Terms of Empowerment
By Zahra Malkani
The past decade saw much hype around the increased presence of Pakistani art in the international art market. It seemed the world had suddenly woken up to Pakistan’s vibrant art scene. Pakistani art was making the rounds in international art exhibits, museum shows and auctions; prices were rising meteorically and there emerged a new class of Pakistani ‘global native’ artists, traveling around the world, signing on to international galleries, frequenting biennials and art fairs and selling their work at rates unheard of in the local art scene. The romance of cosmopolitanism and internationalism has always been essential to art and Pakistan’s sudden explosion on to the international art scene seemed to fit right into the discourses of a globalizing art market. The global contemporary art arena seemed to be a space where Pakistani voices were being heard, Pakistani narratives were being privileged, where Pakistanis were claiming space. Since the recession, however, the euphoria has dwindled and it is worthwhile now, to take stock. To look back at Pakistan’s foray into the international art market and to put it in perspective of the dynamics that dictate the terms on which countries like ours enter and exit and inhabit this ‘global’ art market.
In the prologue to his book, ‘The Culture Game’, artist and art historian Olu Oguibe reflects on how ‘the Western gatekeepers of the contemporary art world’ maintain and perpetuate their dominance whilst also maintaining a façade of liberalism and inclusiveness:
“The culture game operates on a number of related levels. There is the systemic, structural level where it is methodologically implemented and perpetuated by contemporary art institutions through acquisitions, programming, criticism, and general discourse. On this level the game may take the form of minimal exhibition allocations for art that comes from a particular province or constituency. Such slots, it appears, are rationed over ten-year periods, and because the opportunity to display is so rare, it becomes the tendency to seek to remedy the situation by consigning all such work to humongous, inchoate, and badly conceived group or period exhibitions, after which heroic gestures institutions return to their regular, clinical programming, satisfied that they have paid their dues. In other words, every ten years over a designated period, there are huge African, Asian or Latin American exhibitions after which the pained rhetoric of institutions becomes, Well, but we just had an African or Asian or Latin American show! Having staged the routine decade shows, museums and galleries feel no further obligation to touch any art or artist from these provenances, especially since all the major artists would have had a corner in the continental group fair.” (Oguibe 2004, pp. XII.)
The fact that in the past decade Pakistani artists were among the chosen ones tokenized to satisfy diversity requirements as well as the western obsession with the exotic is hardly surprising considering the post-9/11 political climate. The sudden onslaught of interest in the cultural production of Pakistan fully manifested itself in the art market. Sameera Raja, owner of Karachi’s Canvas Art gallery, says the escalation in demand for Pakistani art was because ‘we were in the news.’ ‘It was not because of the work,’ she says, ‘the work was secondary.’ Sameera is skeptical of the hype, ‘the world woke up to contemporary Pakistani art, gave exposure to 1% of the artists and may have ruined the careers of many more.’ Meanwhile, there are also the cases of artists whose careers were ruined upon entering the international market. Sameera talks of how a lot of artists were overpriced in the midst of the hype, ‘It is easier to go up,’ she says, ‘but it is very difficult to come down’.
It is true that the number of artists who ‘made it’ in the international market remains insignificant, and the number of artists who managed to maintain momentum, even more so. Even in ‘South Asian’ auctions, for example, Pakistani works are far outnumbered by Indian art. Oguibe gives some insight into how the issue of numbers plays out in the contemporary art institution:
‘Ultimately, things degenerate to a game of numbers: We had five Africans in the Biennale, seven Chinese, two Southeast Asians, and even two Australian Aborigines. We do our best to ensure that this year’s exhibition was representative. What is masked in such a seemingly liberal gesture is that Western artists are seldom subjected to the same game of numbers, unless of course, they too belong outside the mainstream: folk artists, Northwest artists, Native Americans, self-taught artists, prison artists” (Oguibe 2004, pp. XIII.).
