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Question of Peace, Answer of Art

By Muhammad Yousuf   07 July 2011
An Interview of Pakistani Artist Soraya Sikander published in the Gulf Today
A hotel room in Al Barsha, Dubai, might not be the best place to discuss Nature and our place in it. But well-known Pakistani artist Soraya Sikander, who was on a brief visit to the UAE recently, with her passionate description of Nature and her engagement with it, conjured up images of immaculate gardens, wild cliffs and remote locations, where Mother Nature flourishes in glorious abandon.

Her painterly fascination with flowers – roses, lilies, carnations, hydrangea and their specie – began in 2009 with a project called Flowers For Peace. “Floral imagery was painted to promote peace during the on-going war (in Pakistan, with terrorism). Shortly after, I held my first flowers for peace exhibition titled A Floral Symphony at the Unicorn Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan, in February 2010. The exhibition met with great critical and commercial acclaim and art for me became a medium for conveying a social message.”

Now she is determined to paint flowers and strive for peace, until the ‘War On Terror’ ends. “Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean I will not work on other series and projects simultaneously, but I will create imagery of flowers until peace is declared,” she says.

Sikander is part-owner of Unicorn Gallery, one of the leading art galleries of Pakistan. It was set up in Karachi in 2004 by Seemah Niaz, her mother. Since its inception, it has been promoting Pakistani art globally, exhibiting Pakistani Masters as well as the works of contemporary artists, to the world at large. Unicorn has exhibited in Dubai, London, Singapore, Delhi, Toronto and Mumbai, among other places.

A fearless speaker, with an endearing lisp (she pronounces “yeah” as “ya”), Sikander gives her mom anxious moments as she scours around for Karachi’s loneliest and most beautiful spots to commune with Nature and capture its beauties on the canvas. But Niaz, who had accompanied her daughter, also laughs away this disconcerting habit of her daughter, seeing the invaluable input it is giving to her growth as an artist.

But Sikander is rooted not only to one spot. She might give flowers wide play in her canvases, but she is also full of social commentary, sometimes of the most acidic sort.

“Recession was a pertinent issue that affected all universally in some way or another from 2008 onwards and I was no exception to this,” she says. “It was a crisis quite unlike any other in history and was going to significantly alter the way we lived for a long time to come. I felt the need to document this crisis on canvas, tracing its roots back to the founder of capitalist thought, Adam Smith. This gave birth to my first politically active and socially conscious series, Recession (in 2009).”

Her most recent work is titled Love Sonnets Of Mir. Done in pen and ink, it showcases a new series of paintings presenting the East in all her glory and her various cultural facets. Mir Taqi Mir (1723 - 1810) was the leading Urdu poet of the 18th century, and one of the pioneers who gave shape to the Urdu language itself. He was one of the principal poets of the Delhi School of the Urdu ghazal (a poetic form consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain, with each line sharing the same metre) and remains arguably the foremost name in Urdu poetry.

Love Sonnets Of Mir, which will be launched on July 15 till July 22 at the Pakistani High Commission in London, will highlight Urdu literature. The series is painted in a post-modernist way and, according to Sikander, will be the first of its kind and marks the beginning of many more similar series to come.

Three years ago she held her first exhibition. The place was Dubai, and, being the multi-cultural garden of nationalities it is, Indian and Pakistani artists took part in it. By 2009, her works were being exhibited at the National Art Gallery of Bangladesh, Dhaka. She painted a series of elongated and overtly stretched figurines in cubist style, drawing attention to deconstruction. It was an essay in deconstruction, degeneration, followed by rebuilding and regeneration. Abounding with rough, jagged, broken, inverted and parallel lines, it was symbolic of the issues the world was encountering. But the depiction hit a nerve in the palette: Sikander abandoned cubism, calling her picturisation “Stark! Without an iota of hope or delusion!”

