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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.

“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.”