Dec 2 | Interviewed by Kinza Kasher
The Rungg Collective is about conversations with artists from Pakistan.
Reflections & Deflections | 20”x20”
Bride | 11”x15” | Details
Shell Gold | Gouache
Dream Catchers | Detail
RotationsnRevolutions | 11” x 15”
Mukhi Celebration | Detail
Flamingo | Detail
Marriage of Psyche | 22” x 22”
Marriage of Psyche | Details
Day Break | 20” x 15”
Sohni | 15” x 15”
Noori | 15” x 15”
Sorath | 11” x 15”
Water Lillies | Gouache on Paper | 11” x 15”
Water Lillies | 15” x 15”
I would love to start by knowing a little bit more about you. Who are you? What do you do right now? And just what does a day in the life of Lubna Jahangir looks like?
Lubna: I am Lahori, born and bred. Education, lived all my life here except for a period of four years when I moved to Islamabad for work. Family of four brothers and sisters. I am the eldest. Belong to – I wouldn’t say conservative – but parents, yes, they come from conservative backgrounds. But my father had this thinking that daughters should be educated and should get equal opportunities as sons. He wanted me to become a doctor. I wanted to become an artist, I think I was born with a brush or a pencil or whatever. So after doing my pre-med, I said that’s it, this is enough, let me go, please let me do something else that I want to do. So he finally agreed maybe because he was at that time, posted in Saudi Arabia and was away from his family, and was feeling more emotional about it. So he agreed. So I went to Lahore College and did B.A Fine Arts, did my third year and then the Punjab University Fine Arts department admissions opened for the graphic design first year. A couple of my friends were applying and they said “Why don’t you apply” also” and when I looked at the requirements, I said, “I won’t get the admission. So it’s pointless, I’ll have to go through the application process for no reason, so you guys go ahead.” They said, “Listen, all of us are doing it, there is no harm in filling out an application.” So I applied and got a call for the interview. No, first I got a call for the drawing test, which was a portrait and I had just been drawing for the past nine months. Doing realistic drawing. Before that it was just a pop art kind of thing. So I thought my portrait will be bad so I’ll get thrown out. Got through the interview also and eventually ended up at Punjab University. Those years there were memorable, learnt a lot of stuff, eventually graduated in ’87 and went into advertising. Again, my father was against it. He said, “Advertising nahi karni teaching kar lo, kuch kar lo” (don’t go into an advertising career, go into teaching or anything else). At that time, there were hardly any girls working in advertising agencies. So the condition was, if the agency is going to put you through probation for three months, I will put the agency through three months of probation also! So if he was satisfied with the way things went there, he will allow me to continue, otherwise I will have to stop it.
The condition was that he would drop me off in the morning and he would pick me exactly at four, which was the finishing time from work himself. I will not have any client meetings, I will not go out or meet any clients. But within three years, I was head of the studio. I was going out for client meetings. I was also traveling out of the city making presentations and stuff. In ’96 I was offered a partnership shareholding by the head of the agency. So myself and three other colleagues became partners in the agency. So they were four partners. And the agency that we set up was Headstart. Within a year it became part of Publicis, which is one of the global agencies based in France. Within a year we were part of that. So we became minor shareholders in Publicis based in Lahore.
The next 10 or 12 years were just a roller coaster. I did everything that I had not imagined I would be doing. I was on truck addas (truck stops) promoting trucks. I was organizing international marathons. I was selling HP computers. I launched Nestle water for the first time in Pakistan, and was part of that creative team. And then in 2009, I resigned. Sold my shares because that is the condition if you quit. I had no future plan. I resigned and I said, “I’m not going to work. I’m going to paint.” And I started painting full-time. I was painting before that. I had been painting for almost 20 years, but it was more of a hobby. I was hardly selling any work. If anybody liked it, it was mostly friends or family, I would pick up a piece and give it away without having a second thought that I should be getting paid for this. So, but my family and my friends were like “What the hell? What is she doing with her life?” This started saying things like “She is depressed, we need to do something about it.” My father was advising me, my brother said we will invest money, you set up your own agency. I kept saying, I’m not going to do anything.
