This first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 04. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.
Art markets can defy borders
The art market can be "democratic," defying national and political borders.
Throughout the art market's operations, the notion of art within a country (mainly through curated survey shows) is challenged and questioned. While holding a Pakistani passport, I connected with various individuals in the Indian art world, such as Delhi-based Lekha and Anupam Poddar, avid art collectors with one of the most significant collections of contemporary art from India. In 2004, they expressed interest in acquiring experimental art produced in Pakistan—art that I previously witnessed to be classified as uncollectable by collectors. Over the course of the next three years, the Poddars accumulated one of the largest collections of contemporary art from Pakistan, and invited me to curate an exhibition of this collection in 2010.
"What is so Pakistani about this exhibition?"
In curating this show, I faced two primary challenges:
First, there was no escaping the framing of this as a "national" show of some kind—something that I find problematic.
Second, the more transnational and well-traveled the art world is, the less the selection, presentation, and consumption of artists and their work has to do with an artist's nationality and place of residence. And yet, at the same time, my own experience informs me that the more Pakistani artists have opened up to the world, the more their work seems rooted in local realities. Despite diverse audiences coming from complex global circuits and intricate consumption routes, regional and localised issues have gained prominence as markers of authenticity. Whereas traditional practices previously dictated art's subject matter, today's Pakistani artists explore all kinds of formal, social, and philosophical issues. Therefore, the challenge was how could this exhibition address these contradictions and nuances?
The Viewer as a Curatorial Premise
Since there was no getting away from the "national show," I decided to problematise this curatorial framing instead. Moving away from overarching themes that would confine the reading, my goal was to expand the meaning of the artworks and open up the various possibilities of their interpretation.
My approach to this project was close to my working methodology as an artist: relying on "visual thinking." I began to think of the works like railway carriages that can connect to one another. I was interested in creating a narrative in a playful way—with the aim of confounding and affirming the expectations of the hypothetical viewer. My guiding principle was to create a kind of flow or continuous experience for the viewer who may be sometimes surprised and sometimes enlightened by the unfolding of images, but always intrigued enough to follow the curated path.
Rather than perpetuating categories, I decided to experiment with new threads and associations. The aim was to break down the framework of "contemporary Pakistani art" and to re-present the collection in a way that disengaged it from established classifications. I put works together in a linear formation, like weaving a story, and trusted my visual instincts, or in fact, entrusted the viewers' intuition. In the process of reassembling the collection, I tried to bring to light resemblances and connections that have otherwise remained unnoticed.
A Culmination of Histories
Due to the lack of a developed arts infrastructure in Pakistan, it is common to have a single individual assuming multiple roles—an art teacher, artist, and curator in one.
For the Poddar collection, I was involved as a friend, informally playing guide to their trips to Pakistan, and as unofficial advisor to the collection. In retrospect, I trace my major influences to historical conditions:
In the absence of an arts infrastructure, academic institutions have become leaders in Pakistan's art ecology, becoming over-nourished and possibly overshadowing other aspects of the fragile landscape. My critical position towards nationalism in art may be traced back to this institutional history. Art-making that is not confined by nationalistic rhetoric was one of the founding objectives at the School of Visual Arts (SVAD) of Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Lahore—its legacy continues to lead contemporary art production in Pakistan.
The dearth of research and writing on art and art history in recent decades has also compelled artists to create their own art historical narratives. These constructions have, in turn, found their way into art practices and discourses, surfacing in teaching curriculums and curatorial projects like Resemble Reassemble.
Rashid Rana is an artist, as well as the head and founding member of the Fine Arts Department at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore.