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Art, power and single women in Pakistan

In Karachi, the men might buy the art, but it's women — many single and young — who control the market.

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.