Since its founding in 1987, Karachi’s V M Gallery has undergone a truly astounding transformation. The gallery was started under the aegis of the M A Rangoonwala Trust, with the aim of building an artistic space for Pakistan. Originally housing only a single downstairs gallery which a caretaker would unlock for the occasional viewer, it is now a thriving centre, with three galleries and a 600-seat auditorium, completely redesigned to accommodate large-scale local and international exhibitions.
The gallery has been actively promoting art in Pakistan, engaging with the media as well as the larger audience within and outside the country. The gallery’s director Riffat Alvi has been at the forefront of the development of the modest art space into a multipurpose art centre. Alvi, being an artist herself, has been attending residencies and exhibiting abroad for a considerable number of years. This practice among Pakistani artists has been a contributing factor to the growing interest abroad in the country’s art, bringing curators from around the world. In the other direction, artists such as Aamir Habib, also a political critic, have been invited to send their works to Europe. Recently, the gallery brought together over 150 local and foreign artists for the First International Print Biennial in September 2014.
Printmaking is, unfortunately, one of the lesser appreciated art mediums in Pakistan. Naiza Khan, who was an advisor for the biennale explains why: “If we look at the development of contemporary printmaking in Pakistan, its growth spans a mere 64 years… It can be argued that printmaking as an independent art form did not have a chance to establish itself in this country as it has done in Europe, where its gradual development stretches right back to the mediaeval ages.”
Another advisor to the event as well as a veteran artist and printmaker Meher Afroz adds, “We hardly had a proper art college in Pakistan until 1972. In Karachi, the Arts Council had a big hall, but no facilities for prints, and certainly there was no press, which is essential in printmaking. Some did linocuts, but for years there was hardly any proper workshop for prints, apart from the one at the Mayo School for Industrial Art in Lahore.” With the return of three fresh graduates from the Slade School of Fine Art, London, the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore finally began its printmaking course in 1986.
Printmaking at the time was used primarily in advertising, illustration and propaganda posters, and considered to be of dubious value. It was seen as a ‘craft’, and not as a fine art form. Significantly, there was a difference then between the designation of an artist and a craftsman – a distinction further exacerbated by the caste hierarchies prevalent in the Subcontinent. This marginalisation of printmaking was part of the early academic framework of the art institutions, such as the Mayo School.
There were other practical concerns for the organisers. Afroz says,“There were a few hitches regarding research into the current print situation, and finance, and we needed even more space, since the extra gallery we expected was not completed in time. Riffat’s organising ability came to the fore as she documented the history and progress of prints in this country.” They were also assisted by the curator, Romila Karim, from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), in the difficult task of finding the artist and their works, locating the present owners of the works, digging out the prints and getting them to the gallery.
How are prints made? Printmaker Sean Neprud explains, “It requires two sides of me – the artist and the engineer. The artist in me creates the image, decides how it will look, carves the block, decides what colours should be used, and what feeling or thought I want to put into the finished art. The engineer in me [figures out] how to mix the inks, how transparent the ink should be, how to [place] the block so that the print registers well, how much pressure is required to transfer the ink, and how much drying time is required before the next layer of ink is applied.” He adds, “So printmaking is very technical. It requires precision and proper methods.”
The first biennale
With 150 works by 79 artists, both local and foreign, ‘First International Print Biennial’ was a print show like never before. The exhibits were divided into four sections: Archival, International Visiting Printmakers, Contemporary Printmakers and Open Call. The archival section consisted of the works produced by early printmakers in Pakistan. Alvi told me that obtaining all the prints took over a year. These early works, such as Abdur Rehman Chugtai’s ‘Deers’ from the 1960s, are notable in their simplicity of design, and the use of black and white colours. The 19-by-19 inch etching, part of the V M Gallery’s extensive collection, is a charming study of four elegant deer about to drink from a stream in a sparsely vegetated landscape, its economy of line characteristic of the early designs.
An untitled work from 1936, by Professor Anna Molka Ahmed, who set up the Arts Department in Punjab University – now an important centre of fine arts in Pakistan – was another notable part of this section. The 8.5-by-9 cm woodcut shows in considerable detail two women archers in a garden, one in a dramatic pose, poised to shoot her arrow upwards. The remarkably detailed work looked truly painstaking. The women’s costumes and hair are enhanced by both the natural curving border of leaves and branches and the orderly, straight lines in the layout of the garden.