She moved to the opposite side with A Floral Symphony, which exuded sunny optimism. It showcased an imagery of flowers, foliage, wild and everyday plants – a perfect antidote to the scourge of terrorism then as now being inflicted on Pakistan. Since 2010, the artist has been working on numerous pro-peace series and projects, striving to create art that represents a truly globalised and harmonious world and advocating pacifist ideology through her work.

She is at home in various styles: oil on canvas; watercolour on paper; ink on paper; impasto; Japonisme and woodblocks or Pointillism. “My influence has been Eastern arts, including Mughal and Jain miniatures, Ajanta and Ellora sculptures and Classical Persian art,” she says. In fact, her London show will be a tribute to her South East Asian heritage and will closely examine the various cultural influences that have enriched and shaped the South Asian sub-continent with rich and diverse hues.

She sportingly unpacked some of her works for Time Out in Dubai. They consisted of paintings, ink on paper and woodblocks, ranging from the semi-realist to the pure abstract. Using texture to enhance or create light and a general sense of mood, she adds tiny dots to create optical mixing. She does backgrounds strongly, which sharply defines the images. Finally, she has a mysterious way of evoking ancestral memories through her pictures, from the Garden of Eden and common historical moments to Islamic beliefs, myths and legends.

“I like to give historical events an art face,” says Sikander. “I like to depict every civilisation.” She is happy that the world is becoming pro-green, anti-nuclear, pro-peace and pro-tolerance. She is particularly elated that the younger generation is taking up these causes.

Doesn’t she think she also belongs to the Gen Next? “I am going to be thirty in two years!” she laughs. That may not be too young, but it isn’t too old either. Perhaps she is in the middle years, with a clear view of the past and a hopeful view of the future.

It is not hard to see where she has got her panoramic world view from. She spent her childhood travelling and living in different countries, including parts of Europe like the UK, the UAE and South Asia. She was a pampered child, being the youngest of three children. Her family has Indian origins, from Allahabad and Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. She studied fine arts at high school and later took her studies further under professional artists. She enrolled for foundation year at the upper crust Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi and graduated from plum-of-the-pudding Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, Pakistan.

So, will she tell us how London, Dubai and Karachi differ in their approaches to art? “London is vibrant and has a lot of diversity,” she says, “while Dubai is open to people from different countries, with lots of room for growth. It can become a household name in the field of art.” Karachi-ites love art – which was why her first show there was a massive hit.

Then it was time for goodbyes and the tireless traveller for peace got ready for her way back home to Karachi.  (The Gulf Today)

Karachi: Cultural Safe Haven
By Allison White
An ethnically diverse metropolis of 15 million, the port city of Karachi lies on Pakistan’s southern coast. Geographically and socially removed from the northwestern tribal areas that Western commentators call “the most dangerous place in the world” because of its reputation as a hotbed of militant fundamentalism, Karachi is the country’s financial capital. The city breeds a steely, enterprising spirit that has fueled the development of its artistic community and a local art market driven by young collectors from Karachi’s new upper class.

Pragmatic yet innovative, the contemporary art produced here reflects the cosmopolitanism of its artists and the experimental agendas of the city’s local arts organizations, most notably the nonprofit Vasl and the progressive Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS). During the last couple of years, new art spaces and commercial ventures such as Koel Gallery, initiated by textile artist Noorjehan Bilgrami, and Gandhara-Art, sprung up almost on a weekly basis in the affluent neighborhoods of Clifton and Defence Housing Authority.

The global economic instability that now threatens many of these fledgling galleries felt remote at a recent opening for young photographer Izdeyar Setna, a member of what the English-language newspaper Dawn dubbed the “Karachi fraternity” of leading photographers. By the middle of the evening, the buoyant crowd at the ten-year-old Canvas Gallery had snapped up three-quarters of Setna’s impressionistic, double-exposed photographic portraits of women. In late March, Sameera Raja, the owner of Canvas, moved the gallery to join others in Clifton.

