art that is emerging from the Asian countries – do you think it is culture-based or modern?
FR: “This is a complex question and I don’t think there is a straightforward answer. In the exhibition Anomalies itself, it is clear that work varies from looking completely contemporary to clearly quoting South Asian artistic tradition.”