Eventually a friend of mine called me and he said “There is a job opportunity in Pakistan Telecommunications as Head of Marketing. And I’ve already shared your CV and your interview is set up in two days in Islamabad. So their HR is going to call you. Pack up and be ready to leave and go and give you an interview and the job is yours because you fit the profile.” And I said, “I’m not going, I don’t want to work.” But he was on my case and made sure I caught the Monday morning flight, went to Islamabad and prepared for the interview. I got the job, moved to Islamabad and worked in PTCL for four years as head of marketing. But Islamabad compared to Lahore is very difficult for a Lahori. And four years later I said “I am missing Lahore way too much.” So I resigned. Three months later, I joined LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences) as head of their communication and fundraising department. But within a year, I decided that I can’t do this anymore because while at PTCL I had already done two solo shows. I’d done a number of group shows and participated in a number of group shows, but I also, while at PTCL had done two solo shows. And my work was slowly and steadily selling too. So I was at LUMS for a year and I resigned and after that, became a full-time painter and trying to finish a book. My hobby is embroidery and photography. I love to travel. And on the personal side, never married out of choice. I think that is why I got to do all of this stuff. Do you wanna know anything else? (laughs)
I am known for the person who never shuts up and I have no idea where to start! I have so many questions and already, you’re my inspiration! What was the advertising scene in Pakistan? When you went into that first agency, when your dad said “I’m going to put them on probation, what was that like?”
Lubna: In our society at that time, girls were either teaching or were doctors. No third option was available. And my father was very keen that I should choose a profession which allows me to work as a freelancer. I don’t have to do a job. Unfortunately, I took up something where I had to do a job. He said I should teach. Unfortunately, I was a bit outspoken. All my life I have been outspoken. So I was not very popular at Punjab University, especially with the teachers, even though I was one of the top three students, but I was not very popular. I was very keen to teach at Punjab University actually, I would have looked at it as an honor. But they made excuses. Now when I look back, and I think what a favor they did me, if I had ended up there as a teacher, I look at the politics in the department or the college that it has become and how good teachers and good people have been destroyed by it. I’m so glad I did not take that route. I went into advertising because I was trained to be a visual designer and it has nothing to do with marketing. All that was part of my training at work.
I was keen to learn and I got good mentors and good bosses. If they would say you have to do this and I would say “I don’t know how to do this but you can teach me I’m willing to do it.” And I never thought ‘I can’t do this because I am a girl’. I can’t travel because I am a girl.’ In that time, believe me there were hardly any girls advertising. And my father said “Media? You’re going into the media? That is a disreputable profession. So how can you do that?” But because he was coming to collect me from the office, he would get to meet my bosses and get to meet my male colleagues, he developed a comfortability level. A couple of good clients were willing to take the risk that “Okay, this woman has passion and ability to understand our brief and deliver on the creative side. So probably she’ll also understand the marketing side and deliver on that.” And my first marketing assignment was FMC. It is an American pesticide company and they were launching their prime product in Pakistan. And I was the creative head on that. This is ’92 or ’94. I am not sure on the date. Two months before the launch, my counterpart, the marketing head resigned. Moved, took up another job. So now the person who was going to head the marketing and the budgeting and all that – is gone! I started looking for another person.
The regional director was an American who was, at that time, based in Pakistan overlooking the project. When he found out, he said, “I don’t want a new person on the account. Give her marketing also.” And both my bosses, my immediate boss, who was the general manager of the agency, and the managing director, had a heart attack. They were like, “She’s creative. She has absolutely no idea about budgeting or planning or media planning or anything. How the hell she can she handle it?” He said “She can!”. Maybe he had a certain level of confidence and me because I worked on a lot of his PowerPoint presentations. He would send me the material and I put it together and followed his brief through. So he said, “She can do it. You get this girl to me. And the general manager should become the overseer of the project. And she will handle both sides.” And that was the project on which Kasher (Ahmad Nadeem Kasher) and Jimmy (Jamil Hussain) worked with me. We were designing a flip chart for the farmers explaining how it works because we couldn’t make videos or animations and all that so it was a flip chart. These guys drew all the illustrations for that. 40-page flip chart, which Jimmy and Kasher designed for us. I would brief them and they would bring it back and then we would discuss it and then share it with the client and there will be changes. But Kasher was also my junior obviously, I think quite a bit junior to me, four or five years.
