An exhibition of modern South Asian art aims to take ‘the collector’ off their pedestal
Pakistani artist Wahab Jaffer’s collection brings together artists from across the region
An exhibition at Asia House in London offers a glimpse into Pakistani abstract artist Wahab Jaffer’s collection of modern South Asian art, acquired over a period of 50 years. Works by Pakistani modernists such as Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Salima Hashmi sit alongside those by Bangladeshi artist Zainul Abedin and Sayed Haider Raza of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group in India, demonstrating how a collector can be more than just an investor – that they can nurture connections and inspire new work. Nour Aslam, Artistic Director at Rangoonwala Foundation, which produced the exhibition, told us more.
What is special about the Wahab Jaffer collection and this exhibition?
For Wahab Jaffer, collecting was not just a transactional relationship – he developed deep friendships with artists and began to create his own artworks inspired by the friends and colleagues whose work he acquired. The exhibition considers the relationship between collectors and patrons, and what that means today. It takes the collector off the pedestal that has been created by the art market, striving to push those who buy art to think of it not just as something to display in your home or invest in, but to try to understand who made them and what the artist was hoping to achieve. This means having more vested interest in emerging artists, curators, academics and other art practitioners who are creating our cultural history.
The exhibition includes works from present-day Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. Are there distinct transnational themes to be drawn from the show?
Jaffer had the privilege of hosting artists from India and Bangladesh in Karachi, which seems nearly impossible in today’s political climate. Through the microcosmic lens of his collection, you can see the connections between the artists of the Subcontinent, and how those we refer to today as the modern masters of South Asian art admired, inspired and aided each other and became friends too. The arts and cultures of these countries are incredibly similar, with overlapping themes and narratives, but our art history has been bounded by the barriers and borders created by the West during the time of Partition. Why aren’t we looking at the Subcontinent as a whole and creating our narratives together?
What are some of the highlights of the show?
One of the works that stands out for me was, The Life and Times of… (1983) by Salima Hashmi, which was part of a series made during the political suppression of arts and culture under General Zia Ul Haq from 1978 to 1988. In this work, Hashmi drew a naked woman in her room, glancing at real clips from the news, in order to comment on the increasing expectation for women to cover themselves with the chador and remain in their rooms. Salima Hashmi is best known as an academic and curator, but her artwork was and continues to be extremely powerful, raising questions about women’s rights.
Another highlight is The Wall by Murtaja Baseer, part of an abstract series inspired by the walls of Dhaka’s Central Jail that the artist began in 1967. Although he never was imprisoned himself, he was fascinated by how the jail wall reflects social and political barriers we erect as human beings due to misinterpretations, societal norms and other socio-cultural conflicts.
This work showcases artists associated with the peak of Pakistani modernism. How does it explore the dichotomy between the artistic traditions of South Asia and the Euro-centric vantage point of modernism?
The modern masters of South Asia were mostly trying to break away from the mould of the East. They were not interested in the Gandhara sculptures and miniatures. As a form of protest, they looked towards Western modern masters such as Edouard Manet and Pablo Picasso. Nonetheless, there was always an element of Eastern influence in their works, whether in the theme, style or colour – for example, artists such as Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Zahoor ul Akhlaq worked with miniature painting. We included the work Illustrated Statement (1976) by Ahmed Parvez in the exhibition as it exemplified the issue of non-Western artists not being able to have their narrative presented in the West even after spending many years there. After returning home to Pakistan, Parvez created this work, which expressed his feelings about the divisive terms “east” and “west,” including a statement on the exclusivity of the Western artistic canon.