Bank Alfalah Premier
Recent decades have seen an emergence of research and scholarship that finds at its focus the subject of modern and contemporary art of the larger South Asian region, and particularly in the context of a decentralized network of configurations and manifestations that do not seek to either align themselves with Western conceptual and methodological perspectives, or see such practices as an act of mere mimicry within this context. Instead, recent scholarship on Modernism (in particular) views this as an expanded field that takes subjective histories, socio-political realities and the intellectual positionings and frameworks of artists into account and deconstructs these as negotiations that lie in between formalism, colonial and post-colonialism, and transnationalism. Where earlier historical models and readings saw Europe as the center of artistic activity and intellectualism, from which all other formations were derived, this new literature and discourse provides us with a perhaps more ‘authentic’, or at the very least more congruous understanding of the development of Modernist art in the South Asian region.Viewed in this context, the exhibition ‘Collectors’ Edition’ (14 - 16 April 2017) then takes on several modes of criticality and questioning, with the first being the positioning and conception of Modern art from the South Asian region, and another perhaps equally significant concern addressing issues of documentation and historicization, public institutions and accessibility. Particularly in the case of Pakistan, this latter marks the exhibition as momentous, as the support of state apparatuses remains negligible, and works of historical import become less and less within the reach of larger audiences who neither have the means nor opportunity to attain access to these, rendering an immense component of national and regional cultural production as (for all intents and purposes) invisible.Where arguments can be made (and acknowledged) on the basis of how one qualifies terms such as ‘public access’ and the socio-political and economic complexities embedded within such terminologies and the processes inherent within these, ‘Collectors’ Edition’ however, indubitably opens up the possibility of access to such works to audiences that may not have any point of entry to these at all. Patronage, particularly within Karachi, has always lay in the hands of private individuals and institutions that have filled the gap that state mechanisms could not – and it is perhaps in this lasting spirit that the willingness of such individuals comes to the fore, in the possibility of the creation of a visual framework that allows for renewed contemplation and discourse around such works.In the first context, that of decoding and building new modalities of interpretation around the idea of Modern art in South Asia, Iftikhar Dadi speaks of Modernism as “understood to reference cultural production that is experimental and reflexive, that inhabits new patronage arrangements, that seeks new audiences and venues and is generally concerned with exploring the predicament of South Asian Muslims in modernity by drawing on a ruined tradition that nevertheless persists as an imaginative force” . Viewed in this context then, the works of artists such as Chughtai, Sadeqain and Gulgee find new configurations and articulations in addressing traditional forms of Islamic art such as calligraphy or miniature painting, deconstructing and reformulating these, while also imbuing them with the distinctive gesture, trace and ‘signature’ of the artist. Where Western constructions of modern art, particularly as championed by the American critic Clement Greenberg, would not be able to absorb such works within their critical frameworks, privileging instead medium-specificity and particularly the non-representational, these new discourses and understandings or the transnationalist modernist practices is able to create new intellectual and aesthetic constructions through which these can be reconciled and penetrated. Similarly then, the Cubist-inspired works of Shakir Ali, the jewel-like fractured surfaces of Zubeida Agha and Lubna Agha’s paintings, and the gestural works of Bashir Mirza that find at their heart the formalist expression of color, resonating with color, medium and compositional concerns expressed in Ahmed Parvez and Anwar Jalal Shemza’s works (to name only a very few), take on renewed forms of articulation and interpretation.The discourse around an exhibition such as ‘Collectors’ Edition’ then is considerable and consequential, opening up new modes of questioning and criticality that allow for new forms of analysis and reflection to occur. Within Pakistan, this is of increasing importance, as research and writing around the subject must expand and take ownership of the modes of interpretation assigned to our history, and subsequently (and inseparably) future reading sof cultural production from the region.