Pakistan's National Art Gallery opens for business

The gallery is aimed at promoting a more progressive image of the extremism-hit South Asian nation, where the cultural scene in the visual arts has often been overshadowed

AP, ISLAMABAD, Pakistan  / 

Thu, Aug 30, 2007 - Page 15

Pakistan's painstakingly built National Art Gallery has overcome decades of political turbulence to become an eye-catching symbol of modernity and creativity in a Muslim nation long haunted by religious conservatism.

The four-story gallery opened to the public Tuesday with an expansive exhibit of 600 works - from Persian-style miniature paintings with a modern twist to large-scale sculpture created specially for the site.

Pakistan has long had a vibrant, if small, art scene, but the gallery took more than a quarter-century from conception to completion due mainly to the changing priorities of a series of military leaders and short-lived elected governments.

"It's a wonderful feeling to have a home for all the work - a place to house the work of three generations of artists,'' said Naiza Khan, a curator of the inaugural show and a Karachi-based artist whose female metal body armor is also on display.

Featuring work from 126 Pakistani artists, some of the pieces in the Moving Ahead show have a distinctly South Asian or Islamic flavor - Arabic calligraphy, a painting with Bollywood actors or a throne made of white plastic ablution buckets that Muslims used to wash before prayer.

The works in the show are owned by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts or on loan from private collectors.

There are miniature paintings with a globalized twist. One work by Waseem Ahmed, entitled Burqa, transforms a classical European odalisque into this classical Persian form. The reclining Venus is draped in a gauzy, transparent burqa - an all-covering Islamic veil - and gazes into a mirror that reflects apples, the classic Christian symbol of temptation.

One of the 12,000m2 gallery's two grand halls holds several sculptures, including one that artist Khalil Chishtee created using white plastic bags - a woman walking a tightrope, with a man below with his head turned up toward her, apparently held in position by a thread tugging his nose skyward.

The interior space is white with warm accents such as a brick-paved ramp leading to the mezzanine, and a few areas with wood detailing on the ceiling. An auditorium and a rooftop courtyard are surrounded by delicate arches.

The exterior is made almost entirely of brick - a rare choice in an era of new museums around the world constructed with concrete.

"Brick has a humility. It has a scale that is so intimate,'' said the architect, Naeem Pasha.

Some spaces, such as the room showing the calligraphy, are one-story high, while others are two stories high or even larger, including a ground-floor room that can be viewed from two little balconies on the second floor to give the viewer a different perspective.

Pasha won the first competition to choose an architect in 1981, but there were many hiccups thereafter - often because of the frequent changes of government - including a site switch because the original location was used for the prime minister's secretariat.

The foundation stone was laid in March 1996, but funding was then diverted to construct a convention center for an Islamic summit held in 1997, he said.

Some officials even wanted to shelve the project and demolish the unfinished structure because they worried it could be a hiding place for snipers targeting President General Pervez Musharraf, whose office is nearby, he said.

Set near the country's Parliament and government offices, the US$8.9 million gallery creates a rare cultural outlet and attraction for visitors in Pakistan's grid-plan capital, which was only built in the 1960s.

There are outdoor shopping centers, parks and the impressive Lok Virsa ethnographic museum, but few places to see art or theater - long seen as the arena of Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan.

The gallery and artwork on show are indicative of how secular and liberal Pakistan's growing middle-class has become, despite the conservative influence of the religious establishment.

Musharraf, burnishing his credentials as a moderate in the midst of a bumpy re-election drive, spoke at a weekend opening event for the gallery of the need "to project a soft, peaceful and tolerant image of Pakistan.''

The Ministry of Culture had promised there will be no censorship, said Salima Hashmi, one of the curators and a Lahore-based art historian. They were told to exercise their own judgment so as not to offend anyone.

Showing figurative work or nudes "would be a problem in certain venues in Pakistan that are more conservative - Peshawar, for example,'' near the Afghan border, Hashmi said.

"As in many countries, you have audiences which will accept work which seems to be pushing the boundaries, and there will be other conservative audiences that will simply not accept it.''

On the Net: For the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, visit