After that there is no looking back from the Creative Director. I was made the Account Director of the agency which meant I was looking after the marketing side of the business now. I had the edge that I was creative, so I didn’t need creativity. And by getting the brief from the client, I knew exactly what my creative brief is going to be to the agency. So for the agency it became a major plus. In 1996, I launched the Volvo Trucks. That is when I ended up working on the truck addas of Pakistan.
Again, it was a client who insisted she will help the team which will go in the market and do these roadshows. On the truck addas, briefing the drivers who drive the trucks, not the buyers, but the drivers who drive the truck. And most of them were pathans (Pashtun people, the largest and second-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively). Again, both my colleagues, my bosses and the team at Volvo were like, “A woman? Are we going to hold her hand and babysit her or focus on our work?” And he said “She has designed the whole project. She has designed the roadshow. She knows exactly what is required. She will go and conduct the first three or four shows. Train you guys and then we’ll pull her out and the rest of the shows in the country you can do yourself. As far as that thing is concerned that we will not look after her, she will look after herself.” These two clients, I can never forget because both of these guys, I had to go and work in the villages in the south of Punjab with farmers and that is the reason he said “Okay, the GM will go as the head of the team. So there is a senior male presence, but she will conduct all the shows”, and my GM kept saying that “We are sending a young girl into the village and she will become a problem for me. Am I going to be looking after her or do my work?” This is exactly what he said. But both times, I got my mother to have big male kurtas (a loose collarless shirt worn in many regions of South Asia) stitched for me. In fact, I think I snatched a couple of my brothers’ kurtas and had cotton shawls made. I would wear that chaadar (shawl) with a huge floppy cricket hat and go out. Both times I did that and except for minor issues, I had no issues because I was not seeing myself as a woman out in the field and not being scared of anything. So when men saw a woman who was leading a team and not willing to take nonsense, they automatically either backed off or maybe out of respect or out of fear that I will turn around and punch me in the nose (laughs). Either way, it worked for me!
Did you have anybody else who was there or were you setting your own example?
Lubna: No, I was setting my own example, I would not be bragging if I said I was setting my own example. At that time, there were hardly any women in the field. A couple came after me, who were as brave and as quick as I was. There was one who was a videographer who became our head of our production, commercials and all that. And the other girl was creative. So she was not required to do a lot of fieldwork. But she was only there for a few months because she was returning to America to continue her studies. But these two girls later and on the FMC project, these two girls eventually came on board. So instead of traveling alone in the first three, four months, later on, the videographer and the creative girl, both came on board and traveled with us.
And so throughout these years to all the way in ’09 when you finally retired, you were evolving and revolutionizing not only for yourself but for all those people around you, for your family. Everybody was witnessing you going through those motions. What was that like?
Lubna: Oh, I actually never sat down and evaluated that until much later in life. Living in Lahore, when a friend of mine, a much older woman said to me, “You don’t realize what you’ve done and what you’ve achieved. You have set so many examples for local women and girls. You probably think you are doing it for yourself but what you have achieved is for others too.” I live on my own. I don’t live with my parents or brothers or anyone. And the whole family is based in Lahore. It is not that they live in another city. So for a single woman in Pakistan, to say “I’m going to set up my own household, in the same city where your parents are also living and your married brothers are also living and I’m moving out of my parents’ house and going to have my own house” – it’s still a difficult task. Yes, women are living alone where the parents are not there anymore. Or they are in another city or a village and they are working in Lahore or Karachi or Islamabad. And they have no option but to set up their own thing. Have their own place from where they live and work and socialize. But even now, I think I may be a rarity that my parents live in the same city. I don’t live with them while my brothers are married. But I moved out almost 20 years ago.
I have never heard of that in Pakistan. That’s amazing.
