Whither National Art Gallery?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PAKISTAN has a rich art heritage. Masters such as Chughtai, Sadequain, Shakir Ali, and others are recognised internationally. But the misfortune of this country has been that visual art has not enjoyed the public appreciation it merits for the simple reason that it does not have the exposure art must have if people are to understand and derive pleasure from it – and be able to distinguish good art from bad.

It was, therefore, a matter of great satisfaction when all art forms gained recognition under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. To promote them, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) was established in 1972 under the renowned poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. To ensure that they received equal attention two divisions were set up in the PNCA – one for performing arts and the other for visual arts.

The mandate of the PNCA’s visual art division was to organise national and international exhibitions of celebrated artists. But intriguingly, it did not even have a gallery to display works of art. Hence art lovers heaved a sigh of relief when they learnt that Pakistan was to have a National Art Gallery (NAG) in Islamabad which would serve as a repository of the works of the great Pakistani masters. Contemporary artists would also have a place to exhibit their works giving them more exposure.

The gallery had been in the making for nearly 16 years but it was only in April 2005 that NAG received the final nod from the government and work started in full swing on the Rs456 million project. Completed late last year, it was to be inaugurated by the president on March 26. But the proverbial slip between the cup and the lip occurred when the formal inauguration was suddenly put off.

This may not have been such a disaster but for the fact that at the same time the word went round that NAG was being renamed the National Centre for Creative Art and the PNCA’s emphasis was to shift to performing arts – where the money lies and which happens to be the area of expertise of Mr Naeem Tahir, the director-general of the PNCA.

When contacted by this writer, Mr Tahir vehemently denied that a change of name had been announced. He was bitter that a non-issue was being made into an issue to whip up a controversy and charged the visual artists of being ungrateful. They should have got together and “thanked the Almighty Allah” that this project had now been completed. He claimed credit for it.

He, however, failed to appreciate the concerns of the artists, terming them to be “imaginary”. The very next day after he had spoken to me complaining that journalists had not contacted him to get his point of view, he faxed me an interview he had given to another newspaper. In the interview, he admits that he has proposed the establishment of a Centre for Creative Arts and the artists were confusing it with NAG.

This leaves one wondering what is cooking in Islamabad. Ijazul Hasan, a renowned artist and member of the governing council of the PNCA, confirmed that no announcement about a change of name had been made. But he added that the grapevine had been buzzing and he had made it categorically clear in a meeting of the governing body that no change of name would be brooked.

Besides the curators, artists and others involved in the preparations for the aborted launch – Saleema Hashmi and Niilofer Farrukh to name two – are convinced that the concept of NAG is under threat from Mr Tahir. It is a characteristic case of whose word should be believed.

But there is incriminating evidence against Mr Naeem Tahir and it is surprising that he shows no desire to reassure the artists who fear that the visual art gallery is in danger of being sidelined. As though the controversy that has been raging were not enough, the director general proceeded to allow the ISPR the use of the auditorium in NAG for a variety show on April 11.

Saleema Hashmi, one of the curators, who says she is ‘aghast’ at what is happening, fears that at this rate, the four honour galleries will be converted into rehearsal rooms if the auditorium is used preponderantly for performances. Without saying whether this is happening or not, Ijazul Hasan warns of “encroachments” which are inevitable “if you leave your house unlocked”, he remarks.

A paper, which Mr Naeem Tahir faxed to me titled “The National Art Gallery Complex”, speaks of a “national cultural complex of which the national art gallery will be the first building to be completed”. It is also to have an ‘amphitheatre’ spread over 12,000 square feet. According to the chart given, 64 per cent of the space in the gallery (90,000 square feet) will be reserved for displaying exhibits.

The main concern of the artists as articulated by Saleema and Ijaz is that the identity of the National Art Gallery should be preserved and its sanctity as a repository of contemporary art be upheld. A reasonable demand by all means. Towards that end an autonomous management comprising visual art professionals must be established immediately. The posts of executive director and director visual arts were advertised more than two months ago – albeit only in Islamabad papers — but no appointments have been made so far.

Ijazul Hasan also insists on the enhancement of the budget for acquisition of works of art. Initially it was one million rupees which is peanuts considering that one Chughtai can cost five million rupees. Ijaz has managed to get it boosted to 10 million rupees. But he is not certain if the finance ministry will sanction this sum.

With the formal opening put off indefinitely and the exhibits having been obtained on lease for three months after which they must be returned, it is difficult to be very optimistic about the fate of the gallery. Given the furore, which could have been avoided if the director general had acted wisely, a new problem is looming large on the art horizon: a split between the visual arts and the performing arts communities.

The visual artists are desperately trying to avert that. Polarisation would harm both genres. Saleema Hashmi fears that if the auditorium of NAG is used in a big way for performances, the artistes will never get the national theatre that has been promised them while visual arts will be robbed of the space that was their due.