According to Sameera, Pakistani artists were similarly ‘slotted into a box.’ She points out Rashid Rana as perhaps the only artist who managed to transcend the ‘Pakistani Artist’ label. But the issue of numbers is not all that is at stake for non-western artists engaging with the international market. Curator and art critic Gerardo Mosquera argues that increasing numbers could only suggest a ‘quantitative internationalization’ of the art market. The real issue for artists is that of agency, ‘the challenge of mutating a hegemonic and restrictive situation toward active and enriching plurality.’ (Mosquera 2003, p. 146)
Oguibe speaks similarly of ‘the peculiar predicament of artists who come to the global contemporary art arena from backgrounds outside the West only to discover that the most valued attribute required of them is their difference.’ (Oguibe 2004, pp. XII.) Pakistani artists exhibiting and selling internationally have clearly not been exempt to this predicament. Despite much discourse on challenging assumptions and breaking stereotypes, the work shown abroad too often seemed to fit right into western frameworks of a violent, bloody Pakistan. Indeed, violence was a running theme, with imagery such as burqas, Kalashnikovs and hand grenades proliferating. The coverage of the work in western media was no different with headlines such as ‘A Breath of Violence’ in the Economist in 2007, or ‘Pakistani Art: Under the Gun’ in Times Magazine in 2010. The role of the neo-miniature movement, in all its exotic glory, in cultivating western interest in the Pakistani art scene is also worth mentioning here.
Indeed the relationship of the native artist to the international market is a fraught one. The struggle to claim agency and frame oneself on one’s own terms feels like a losing battle. The pressure to show work that exhibits, as Jinoos Taghizadeh put it in his article ‘Finding the Third Way’ for Bidoun Magazine, ‘grand narratives of liberation or some sort of exotic political commentary’ is fierce and anything one produces is inevitably deeply politicized. Yet with limited opportunities at home it is hardly surprising that Pakistani artists seek to engage with the international market. There is little infrastructure in place to support artists and no patronage. Sameera Raja says the lack of government support is not surprising given the political and economic state of Pakistan but she finds the lack of corporate support to be more problematic, especially in the case of contemporary art. Though corporations will often commission the more traditional painters to fill up their buildings with color coordinated paintings, contemporary art does not receive the same attention. Syed Shehzad, owner of ArtScene gallery says that local collectors mostly seek out aesthetically pleasing works that display skill and only consider conceptual work that has the name of an already established artist attached to it. In such circumstances it is inevitable that contemporary artists would look to the international market for support. In an essay in the catalog for the exhibition Hanging Fire at the Asia Society in New York, Quddus Mirza described these artists as ‘exiles at home… slowly drifting away from the local art scene’. In an open discussion on the Asia Society website the artist Huma Mulji responded to the quote, saying:
‘There is an expectation and a “market” for what is overtly “Pakistani” in the work coming out of Pakistan. And by market I mean a critical/curatorial market as well. The unfortunate limitation of this is that Pakistani artists have more opportunity internationally if the work addresses the socio-political/religious turmoil in Pakistan directly. Often, this can be at the cost of a more subtle or poetic gesture.
Most artists will agree that living in Pakistan/South Asia today affords more opportunities to show internationally, and it is much more meaningful to produce work within the context of Pakistan, for most of us. A large number of contemporary artists from Pakistan, showing internationally today, live and show in the country and the work is regularly shown in local galleries as well, although its true more and more, that this is often right before the work is to travel elsewhere.’
It has definitely been the case that the increased demand for Pakistani art internationally has meant a decrease in access to Pakistani art locally. It is the reproduction of a dynamic we have experienced since colonial times where our resources are co-opted, disappearing from local markets only to be offered back to us at higher prices. Upon analysis the ways in which the old center-periphery model reproduces itself in this new, globalized art world only becomes clearer. To what extent are non-western artists the victims in this case and to what extent are they implicit? In an interview with online magazine European Alternatives Rasheed Araeen says:
‘“cultural globalization” is part of the demand of global capital for continually unending innovation and production of new things, the successful entry of the products of other cultures, with their own different identities, into this scenario has been promoted and legitimized by the postcolonial surrogate class and its intellectuals. It is this collaboration between the centre and periphery that has produced the multiculturalism of ‘cultural globalization’, in which Chinese and Indian artists are now allowed and are celebrated. As both the Chinese and Indian industrial products are integrated into the global capital and its exploitation of globally available cheap labor, the gap between the exploiting centre and the exploited periphery has now collapsed into this common goal. And culture is used to cover this up, producing global spectacles of art biennales and art fairs in which the colonial desire and fascination for the Other is put on display and is consumed like any other exotic commodity.’
It would be impossible to discuss the globalization of the art market without mentioning the Biennial. The proliferation of biennials began in the 1990s in the name of transnational engagement and integrating the global art world. ‘Biennial art’ became a new category, giving rise to concerns of homogenization in the arts:
“the requisite mixing of “local” and “global” artists, recurrent themes generalizing the contemporary condition… and a singular, age old display strategy diminish the distinctions between geographically distant events. The paradox, of course, is that the neoliberal model of globalization against which many of these biennials position themselves thrives on and itself produces just such homogenization” (Filipovic 2005, pp. 68)
Pakistani presence at International art fairs and biennials has, thus far, been limited. The Dubai-based art fair Art Dubai had seven galleries showing Pakistani artists’ works but only two of those galleries were actually based in Pakistan. Syed Shehzad of Art Scene Gallery says he visits Art Dubai every year to see the work but could not possibly afford to rent a stall for his gallery. Sameera agrees that the costs are overwhelming for Pakistani gallerists. In an interview with Dawn, Zohra Hussain, director of Chawkandi Art Gallery, weighs in: “Before Art Dubai the art of this region was not only marginalized but totally ignored in art fairs held in the western capitals”. She goes on to say “On the downside, due to high costs involved the galleries tend to showcase works which are commercially viable rather than stimulating works by newcomers. Such participations will undoubtedly raise the price for Pakistani art and bring it closer to international level but with the falling price of the rupee it will soon be out of reach of the local buyer”. Thus it seems the local art market, gallerists and buyers, find themselves at a disadvantage in the system, while artists continue to be stuck in a cycle where they are dependant on international art galleries to have their work shown.
Though contemporary art took a hit after the recession, Sameera thinks the reality check that came from the financial crisis was a ‘blessing’ for the Pakistani art scene. She feels that overall Pakistan’s foray into the international art scene was detrimental to Pakistani art. Regarding the question of how to move forward from here she says, “There is no savior but ourselves. Developing the local market is more important than focusing on the global market”. Zohra Hussain similarly emphasizes focusing on the local market. Citing the example of India she says, ‘India has a strong market at home, they are not even bothered to sell their work abroad’. For artists as well she advises against being too hasty to enter the international market and emphasizes establishing oneself in the local market first, giving the examples of Ayesha Khalid and Imran Qureshi as two artists who successfully followed that path. Tapping into other emerging markets outside the West such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai is also an option. Zohra says it would be helpful to have more Pakistani curators, gallerists and dealers working abroad and giving more exposure to the art produced locally, as has been the case with India. The question remains though, would this enable us to defy the forces of tokenization and co-option that are so deeply embedded in the global art arena? Olu Oguibe describes the western art market as ‘ironically…one of the last bastions of backwardness in the West today… an uneven playground, a formidable terrain of difficulty for artists whose backgrounds locate them at the receiving end of intolerance.’ (Oguibe 2004, pp. XII.)These are the dynamics that determine what space we are allowed to occupy in the contemporary art world, and how much, and for how long. The global art arena embodies and perpetuates age-old power relations. The best option this leaves us with is to empower ourselves.