Breaking Barriers, Initiating Dialogue: the ‘Opening Lines’ Project
By Ilona Yusuf
With his unconventional approach Islamabad businessperson turned curator, Naeem Qadir, attempts to inculcate art appreciation to new audiences. The curator has stated his aim as twofold: to initiate dialogue and to ‘build an understanding for the vocabulary of art, which can only come about by viewing art.’ For this, he uses improvised spaces outside the gallery to exhibit a collection of fifty artworks on paper.
Taking as a cue, his coming of age during the Zia era, which permitted artists’ public recognition only if they conformed to the state’s idea of acceptable art forms to cement its religious agenda; and his subsequent experiences of an increasingly insular world of private commercial galleries, the curator concluded that in the absence of art displayed in public spaces, the answer lay in reclaiming that space by bringing it to the people. Through exhibitions organised in office spaces where outsider traffic was most likely to occur, as well as displays in educational institutions, Qadir anticipates creating a public consciousness of art.
Qadir’s interpretation of public art is a departure from the standard. In the West, art displayed in public spaces such as parks and squares often consists of sculpture or installation art. Corporate art, on view in banks and offices, is largely calculated not to provoke or offend. This collection comprises a vast spectrum of art processes and themes. Opening Lines, a largely self- funded project because of the individualistic approach of its curator, began with the idea that a non-complacent member of society can achieve goals through perseverance.
The artworks for this non-commercial exhibition were donated by senior and established artists approached by the curator personally, beginning in 2008. The artworks themselves range from the figurative genres of portraiture, urban and rural landscapes, and still life to abstract works with their more complicated vocabulary of line, pattern, and color; most challenge conventional representation of familiar objects or scenes.
This is evident in Rahi’s and Kohari’s renderings of bulls, the first a charcoal drawing in the cubist style, the second a more abstract portrayal in oil, in which the animal appears almost a part of the richly textured, undulating background; both conveying a sense of weight and power. Other figurative contributions include Sajana Joshi’s whimsical painting of an overloaded truck; the staggered, staccato carbon transfer drawing of an imaginary meeting between Jinnah and Gandhi by Raju G C; Naveed Sabir’s urban landscape, an aerial bird’s eye-view leading downwards from the open sky to the narrow, hemmed in city street; and the softly blurred lines of Zubeda Javed’s urban rainscape. Salima Hashmi’s view through a window is more complex, but draws the viewer in to read visual clues. Abstract blind embossing by Arfan Javed Augustine, Fatima Saeed and Hassnain Awais explore the nature of line and curve. This is only a small sampler of the collection. What emerges from its varied palette of mediums is a vibrancy that is likely to tickle the viewer’s curiosity, and stimulate the long subsumed inclination to ask questions. Responses gathered by the curator during showings, from executives, students, schoolchildren, chance visitors, and even janitorial staff, vindicate his intuition that the impulse to respond to art is intrinsic to human nature. The decision to arrange the works beginning with paintings that were ‘easy on the eye,’ such as calligraphy, still life or portraiture, ensured that the viewer was not immediately burdened by images that might be difficult to comprehend. The postcards, sandwiched between sheets of Perspex, were displayed in the form of a bound tablet whose ‘pages’ could be turned, or hung so that they could be turned and viewed from both sides.
To date, the exhibition has been shown at five of the nine intended Islamabad venues: the National Library, the Islamabad Stock Exchange, the School of Art, Design and Architecture at NUST; and two local schools, the Federal Government School for Boys in Chak Shahzad and the private Mashaal School for street children in Nurpur Shahan, where due to space constraints only a part of the collection was shown. Karachi artist Syed Akber Ali Shah, who visited the exhibition at the Stock Exchange, volunteered to conduct an interactive discussion with the children and painting a mural on the school wall.
‘Opening Lines’ is a first step in a process that will require additional exhibitions to continue in developing a sensibility for art. This particular venture, in which the artists were given complete freedom, demonstrates their commitment to produce spontaneous works that have so far received an appreciative audience. Moreover, while its architect recognizes that art will always be associated with money, it is possible to present it in a non-commercial venue with the hope that besides the educative aspect, it will prove to revive the spirit of tolerance. With minimal sponsorship in the form of funding for the catalogue from the British Council and archiving and storage assistance from the Alliance Francaise, it affirms the ability of the individual to contribute to a movement.