‘A Bird’s Eye View’ (1993) by Afshar Malik, who has been teaching at the NCA Lahore since 1983, combines techniques of drawing and pointillism. It is a menagerie of motifs from nature, from modern communications and town planning, with the positive spaces in black adding skillful balance.
The ‘International Visiting Printmakers Section’ includes artists from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, the US, the UK and Australia. Riffat explained that “These works date back to the very first printmaking workshop in Karachi, in 1967… and highlight how [these artists] played an imperative role in increasing the popularity of the medium.” Important artists such as Ismail Gulgee took part in the 1967 workshop. Another included the Portuguese artist Bartolomeu dos Santos, who made his name as a printmaker in England, held workshops at NCA in the 1980s and helped develop their printmaking courses. Apart from a patch of dull blue sky, his 17-by-26 inch black-and-white etching, ‘After the Storm’, is an arresting seaside rendition, featuring two ships – one sinking – in the still, unquiet sea, debris still falling from cliffs and tooth-like rocks in the background. The fine details, combined with the dramatic elements and sensitive shading, make it a memorable image.
Rokheya Sultana studied printmaking at the Institute of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh and Vishwa Bharati University, India. Her work may be seen in the permanent collections in Norway, Bangladesh, the US, Egypt, as well as in numerous private collections. Her 35.5-by-50 cm etching, ‘Madonna’ (1995), employs a startling subject – a woman in bright red and her girl child travelling by rickshaw – apparently at night. It is part of her series on mother and child, and by evoking the suffering of Madonna, highlights single mothers’ struggle for survival. It is a penetrating study, with impressive textures and tonal variations.
Amongst the contemporary prints, Shazia Qureshii’s 14-by-19 inch ‘Searching Order in Disorder’ (2014) is an outstanding sepia and black toned study with relevance both to history and to the present day. Showing a tangle of humans, moving apparently without a sense of direction, it brings to mind Tolstoy’s description in his novel, War and Peace, of chaotic battles in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. Significantly, there is no leader among Shazia’s troubled and emaciated band, while the marked contrast between dark and light add much to this tense atmosphere.
Another contemporary artist, Usman Saeed, presented a 10-by-7.5 inch black-and-white etching titled ‘Zeb l’ (2013), the subject being an oyster holding a large pearl. The oyster shell, crafted with great detail, has wide black border, decorated with various kinds of fish, while all around swim many species of squid. The use of rim lighting, as well as the shading, do much to enhance the effect.
Finally comes the Open Call Section, which Riffa says “aims to showcase the emerging talent in Pakistan in the sphere of printmaking.” There is a good variety of works here, but Yawar Abbas Zaidi’s 9-by-9 ‘Sipah-e-harf l’ (2011) is undoubtedly the most outstanding. In terms of subject, colour and composition, it is a masterpiece. On a deep grape-toned background he has composed a textured and crinkled, hand-torn paper base for his pastel coloured, topographical calligraphic study. This is a dramatic centerpiece, interrupted by lines of tiny Urdu letters, while the larger fragments at the side prevent the composition from being too centralised.
Yawar is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Islamabad. When asked for the meaning of the calligraphic centerpiece, he explained that it was actually an abstract. “I am a graphic designer by profession. I am not trained as a calligraphist. In my work I have tried to explore the anatomy of the Roman, Arabic and Urdu alphabets, and their individual characters. At first glance, his images are, in his own words, “a generic facsimile of the Islamic calligraphic tradition, but a detailed investigation reveals the hidden entropic approach of exploring a powerful matrix of form and counterform against a void.”
The Biennial was brimming with prints highlighting the past, present and emerging future of printmaking in Pakistan. Putting such a show together was a remarkable and laudable feat, not only because of the variety and excellence of the works displayed, but also in terms of purpose, and the effort required to unearth archival pieces, especially the works of early masters that were long buried in public and private collections. This is a rewarding time to be an artist in Pakistan today.
~ Noor Jehan Mecklai is a teacher, and a student of Buddhism. She lives in Karachi.