If you are passionate about modern art from India and Pakistan, the Grosvenor Gallery’s stands at Art Dubai — which will run until March 24 — will leave you in a state of wonder if you are lucky enough to be visiting the city. Here you will find works by pioneering artists including Syed Sadequain, Ismail Gulgee, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Rasheed Araeen.
Talking to Arab News, gallery director Charles Moore pointed out that the art establishment mostly ignored artists from India and Pakistan who arrived in the UK in the 1960s. Their talent went largely unrecognized until certain key figures took it upon themselves to break through the wall of indifference.
One who led the way in overcoming prejudice is Rasheed Araeen, a conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator, primarily known for his minimalist open geometric wooden sculptures. He has been working as a visual artist since arriving in London from Pakistan in 1964.
“Araeen was very involved in the promotion of foreign artists in the UK; the establishment ignored artists from Africa, Central America and South Asia, many of whom contributed massively to the landscape of 20th century art but were largely ignored by public institutions,” Moore explained. “Araeen curated an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1989 called ‘The Other Story’ which was a watershed moment — the first time any major UK institution showed such works. He also published journals such as the ‘Black Phoenix’ and ‘Third Text,’ which campaigned for these artists who were producing fantastic work in the UK but not getting recognition.”
Moore added that interest in Araeen’s work was “revitalized” after it was shown at Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennale in 2014.
“That put him back in the international spotlight and since then there has been a huge amount of academic and institutional interest in him. His interactive work ‘Zero to Infinity’ was installed in last year’s Venice Biennale and there is a retrospective of his work currently on display at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, which will travel to MAMCO, Geneva, The BALTIC Center, Gateshead and Garage Museum, Moscow. His most recent works are very colorful, geometric paintings inspired by Islamic history and calligraphy and the mathematics of geometry and minimalism. When you look at the body of work which we are presenting in our catalogue at the fair, you can see the progression from the 1960s till now,” said Moore.
Pakistani artist Syed Sadequain is another who rose to prominence despite the establishment’s initial unwillingness to embrace Asian artists.
In the early 19060s, Sadequain won a competition to illustrate an edition of Albert Camus’ debut novel “L’Etranger.” “This was a big deal — it was worth quite a bit of money and enabled him to continue to live in Paris,” Moore said, noting that it was a great coup for Sadequain, an outsider competing against the great talent pool in Paris, to illustrate such an acclaimed novel, so beloved by the French.
Sadequain’s painting illustrates a scene from the very end of the novel.
“This expressive image comes from the final chapter of the book and shows the protagonist being crushed by his inner demons,” Moore explained. “Sadequain’s illustration of Camus’ existentialist masterpiece is one of the key moments of his career. So, to be able to exhibit the original work alongside others from this period is a great joy for us.”
Unlike his peers Sadequain and Araeen, Ismail Gulgee resisted the lure of the cultural capitals of Europe and remained in Pakistan. But he was no less innovative in his own way, Moore said.
“Gulgee (created) portraits of well-known figures but is also one of the pioneers of action painting in the region. His 1966 work ‘Abstract Forms’ is a wonderful large-scale piece and an early form of this type of painting. Usually his works from that period are much more figurative, executed in small brush-strokes, a technique akin to pointillism, but you can very clearly make out the subjects — whether they be horses, camels or polo players. This is a very early example of the style he became known for, which people really took to and which made him extremely popular.”
Dubai is just the latest stop on the painting’s absorbing journey around the world, as Moore explained.
“This painting was in the collection of the Bell Federal Credit Union in Nebraska. Heaven only knows how it got from Karachi to Nebraska in, presumably, the late 19060s. It came out of that collection in the 1990s and went to an owner who had it on their wall for 25 years, until we bought it.”
The London-based Grosvenor Gallery has been participating in Art Dubai since its first edition in 2007. For Moore, the event provides an excellent opportunity to connect with collectors.
“We have clients in the Gulf region who collect works by the artists we represent and there is a large Pakistani and Indian expat community who are actively engaged in learning about and seeing the works,” he told Arab News. “There aren’t many galleries in Dubai promoting this kind of material. It is difficult to see at the best of times. Even in London it is difficult to find, so the opportunities to see this material all in one go are few and far between.
“Dubai is a great venue. It works very well — the whole place goes crazy for art and a lot of work goes into these events. Also, Dubai is just an eight-hour flight from Europe, so it attracts people from these countries as well.”
On how the art market currently values works by established South Asian artists, he said: “On the whole I would say the market is in a relatively good place. The prices for modernist works have grown organically over a long period of time. You have the ‘Blue Chip’ names, and there are now well-established bench marks for certain artists. The difficult thing, as in any market, is sourcing good quality fresh material. As the years go on it gets harder and harder because for every wonderful picture you sell that’s one less in the market – but on the whole the market is in a fairly strong position without being too frothy or inflated.”
Prior to joining Grosvenor Gallery six years ago, Moore was a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian works of art at Bonhams auction house. He clearly relishes his work but warned casual observers not to be taken in by the calm atmosphere that often pervades galleries.
“Art galleries can be like swans in appearance – they appear to be very calm and sedate, but there is an intense amount of work going on behind the scenes,” he concluded.
Modern art from India, Pakistan breaks the mold at Art Dubai
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