Contemporary Pakistani art has become a noticeable presence in art circles around the world, represented by many emerging and established artists who have been selected by art professionals for exhibition in major museums and galleries, especially in the last year.
Imran Qureshi is currently the leading representative of Pakistani art internationally. He takes inspiration from the royal Mughal courts and, blending that tradition with contemporary issues such as the wave of terrorism in Pakistan to create what have been praised as modern masterpieces. His site-specific installations include the famous “roof garden commission” on the roof of one of the world’s most prestigious museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York. Other architecturally-scaled and site-specific designs are located in the newly-opened Aga Khan Museum in Toronto where his work appears with that of five other contemporary Pakistani artists. He has a current installation at the Nuit Blanche in Paris and earlier this year he created a mural for the Tour de France as well. The Met and the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) have his work in their permanent collections.
It is sad that many of these artists may be better known in countries other than Pakistan
Waqas Khan, who does Sufism and minimalism, was shortlisted for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s prestigious Jameel Prize. He has also had exhibitions in many European cities. His work is currently part of an exhibition in a leading museum, the State Hermitage, in St. Petersburg and he has been selected as one of ten under-forty artists to look out for at Art Frieze Fair, London.
The very-talented Rashid Rana experiments with many media including painting, photography, video, sculpture and architecture. During the last year his work was displayed in New York, Dubai, Dhaka, Milan and the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, among many other places.
Shahzia Sikander is another Pakistani-born artist of great international acclaim who has held solo exhibitions throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Ireland, Australia and Hong Kong. The New York Times recently featured her as Pakistan’s foremost artist in their special feature on the country.
The long list of other contemporary Pakistani artists receiving international attention includes Khadim Ali, whose miniature paintings are part of the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Waseem Ahmad whose paintings are part of the permanent collection of the Asian Art Museum currently provides insight into miniature painting at the Humboldt-Forum in Berlin.
Anila Quayyam Agha, a sculptorist, won a prize award of 300,000 dollars for her work in Michigan. Young Irfan Hasan’s highly imaginative neo-miniature, realist-figurative work is currently on display at galleries in New York and London.
A tapestry by Hamra Abbas, installed at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, is inspired by the spectacular silk and gold curtain that covers the door of the Kaaba in Mecca. In addition, Faiza Butt, Saira Waseem, Muzzumil Ruheel, Ali Kazim, Muhammad Zeeshan, R.M. Naeem, Salman Toor, Komail Aijazuddin and Aisha Khalid, are receiving critical acclaim with work on display in major museums and galleries in Europe and the US.
Last week I attended an opening at Leila Heller Gallery, NYC which showcased the exquisite and highly skillful work of many artists mentioned above and I got a chance to meet some of them. The show attracted a large, diversified crowd and much of it was sold that evening.
These artists have experimented with a wide range of styles: classic and modern miniature, minimalism, figurative, portraiture, calligraphy, font-based, landscape, and abstract. They also work in other media such as sculpture, installations, tapestries, and murals, presenting a culturally rich and interesting perspective on contemporary, social and political issues as well as on the complex relationship between religion, history and culture, making an important contribution to bridging the cultural gap between Pakistan and the rest of the world, as well as promoting a soft image of Pakistan.
It is sad that many of these artists may be better known in other countries than in Pakistan itself. This is partially because much of the best work of Pakistani artists is in exclusive private collections rather than in public museums and galleries that Pakistanis have access to. Keeping art in private collections with limited viewership is like owning an expensive piece of jewelry and keeping it in a bank locker.
At Aicon Art Gallery in Manhattan this year, I saw over twenty pieces by Maestro Sadequain
Those that are on display are in foreign countries where ordinary Pakistanis cannot go. At Aicon Art Gallery in Manhattan this year, I saw over twenty pieces by Maestro Sadequain. Twelve Gate Gallery in Philadelphia regularly represents many Pakistani artists. At the annual meeting of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent in Washington DC I saw the work of many old masters including Gulgee, Jamil Naqsh, Ahmed Khan and Zahoor ul Ikhlaq.
The provincial and national governments in Pakistan should expand their patronage of art institutions and artists. The National Gallery in Islamabad does have some works of Pakistani artists but it suffers from a lack of advertising – most ordinary people in the city do not even know of the gallery’s existence. The task of patronizing Pakistani art should not be left to art-loving rich donors and investors alone. The need of the hour is to expand established museums as well as to establish more museums for modern and contemporary art so the Pakistani public can visit them regularly and learn about and enjoy art. With sustainable support from public and private sources these artists can inspire a new generation of artists who can follow in their footsteps and leave permanent colors on the canvas of the world art scene.
The author is working as a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New York.