Lubna: I know young women who’ve lived abroad for 10 years, 20 years, and lived on their own. Yet, when they come back and if they’re single, they’re moving back with the parents. If they can afford a small apartment or something then fine, otherwise they move back with their parents. But I don’t see it as a major achievement because I was doing it for my own thing. Then I made the choice that I was not going to get married. I also knew I will have to eventually be on my own because saying “I’m not going to get married”, yet live with my parents and be a burden on my brothers? It was not going to work out, it would only sour things. Create bad blood between the whole family. So it was better that I live on my own and let them know that I can manage. I told them, “I will still need help from you guys. But I am not going to be a burden on you guys and I’m not going to drag you down.” Initially, it was very difficult because my father was very upset. Even to the extent of saying that this was all because he allowed me to go into Fine Arts. I wanted to tell him, “It is not the Fine Arts, it’s you! You brought us up like this, independent and able to speak our minds.” He also said at one point that “You remind me of myself as a young man but what scares me is that I am a man and you are a woman. I could have done this but you cannot do this.” Showing faith in me but still being scared for me, but I think now he is okay.
I honestly think that’s dads in general! I resonate with you when you say, ‘I was doing it for myself’. You are deeply inspiring! And to do it in Pakistan? In the U.S, we know we have sort of like a step that every teenager follows. But to set your own example, I’m sitting here and I have goosebumps!
You said that you wanted to teach and you have this amazing way of expression, which is what institutions sort of tried to censor you for. I can only imagine how many people on a wider scale in the classroom you would have talked to. Not that you didn’t already because obviously, people told you that you helped so many others around you but I want to ask – what is that censorship? Can you explain what irked you about that? They can’t see the genius of what you’ve done?
Lubna: You asked about teaching. I did eventually teach as a part-time visiting faculty at an executive MBA class, teaching them marketing without a marketing degree! (laughs) And I taught Media Studies at Lahore College University for a year but I think there I was seen as a radical teacher, a liberating teacher when that was an all-girls class. About censorship – a) it is mostly about financial control. Most of the men are conditioned that they are the financial provider. And because you’re the main financial provider, the woman should give in. So when a woman becomes financially independent, that control goes away. Now you can’t scare her. Her biggest fear is that she can take care of herself no problem, but if she has kids, then what happens? So she is willing to put up with all kinds of nonsense. And believe me, that is what drove me. Right now I have my parents, my brothers. But eventually, my brothers will get married and have their own lives so why should I become a burden on them or their household?
When I’m saying I don’t want to get married, then I have to have an alternative plan. I can’t just say, “I don’t want to get married”, but then also be a burden to my family. So that is what drove me to have a career. And maybe because my role model was my dad, so I never really had an interest in clothes and being a bride or marriage. Sometimes, I look back and think if I was interested in that stuff but I never recall having that interest.
You were too busy having other exciting, fun things.
Lubna: I was too busy in my own world, not other exciting things. Even as a kid, I was too busy in my own world, painting my own stuff, doing my own things. stitching my own stuff, doing my own embroidery. I went to a co-education school. I never had a boyfriend. The only time I was not studying in co-education was when I did my pre-med. Those two years. That is the only time when I went to an all-female college or that one year at Lahore College when I did my third year in Fine Arts. Even before that or after that, I was never interested in having a boyfriend. Yes, I had a lot of male friends. But nothing that would be like a relationship or a boyfriend or an emotional link. Maybe I was abnormal in that way. But I think I was too focused on my studies.
Is it safe to say that you were busy falling in love with yourself?
Lubna: No no no, I was not busy falling in love with myself It is only now that I started falling in love with myself. I think it was the other way around. I was too critical of myself. Especially parents-wise. I had an inferiority complex so maybe that is why I wanted to develop all these skills, to compensate for that. Because my mother is a small, petite, extremely attractive woman. And I was this tall, fat, dark, curly-haired girl who didn’t look like her daughter at all. When people heard my mother say “She’s my daughter”, they thought I was a step-child. So, as a child, I grew up with a complex, a huge complex that I am not good-looking, and that I was the ugly duckling of the family. So maybe, I was trying to compensate for that. Also, my parents are very brilliant so my ability to access things and process them was in my DNA.
I think as human beings, especially as we evolve through life, we are so hard on ourselves but the world might not be looking at us like that. The examples you set were that “I do not give a damn about what’s going on over here.” It’s amazing. I’m so grateful to be able to talk to a strong woman like you. I can look at a white or black person here and say, “That’s Maya Angelou!”, as women we need to do that. However, looking at you, I see myself in you and I wonder why aren’t we seeing a lot more of that? Why is that right now? Can you identify any barriers?
