Travelogue | New York

5–10 November
12–16 November: Drawing Parallels

5-16 November 2007

Being in — and breathing in — New York in November seemed perfectly timed. Winter had not yet affected the city’s pulse. With the weather on my side (for the moment) and the city’s seeming insomnia, I was excited to see to where my exploration of Pakistan’s presence in New York’s contemporary art scene would lead me.


5–10 November: Bursting at the Seams

I made my way to the Asia Society, where two very strong exhibits are currently on display. Each one appeared to originate from opposite points of the spectrum, as contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan’s large-scale engaging and unnerving pieces in ‘Altered States’ were in hugging proximity to the delicate, historical works on display in ‘The Arts of Kashmir’ exhibit, charting religious, aesthetic and spiritual influences on the varying art forms of the once multi-cultural kingdom of Kashmir (which is now war-ravaged). It was particularly exciting to see a selection of miniature paintings on display; their precision and playfulness stood as predecessors of Pakistan’s contemporary miniature movement. These historical images are of paramount importance to the movement that has so captured the imagination of viewers worldwide. Indeed, the studious copying of these visual references forms an integral part in the instruction of miniature painting, yet at best these works are studied in the form of print. Experiencing the paintings themselves — paint, line and texture — was significant because of their meticulous revelations.

My next artistic encounter moved sharply forward into the future. Huma Bhabha’s work was on display at Salon 94. A member of the diasporic community, Bhabha has made a modest place for herself in New York’s contemporary art scene. I enjoyed her work and found that her soft sculptures carry an informal, eclectic and deconstructed quality about them. The use and play of different mediums on varying surfaces resulted in interesting, sometimes haunting sculptural and installation works. Her work fills a gap in contemporary sculpture — one that few venture into. Interestingly enough, she has yet to exhibit her work in Pakistan.

The most bustling of all of my interactions came during New York’s first ever Contemporary Asian Art Fair, which took place from the 8–12 November at Pier 92. Here, I found a significant amount of Asian art that seemed to overtake the very large venue that was hosting it. The scale of the fair makes it one of the largest events in contemporary Asian arts in New York’s art calendar this year. Upon entering, I was excited and curious and wondered whether I would see any representation of the contemporary Pakistani arts scene.

Ushered in by giant banners, I made way through Pier 92. Inside, the fair had approximately 75 booths with representatives from 81 galleries from around the world. Also in attendance were representatives of art journals and other publications. Fifty-three of the galleries hailed from Asia, while the remaining were situated in Europe and North America. My first overriding thought was to note how the artworks that occupied the space un-apologetically dislocated carefully constructed, exoticized and possibly naive notions about the face of contemporary Asian art. The works at ACAF shared strong thematic undertones of subversion, in all its possible and improbable forms. Most of the art on display was East Asian, while representation of Southeast and South Asian art was visible but to a noticeably lesser extent.

Though there were a few galleries that had shown contemporary Pakistani artists in the past, such as Aicon Gallery (New York and London), or were currently in talks with artists, none of the galleries had the work of Pakistani artists on display. However, just as I was beginning to lose hope of locating contemporary Pakistani artworks, I walked into the ACAF’s special exhibit, ‘Simulasian: Refiguring “Asia” for the 21st Century’. Probing at the heart of what the dynamics of ‘being Asian’ may encompass, the exhibition sought to challenge oriental, exoticized and stereotypical perceptions of how and what Asian art should look like in the post-colonial world. The exhibit successfully did this by showcasing explorations and inquiries by artists into notions of nationhood, religion, pop-culture and the self.

Here I found the works of Bani Abidi, a Karachi-based artist responsible for pioneering works in the field of video art and installation. Her work titled The Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star-Spangled Banner, was a humorous and clever commentary on the multiple levels of cultural colonialism, past and present. Drawing a crowd, and some appreciative chuckles, it was an engaging piece. Moving deeper into the show, I found the works Ali Kazim before me. Kazim, though relatively new to the scene has been a source of great interest on both global and national levels. His work intrigues and disturbs simultaneously. His surfaces are immaculately rendered and his images carry strong tones of homoerotism (strictly taboo in Pakistani society) and yet retain shrouds of ambiguity.

The presence of Pakistan at the fair was miniscule, at best. However, much like the contemporary miniature movement that so defines Pakistan’s contemporary art scene at present, although small is was significant.


12–16 November: Drawing Parallels

Slightly deflated with the gallery scene in New York, I walked eastwards, deep into Chelsea, approaching one of the last galleries on my list for the day. Inside I meet with Thomas Erben, owner of the Thomas Erben Gallery. Having had a successful group show in the summer titled, ‘Contemporary Art from Pakistan’, Erben was as engaging in his conversation as he was insightful about the movements and sensibilities of contemporary art. He found the contemporary art scene in Pakistan to be unique and refreshing but one that still contained very high levels of technical skill. There on his fourth-floor gallery space, facing the windows framing New York twilight, we discussed AAA, and from our comfortable, ergonomically designed chairs I gave him a guided tour of the AAA website. Towards the end came an interesting discussion and comparison of the works of Bhupen Khakhar to that of Anwar Saeed, who both share stylistic and thematic similarities.

My observations of Pakistan’s role in New York’s art scene left threads that were to be picked up later in the week, in a candid conversation over lunch at the Harvard Faculty Lounge with Kim Masteller, Director of the Sackler Museum, Sunil Sharma, Senior Lecturer in Languages at Boston University, and Art History Professor Afshan Bokhari. All three participants have had extensive experience with South Asian art in the West and had much to say about the representation of Asian work in western markets and gallery spaces. The lively discussion elicited strong opinions about the current artistic and political climate in Pakistan and the momentum that contemporary Pakistani arts are gaining on the international stage. Most importantly, the three agreed that AAA’s role in the region is a significant indicator of the direction of art and that the existence of such a platform is vital. We also discussed the collections of the Sackler and Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge as well as recent innovation within miniature painting. Two particular challenges associated with researching Pakistani art that were identified during our discussion included public accessibility of information and the availability of credible sources for research and information gathering

Barring the pervasive presence of Shazia Sikander in most conversations I had with gallery owners, directors and assistants in New York, I found that although the work of artists in the Pakistani diaspora is quietly burgeoning, it most often remains under the radar. However, in each of my visits to a gallery or in search of an artist, I encountered growing interest and tentative excitement (an excitement usually restrained because of uncertainty about the political atmosphere in Pakistan) about contemporary Pakistani art that seems to signal the coming of age of Pakistani art on the world’s stage.




Fri, 16 Nov 2007

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