What Pakistan’s largest city lacks is a major museum. With the attention and resources of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party devoted to maintaining law and order in the Northwest Frontier, the government has few residual resources for the arts. Pakistan’s first national art museum, the National Art Gallery (NAG) opened in Islamabad—700 miles northeast of Karachi—in late 2007 after decades of planning. But a museum in far-off Islamabad has little impact on Karachiites. Canvas Gallery’s Sameera Raja believes that private citizens need to do more to support the arts: “We are a country of rich people and poor government, so the people need to take ownership.”

Karachi’s artists aren’t waiting for a government-sponsored museum. Instead they are launching their own initiatives with entrepreneurial zeal, fulfilling a crucial role by integrating global art-making practices into the local scene. The artists’ collective Vasl, Urdu for “to come together” or “a meeting point,” was founded in 2001 by a band of artists including painters Anwar Saeed, Naiza Khan and sculptor Khalil Chishtee. In December 2008, Vasl partnered with British filmmakers Karen Mirza and Brad Butler on The Museum of Non Participation, a London-Karachi project commissioned by UK-based nonprofit Artangel that questions, in the words of Vasl coordinator Auj Khan, “the systems of modernity underlying the cities as well as systems of making art.” In Karachi, this exploration included a food vendor who used a newsletter created by Mirza and Butler to wrap up naan bread for takeout customers. The artists also painted bilingual English-Urdu signs on walls throughout the city that read “The Museum of Non Participation,” an appropriation of the graffiti typically used by political parties and businesses.

The expansion of Karachi’s art community has been supported by the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, founded in 1989 by a group of now-established artists and designers including architects Arshad and Shahid Abdulla, sculptor Shahid Sajjad and textile artist Shehnaz Ismail. Despite the very real implications of Pakistan’s unpredictable political and economic environment, the arts are rapidly attracting interest in Karachi as a viable career path. IVS ceramics professor Raania Azam Khan Durrani, who is in her mid-twenties, ran one of Karachi’s first alternative, interdisciplinary art spaces, the Commune Artist Colony from 2005 until it closed in 2008. In her own characterization of Karachi’s art, Durrani cites the artistic possibilities borne from Karachi’s freedom from tradition, allowing artists to experiment with materials, interrogate the boundaries of art and craft, and incorporate the motifs that shape daily experience in the frenetic city. Fellow IVS faculty member Adeela Suleman works with housewares like stainless-steel drain covers, kitchen tongs and tea kettles, which she morphs into sculptures resembling human forms or fashions into colorful helmets—a nod to Karachi’s massive contingent of motorcycle riders.

According to artist and professor Durriya Kazi, who established the visual studies department at the University of Karachi in 1999: “There is a social and cultural divide among artists as much as there is in Pakistani society. Art schools to a large extent shrink this divide.” Unlike IVS, many of the students who study fine art at the University of Karachi come from low-income families, but through the two schools and Vasl, artists from both sides show together. Kazi’s former student Abdullah Qamar recently started the Dhaba Art Movement; he and fellow artists organize art activities in the roadside tea stalls, or dhabas, where most of Pakistan’s citizens have cheap meals, an effort to bring art to poorer areas.

As a relatively safe haven from the fundamentalist violence plaguing northern Pakistan, Karachi is a place where contentious cultural issues can still be investigated. In late January, the London nonprofit gallery Green Cardamom brought their three-city exhibition “Lines of Control,” supported by the Rangoonwala Trust, to the Karachi’s VM Gallery. Work by Karachi natives Bani Abidi and Roohi Ahmed was shown alongside that of Indian filmmaker Amar Kanwar and multimedia artist Nalini Malani, addressing the controversial legacy of India’s 1947 Partition.

In March, however, Pakistan’s evolving political turmoil gripped Karachiites as lawyers led non-violent demonstrations demanding the re-instatement of the supreme court chief justice ousted by former president Pervez Musharraf. Seen as part of a larger anti-government corruption effort, the protests and chief justice Chaudhry’s eventual re-instatement electrified the art community, inspiring hope for political change.

Abroad, Karachi’s artists are earning growing recognition. Representation of contemporary Pakistani art has been dominated over the past decade by the neo-Mughal miniature painting movement based in Lahore at the National College of Arts, among whose most notable graduates are painters Shazia Sikander, Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid. In “Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan,” which opens in August at New York’s Asia Society, curator Salima Hashmi will include IVS graduate Huma Mulji, now based in Lahore, whose sculptures with taxidermy animals—a camel shoved into a suitcase, a water buffalo stuffed into a drainpipe—are metaphors for development gone awry. Hashmi has also picked IVS faculty member Naiza Khan, known for her layered abstractions and metal sculptures of women’s garments. As Karachi’s art community steps onto the international stage, it challenges perceptions that Pakistani art is limited to one location, one medium or one history. (Courtesy: ArtAsiaPacific Magazines)

Great Female Artists? Think Karachi
By Alexandra A. Seno
“Why have there been no great women artists?” asked American art historian Linda Nochlin in a landmark 1971 essay.Four decades later, her question still stands: while a handful of Western female painters, sculptors, and performance artists—Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic—have achieved the same level of fame as their male counterparts, the West’s elite art world continues to be dominated by male artists, curators, dealers, and collectors.
Look elsewhere around the globe, however, and women are thriving in some of the most dynamic up-and-coming art scenes. They’re even achieving widespread success in a country not exactly known for women’s rights: Pakistan. Female artists from the developing Muslim nation have been recently feted in exhibits like last year’s Hanging Fire at New York’s Asia Society and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in Japan.
Women also hold prime positions of influence in Pakistan’s art system, running prestigious galleries such as Karachi’s Canvas and Poppy Seed, and heading key art institutes such as the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore (under the direction of Salima Hashmi), and Lahore’s National College of Arts, which is overseen by Naazish Ataullah.
One reason for the unusually high ratio of female artists in Pakistan has to do with the fact that the art industry has not traditionally been viewed as a lucrative business by men, says South Asian art historian Savita Apte, who administers the internationally renowned Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Until very recently, creatively inclined males tended to focus on fields such as advertising or illustration, leaving the art field wide open for some very talented women.
And these women have been taking the art world by storm: for last year’s inaugural Jameel Prize, an award given to Islamic artists at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, both finalists from Pakistan—Hamra Abbas and Seher Shah—were female. (The winner, Afruz Amighi, is an Iranian woman.) And at the Hong Kong International Art Fair this year, Pakistani painter Shahzia Sikander won the SCMP/Art Futures award.
Female Pakistani artists may also be drawing international buzz because of the way they defy gender stereotypes about their country. “Because of the perception in the Western press, which often portrays [Muslim] women as covered, when the world looks at Pakistan, they want to go into the minds of women,” says Amna Naqvi, a former investment banker, founder of Karachi’s Gandhara-Art gallery, and an important collector whose work has been lent to museums around the world.
One of Naqvi’s favorite artists is Aisha Khalid, a painter in her 30s who is married to the prominent artist Imran Qureshi—although Khalid is considered to be the bigger name. Khalid’s Birth of Venus paintings depict fully veiled figures against a backdrop of Islamic symbols. Another work combines grandmotherly embroidery with pointed sexual commentary, such as sewing pins stuck through a coat, with sharp needles exposed on the inside.
Even for artists whose work does not deal with overtly feminine symbols, the link between their creative drive and their place in Pakistani culture is evident. Sikander, who was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2006, says: “Women in Pakistan in general wield a lot more power than what is perceived from abroad. In Pakistani society, women are less coddled, which makes them much more resilient, resourceful, and original.”
For Sikander, her art is a means for her to “question the social and political values of [my] time.” This places her with-in an emerging tradition of trailblazing international female artists, alongside Japanese sculptor and painter Yayoi Kusama, photographer Miwa Yanagi, video artist Tabaimo, and Iranian photographer Shirin Neshat. As artists from developing countries explode into the global art scene, these women will be leading the way. (Courtesy: Newsweek)

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