Lubna: Yes, there are many. A lot of us, there are other women like me. But because I think I did it for myself, I don’t have the right to go around, beating my chest and say ‘see what I’ve done’. It has all been for myself. If in the process, I’ve opened pathways for other women, that has happened as a coincidence of whatever I was doing. I did not take up a banner and I was never part of the feminist movement. Second, the media is always looking for negative things. That is what sells. Positivity, especially for countries like Pakistan, don’t sell. Plus, a minority may appreciate us, but the majority in our country see us as a threat. Because we are ruining the system. We are giving mothers and daughters ‘ideas’. But believe me, some women come from the lower-middle class, good women who are working as salesgirls, as restaurant managers, as hostesses. I think they are much braver than we were or I was. I was working in the safety of an office and I had the option to quit. I had my father to support me, I had two brothers to support me. I had those choices. I worked because I wanted to work. I did not have to work because I needed to make the money to be able to lead a decent life or to be able to put food on my family’s table. These young women come from families where the father is a drug addict, the brother is a dropout who does not want to work or is a thief or a gangster and these girls are the only breadwinners. If they don’t work either, there will be no one to bring food for the family. So I look at these girls and I think if we start talking to them, a lot of them will say we do not want to get married because who would want to get married to us? Some non-Muslim? Some relatives? Who probably doesn’t want to work, doesn’t have a job, or is not able to hold a job. A lot of girls who work in beauty parlors or as beauticians or even in gyms as trainers and instructors, when you start talking to them, you discover that they are the primary breadwinners, the husband or the brother or the father may have a job. But they’re not even bringing in half the money that the girl alone brings in. That change in society is taking place. It is a slow one. But hopefully one day everybody will know that if you just let these girls work with you, firstly, half your problems will be solved. Second, all the daughter and mother-in-law problems in households will be solved. And you’ll have a better living standard. The irony is that girls are better educated. Even in my family when I start looking at my male and female cousins. A lot of girls have PhDs. The boys? Barely did their BFA’s. But because it is a business-oriented family, the boys got out of high school and went with their dads to their offices and started looking after the stores or the businesses. And then lost interest once the money started coming in. Men thought twice about harassing me because I carried that aura that I would punch them in the face if they said anything. But girls who need a job no matter what, they couldn’t even stand up to harassers. She can’t take that risk of saying ‘how dare you?’ Because she knows if she gets kicked out of her job then she’s dead. She doesn’t have a choice.
Right, there is no other choice for her. I think our interviews have a way of bringing in real stories from South Asia to the rest of the world in addition to talking about art. There is a misconception about our culture that it dictates the restriction of women’s rights. And I think art and culture are an umbrella of everything we’re talking about. Is any of this what is found in your work? You’ve done many amazing things, do you find that self manifesting in your work at all?
Lubna: Yes, my creative background has helped me a lot with it. And all that you see in my work is actually a fantasy world that exists here. I give it form and shapes. But I have this kind of an alternative universe living in my mind or my heart, wherever. In my soul, which comes out in my work. A lot of people ask me, “Do you sketch? Do you first do a lot of studies and then put the work together?” But believe me, a lot of times my painting starts as a doodle. And that doodle is on the paper where I’m going to have the finished work, not somewhere else. It is directly drawn on paper, even if it is not just a doodle. If it is a formal portrait. I will not do a study. I will have a reference image and it will go directly onto the sheet. Because before starting the work, that image has already been formed in my head. And I don’t feel the need to do any studies. If I’m working on a portrait, all I will do is study the photographs that I have taken. Keep looking at them and then decide okay, this is what I’m going to work with so that I get familiar with the features with the skin tone, the angle, with the expression in the eyes. All that comes out from within me. And you will see a lot of images repeated.
