Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
10 September – 20 November 2014
by JANET McKENZIE
The first printmaking exhibition from the subcontinent to be held in the Middle East was launched at Sharjah Art Museum in September. Trajectories: 19th-21st Century Printmaking in India and Pakistan explores the influence of British colonialism and western notions of beauty in a range of printmaking techniques. The event is being held under the patronage of His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, Supreme Council member and ruler of Sharjah. Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed al-Qasimi inaugurated the exhibition, which was guest curated by Dr Paula Sengupta, an artist, academic, art critic and curator based in Kolkata, India, and Camilla H Chaudhary, an independent curator from Karachi, Pakistan, now based in Dubai.
Trajectories establishes a context for the development of printmaking on the subcontinent within the broader scope of world art history. There are 157 rare and noteworthy prints from around 50 artists on display at the show, which aims to introduce a United Arab Emirates audience to the major printmaking schools and movements from India and Pakistan, while also providing a forum for discussion of the multifaceted relationship between India and Pakistan and the UAE.
It is a superb show in scale and quality, presenting the arts of South Asia in the UAE, where the cultural legacy of the subcontinent has long contributed in many different ways to life there. The show pays homage to the many individuals who have migrated from India and Pakistan to Dubai and its surrounds, historically and in the present, a dynamic time for personal and cultural opportunity. Trajectories shows a commitment to South Asian art traditions and to a contemporary voice that is universal. The multifarious works in the exhibition speak to everyone, irrespective of cultural or religious background, and, for western visitors, highlight a key period in history that is largely overlooked. It is an exhibition that one hopes might travel to museums throughout the world.
The vision behind Trajectories is to introduce the UAE audience to the development of the printmaking medium, its significant schools and influences and most groundbreaking works, while also providing a platform for a dialogue on the complex history of India and Pakistan. Printmaking combines the immediacy of drawing in very many instances and the democratic nature of print mediums has lent itself well to cutting-edge political comment. The overall experience of the works on show, individually and en masse is one of innovation encompassing candid personal responses and unguarded political comment.
On her experience of co-curating Trajectories, Dr Sengupta, observed: “As a practitioner and historian of printmaking, to curate this exhibition for the Sharjah Art Museum is a dream project for me, because it has afforded the rare and unique opportunity of sharing a cultural space with Pakistan. The process of co-curating with my Pakistani counterpart, Camilla Chaudhary has led me on a journey of discovery as I’ve learned about printmaking practice in Pakistan post-partition years that had remained hidden behind borders despite the shared history of the subcontinent.”
Chaudhary, a founding member of the gallery ArtChowk (Pakistan) in addition to her role as curator, said: “The exhibition spans a history that has seen much change and evolution in the region and that is reflected in the works on show. The most exciting part has been to study the confluence and divergence of art practices in the two countries that reflect shared history and distinct identities.”
Attending the exhibition in Sharjah was made possible for me by the American University in Dubai, as part of the Crossing the Line 2 exhibition there. Taken by minibus to the conservative city (by contrast to Dubai) felt off the beaten tourist track. The Islamic Museums complex is impressive, but it was an extraordinary experience to stumble upon Trajectories and to be in a group of around 10 artists from the US, Britain and Australia; we all agreed it was a remarkable show. So many individual pieces were unique and the quality was uniformly of the highest standard. I was fascinated by the significance of the show politically and the logistics of putting it together.
At Crossing the Line, I spoke to Pakistani printmaker Sophiya Khwaja, aformer assistant professor of printmaking in Lahore who now lives and works in Dubai. She said: “As a teacher, I am just so glad that Trajectories has been put together because it is so difficult teaching printmaking. There are exhibitions of painting, information on women artists, on sculptors, there are exhibitions on pre-partition India and post-partition, but never information on printmakers.” I asked her about the practical issues involved in mounting the show and whether there had been exhibitions that show Pakistani and Indian art together. “There have been some, but not so many,” she said. “Visas are hard [to get]. I think that is why Trajectories is here in Sharjah. For something on this scale, it would be difficult to get the attendance figures required to justify [the cost of mounting] it in Pakistan or India. As a Pakistani, if I go to India I have to get separate visas for each city I want to visit, and I have to report to the police every day. So can you imagine working like that? It is the same for an Indian, so projects of this kind are impossible. It is an extreme situation. Initiatives such as this exhibition are taken sometimes in England; they also take place here, but not on this scale. It is phenomenal to see a show of this scale here in the UAE.”
Khwaja explained further the practical issues involved: accessing archives is difficult; there is a serious lack of government support. “Many goods are banned from export and there are at times issues with figurative work, and with the political situation.” Against this situation, Trajectories provides a culturally enriching experience and is accompanied by a fully illustrated, scholarly catalogue. One hopes that museums in the west, especially in the UK, can find a way of enabling the exhibition to travel.