Art, power and single women in Pakistan

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — Defying the global downturn in art and perhaps common sense, another gallery opened in Karachi last month, the second in three weeks. Both are run by women.

More intriguing than the dynamics of the market is the fact that the entire Pakistani art scene is run by women, single women.

Sumbul Khan is a spritely thirtysomething of vaguely Pathan extraction. She returned to Karachi several years ago after completing a masters in art history in the United States. After teaching art history and theory, she pitched a program on art in Urdu to Indus TV, the first independent channel in Pakistan. After the program was aired, the head of Indus TV, the legendary Ghazanfar Ali, asked her if she was interested in setting up a gallery in a cove of vacant rooms within the premises of MTV Pakistan (owned, in part, by Indus TV). Khan readily agreed. She named it Poppy Seed.

After knocking down walls, plastering and painting the space, and installing a hardwood floor,  Khan contacted seven mostly up-and-coming artists for a show entitled “Moving Image.” The pieces in the show were supposed to “critique the pervasive influence of the moving image in the lives of uncritical audiences.”

Although a few pieces seemed maladroit — there was an installation featuring drips labeled with polysyllabic social ills — the theme mostly managed to fuse disparate styles of the seven artists into theoretical coherence. In any event, the show was well attended and generally well received. Khan seemed quite pleased afterwards.

Art Chowk, the second gallery that opened in November, is run by a mother-daughter team who are, in ways, refugees from Dubai’s economic crisis. When the market there had been white hot, the two began a virtual gallery online, sourcing Pakistani art to the buyers with deep pockets from the Middle East to Hong Kong. “They had expensive cars,” averred Shakira Masood, “and they wanted expensive art.” After the market went south, Masood moved east.

Masood, the mother in the mother-daughter team, is a divorcee and a recognized painter. She says the infrastructure of the art world was dramatically different when she was starting out.

“There were no galleries, no magazines. All of us had second jobs.” In the old days, she continued, “We did it by pure will.”

When asked why the Pakistani art world is run by women, she replied, “I do find it strange but then 51 percent of Pakistanis are women. My landlady is a woman.” Buyers and collectors, she noted, are mostly men.

Art Chowk caters to young urban professionals whose sensibilities have been shaped by a different milieu than those of an earlier generation. Art exhibits are now covered by TV channels, reviewed in magazines, critiqued in journals like Nukta (which, of course, is edited by a woman). There are dedicated art schools and even an art collective: run by prominent contemporary artists including Adeela Suleman and Naiza Khan, VASL funds workshops, seminars, and residencies. As a result, a cultural shift has taken place. There are, for instance, two if not three openings a week in the city.

Karachi’s two major commercial galleries, Canvas and Chowkandi, hold exhibitions like clockwork. The former is owned and operated by Sameera Raja, a chic, no-nonsense single mother, while the latter is owned and operated by Zohra Hussain, a widow and veritable sari-clad institution. Both are pioneers; both have endured.

But perhaps the most innovative gallery in Karachi is a not a commercial venture. Tucked away in a quiet canton of the city, V.M. is financed by the Rangoonwalla Trust and run by Riffat Alivi, an old-school artist who often employs new-fangled techniques. Her recent work at Canvas strangely featured smoke on paper.

She certainly thinks about  curatorial practice in a novel way. In a recent show entitled “Size Does Matter,” she encouraged four emerging artists who don’t work with scale to work with scale. The results were spectacular. Another show inspired by Lollywood movie billboards traveled to Green Cardamom, a gallery in London. And in the first week of December, doors opened to the annual, VASL-sponsored Taza Tareen exhibition, featuring the work of five recent art school grads, including three women.

Women, V.M.’s Alvi whimsically maintains, are more organized than men. Although that might be correct, does organizational acumen or “pure will” explain why women run the art scene? A critic suggests otherwise: the single women who now run things probably found refuge in art at a time when art was not considered a serious venture or vocation. Those who had persevered, propelled by pure will, serious-mindedness and by brisk business, have become influential figures, arbiters of taste, doyennes.

Musing on the phenomenon, however, Raja of Canvas declaimed, “Women are prettier, smarter, have better social skills and know how to get things done.”