Trees are repeated again and again. The female form in a tree is repeated. A lot of times water and fish appear in my work. Inspiration sometimes comes from the outside. For instance, in the past two years, I’ve done two series on Bhittai’s poetry. One was triggered by an article that somebody had written about Asfa Jahangir after her death. calling her the eighth samurai. And then, six or eight months later, I read another article about Fahmida Riaz. While she was still alive, this was before her death. And she was called the ninth samurai. So that made me curious about what it is. When I started researching, I discovered there are these seven legendary women who appear in these folklore love stories and Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai has recorded the female angle of the love story in his poetry. That was Sindhi. Somebody introduced me to Sindhi poetry. I spoke to her, she was very helpful. So I initially started with seven paintings. Seven women, one painting for each, but by the time I finished those seven paintings, they became 28. Four paintings for each woman. It was all in my head, I’d never put a sketch down. If I was doing a painting and another painting sort of popped up in my head, I would take notes and I would make notations and think alright, this is the concept, but I would never make a sketch of that because if I make a sketch, even a small sketch, sometimes it ties me down, it takes that freedom of making changes as I go along.
Then once the show was done, there was another story again from Bhattai’s poetry. Mukheed Rainmekah. I did 22 paintings on that story. And she was a woman who was running an inn and a bar somewhere in the 1100s or 1200s. It was on a trade route, not in a city. So a lot of traders passed through. So I did a story on that. Bhattai’s angle on these stories was that these women were fighting for their rights while the men were doing nothing. Like Mahiwal, Ranjha and it was the women who went after what they believed in, whether it was their love for the man or the love for the land, or the right to refuse a Raja and say “I will not marry you”. There’s one particular story where this poor girl refuses the Raja and he keeps her captive for a year. He lets her go because she does not give in.
I love that as you’re reading other works and pieces of art, it’s manifesting in your process but also not getting caught in the box of your concepts and views either. You like to hold the spontaneity in your brushes or your tool. I think that’s fantastic. Your journey from all the way in an agency in ’92 and finding your natural calling in the present. Did you see anything change during the evolution of time? Did you look back and feel like you had left this world changed a bit from when you first started?
Lubna: The world has changed a lot. Unfortunately for the worse. There are some good things but the majority is unfortunately for the worse. The world has become more judgmental. They will judge me. It’s only now that I have long hair. Almost all my life I’ve had short hair, very close to my head. So I was judged for that and because I am an artist, I’m in the liberal world, so it was assumed I had nothing to do with religion. This has been said to my face. Once a colleague of mine walked into my room and I was saying my Namaz (prayers) and he went back out. And then he came back and he said, “Madam, I never thought you would do this.” And I smiled at him and I said, “What? Did you get deceived by my short hair? I would not say my Namaz?” He was so embarrassed, he did not know what to say after that. Then the presumption that at a particular age, a woman will be married and she will have college-going kids. So a lot of times I have been asked the question, “Where do your kids go to school”? I just simply turn around and tell them I don’t have kids. And when I say I don’t have kids, the expression on their faces shows pity and like they feel bad for me. And I love it because I don’t correct them, It’s none of their business, whether I’m married or widowed, or separated or not married or never married or in a relationship, it’s none of their business. But the funniest is when I say I don’t have kids, especially to men. Because women always ask follow-up questions but men never know what to say. But their expression says it all which is always that they feel bad for me.
And you know they’re equally curious!
Lubna: They’re equally curious but they dare not ask the next question. Why I don’t have kids is a very personal question for a woman. They might ask another man this question but they cannot ask a woman. The world has become more judgmental. I think I have mellowed down. I would stick to one thing. And I think partly that helped me to get where I am today. I would not allow distractions. I would not make friends with people who were too distracted by other things. Just people who I can spend a little time with and then we can go to the library and work. And leave the people who want to party and spend time otherwise. So I was very judgmental. But with time, I realized that everybody has their own circumstances. If I achieved one thing, it doesn’t mean that another person can do the same. Circumstances always determine the choices a person makes. What they can and can’t do, what they can like and not like. So I am nobody to say that someone should do the same thing I am doing. I’ve mellowed down and become less judgmental. And my attitude is now more like live and let live. As long as no one is bothering me or giving me any trouble. And if someone does give me trouble I am not going to fight them, I’ll just get up and leave from there and probably never come back.
And that’s for your own self.
Lubna: Yes, instead of getting into a situation that makes you tense and miserable, it is better to stay away from that company. No need to get worried over that. And as artists, when we get worried, it greatly affects our creativity. We can’t focus on work if we are worried about other things.
Right, and I feel like even judging art is so subjective. In Pakistan, as I’ve talked to other artists who have said that art is becoming really accepted, there’s this “Renaissance”, I’ve heard some people use that. I want to ask your opinion of where do you think is Pakistan’s art and creativity standing at this moment? Can you give us an expert’s view?
Lubna: Yes, I’m not an expert on it. Because again, the art world is also very judgmental. Also, nepotism. If you are part of a certain group, the guru of that group will support you no matter how bad of an artist you are and will build your name and if you’re not willing to do everything the guru wants, no matter how great you are, you will be shunned. You will not be accepted. Shazia Sikandar is such a good example. The miniature artist. She is such a big name worldwide. But in her own country, everyone is like what’s the big deal? In her country, she’s not been able to do a show yet. In her school at NCA, her own teachers don’t support her and say things like “Oh you don’t know how to draw.” They’ll run you down, judge you.
Who are you to judge? They have destroyed the careers of really good artists because they were not coming from the right backgrounds. They did not have that financial support or were not able to provide what the gurus were expecting from them. They’ve destroyed their careers. Art, yes, the young generation is now buying. Even the older generation has realized the art is an investment but they’re looking for masterpieces. People who have more money, want to buy art, which will eventually have more price to it. You’re gonna pull in more money. Younger people have also realized that but obviously, they can afford newer artists that they then judge, assess and pick up work of artists, which they think eventually will make money, Lahore is still primarily landscapes and calligraphy. Karachi is slightly better. I do nude. I had a lot of issues. I did sell a few of those but I now stopped myself from putting nude portrayal in my work.
Now I’m thinking of a new series. And again, I have nudes in my head and telling myself no you can’t do this, I already have a few nude paintings. You need to take care of them first and find them good homes. At times I have work that when I meet somebody or somebody sees them and they say, “We love this, but it is expensive.” And I tell them just give me what you can. It’s like giving away your pet, or the kids of your pets! Like if you have kittens or puppies and you look for a good home for them that will take care of them. I do the same with my paintings. Because thank God, I’m not financially dependent on my craft. But yeah, Lahore is mainly landscape and calligraphy in terms of selling. Karachi is a little different, and Islamabad, because of the diplomatic code there, they’re interested in Pakistani work but are more interested in miniatures. Or work which is not that westernized. In the past seven, eight years a lot of galleries have opened up. Some good, some bad, some really ugly who are selling fakes or copies, blatantly made copies. Like they are even copying artists that are still alive.
I heard about that as we were obviously setting our stuff up and I was like, don’t people sue each other there?
Lubna: Yeah but the thing is a good buyer or collector does ask for authentication certificates. I have seen Mashqook Raza’s work being copied and put in a mainstream gallery, in some sidewalk store. I was going through this plaza and I thought I saw a Mashqook. I thought to myself that this gallery just opened, this looks more like a framer rather than a gallery. So I went back and I didn’t even have to go into the gallery. I just peeked through the window and I knew it was a copy and I walked away thinking they probably have the originals somewhere upstairs in the gallery but they are selling fakes. A lot of this is happening. People are selling online. A lot of work is being sold online. Again copies. Copies of Japanese artists, copies of Chinese artists, those blossom trees. And people happily buy those too. Probably because of the value, maybe also affordability issues. For them, at the end of the day, it is just a picture. So, they think “Why should I pay thousands for it? When I can get it for so much cheaper.” But they don’t realize that they wasted that money too, it would’ve been better if they just went out and bought themselves a new dress instead.
Lubna: Yes and I am now in that age bracket where I will have opinions and a lot of them may be wrong. Plus, I am in the middle of all this so I don’t interact with this art mafia at all. A lot of people tell me “Oh, you should go to that gallery and exhibit there.” And I say I know that person, I’ve known that person for 30 years. And they go, “Oh great so they’ll take your work in no problem.” And I think to myself, what do I even tell you. Sure, I can go to them and exhibit my work and even buy a few pieces off of them, but Rungg Gallery, which is smaller than them, does the work fairly and authentically. They might not be as high profile yet but they know what’s fair.
Right. Ah, thank you for validating some of the authentic feelings that we’ve been trying to infuse in our gallery. Seriously, because the combination of the website that you see or our interaction right now has been years of work in the making and we just couldn’t move past the fact that here, even the smallest artist or the least known artist has the respect of being revered. I’m not saying that the art mafia doesn’t exist here, of course, it does. But we’re getting tired of the blatant disrespect of seeing so many copies. My dad told me they have back rooms where they have hired junior artists to make all these copies.
Lubna: Yes. Gulgee is being copied blatantly. Chughtai is being copied blatantly. Sadequain is being copied blatantly. What can you even say? The gallery I used to work with, had an Allabaksh, like 3×4. Now I don’t know how to tell a fake from a real one. He was showing me the stroke work and asked me what I think. I told him I am not sure, I haven’t seen much of his work in my life so I can’t comment on it. Gulgee’s work, you can tell if it is fake or not and see if the stroke is too slow. If it’s a fake, the stroke starts to bother me. Maybe I’ve seen so much of his work. Or maybe the flow is so free-flowing that when a brushstroke seems like it got stuck in one place, you can immediately tell it apart. So the guy who was showing me the painting was just standing there. What he did was he turned the painting around. And he showed me the back of the painting where they usually hang it from and goes “did you see”? The front sides of the canvas were brown, the back was white. Such a basic thing. That is the first thing he checked and said that this was fake, and the person who brought it in wants me to authenticate this. Since I don’t do that work, it never crossed my mind to check the canvas. But he did and it was chemically treated to give it an old look.
Lubna: Because it’s not like the artist is alive to say this isn’t my work.
And how many of one art piece can exist in the world! I see this popping up on Instagram all the time. And I’m like, hey but I just saw this somewhere else. Now of course we know. You’re right.
Lubna: People should speak directly to the artists and ask for authentication certificates. Don’t go through galleries, don’t go through anybody else. And believe me, artists are doing that also. They will make a major cartoon like the old studios, and then have others who will fill in. To turn out more work. I will accept that, I will live with that because this is an artistic tradition. It’s been happening forever where a student has a teacher and they paint one section of the painting and the student finishes it.
Right but like you said, there are boundaries with that too. And, you know, going to art school, our first day of training is on plagiarism! Somebody else’s work is not yours. That’s it.
Thank you once more for allowing me to take up so much of your time. I appreciate it.
Lubna: The pleasure was entirely mine and it was a pleasure getting to know you.
Thank you, take care!
My father had this thinking that daughters should be educated and should get equal opportunities as sons.
Self Portrait | Gouache on Paper | 7”x11”
My hobby is embroidery and photography. I love to travel. And on the personal side, never married out of choice. I think that is why I got to do all of this stuff.
Bride | 11”x15”
In our society at that time, girls were either teaching on doctors.No third option available. And my father was very keen that I should choose a profession which allows me to work as a freelancer.
Whimsical Portraits | 7.5” x 15″ | Gouache on paper
I think because I myself was not seeing myself as a woman out in the field, and not being scared of anything. So when men saw a woman who was leading a team and not willing to take nonsense, they automatically either backed off or maybe out of respect or out of fear that she will turn around and punch me in the nose.
Mukhi Celebration | 15” x 22”
Then I made the choice that I was not going to get married. I also knew I will have to eventually be on my own because saying I’m not going to get married, yet live with my parents and be a burden on my brothers? It is not going to work out.
I was never interested in having a boyfriend. Yes, I had a lot of male friends. But nothing that would be like a relationship or a boyfriend or an emotional link. Maybe I was abnormal in that way. But I think I was too focused on my studies.
Men thought twice about harassing me because I carried that aura that I would punch them in the face if they said anything. But girls who need a job no matter what, they couldn’t even stand up to harassers.
Tree of Life | 24” x 36”
Mommal | 15” x 15”
Sassi | 15” x 15”
I have been asked the question, “where do your kids go to school”? I just simply turn around and tell them I don’t have kids. And when I say I don’t have kids, the expression on their face shows pity and like they feel bad for me. And I love it because I don’t correct them. It’s none of their business, whether I’m married or widowed, or separated or not married or never married or in a relationship. It’s none of their business.
Rebirth | Gouache on Paper
Garden of Love | Gouache on Paper
Sohni the Pottery Maker | Gouache on Paper
All images provided by courtesy of the artist.