When visiting the exhibition at Sharjah Art Museum, one undertakes a comprehensive crash course on both the legacy of printmaking from the Subcontinent and the modern history of India and Pakistan. There is a significant South Asian population living in the United Arab Emirates and this exhibition, painstakingly displayed in two vast galleries, promises to introduce a dialogue across cultures, borders, and traditions.
Culture Trip visited Sharjah Art Museum and sat down with the co-curators to talk printmaking, curating, and traditional schools:
CT: How did you both review the entire tradition of printmaking in India and Pakistan before selecting and sourcing just 150 works and arranging them by theme?
CHC: Our processes were very different. As a researcher and a printmaker herself, Paula already had the contacts to source the Indian collections for the modern section. For the contemporary section, she approached artists individually to ask for works on loan.
For me, in terms of modern Pakistani art there were real limitations. In the 1960s Pakistani artists had no access to a press. That changed in 1967 with a workshop sponsored by USAID and that is when artists in Pakistan were exposed to modern technology…ultimately printmaking became a degree-granting medium in 1985 at the National College of Arts in Lahore, set up by Zahoor ul Akhlaq who is largely considered the father of the country’s modern printmaking tradition. I approached artists individually and they connected me to private collectors of their work who were willing to temporarily loan pieces to Sharjah Museums Department. In addition, a number of museums and galleries agreed to loan us rare works from India, Pakistan, and abroad.
CT: What three terms does the printmaking novice need to learn in order to fully appreciate the exhibition?
PS: Let’s start with the medium itself. The term printmaking is born from printing, which is the predecessor. Printmaking is the art of printed pictures – first as illustrations to support text and later as broadsheets or works of art in their own right.
Next, I’d suggest editioning: A print is an original work of art made from a matrix. The artist is deeply involved in the making of the matrix and in pulling the print from it. Because it is made from a matrix, it is possible to pull multiple prints. The matrix goes through a process of proofing – trial proofs, variation proofs and finally the artist’s proof, which is pulled to the artist’s complete satisfaction. Then a limited edition – identical to the artist’s proof – is finally pulled/published. Every proof/edition print must be numbered and signed by the artist in order to be valued as an original work of art.
Finally, it’s important to comprehend tactility: printmaking mediums offer immensely tactile surfaces, inimitable in any other art-making process. The surface of the matrix is often like a sculpted field in itself that translates into the print on paper. It is this unique feature of printmaking that continues to attract artists and connoisseurs to the medium.
CT: Paula, of all the mediums of art to feature in this groundbreaking exhibition, why did you select printmaking? As a printmaker yourself, what personally drew you to the medium?
PS: I studied printmaking and was first drawn to it due to my deep admiration for my teacher and mentor Anupam Sud, an eminent Indian printmaker of the Modernist era. To me, drawing the matrix is an immensely meditative process, while processing and printing it is an extremely labour-intensive one – these two complimentary aspects of art-making make a complete whole for me. To pull a print finally from the matrix is like making magic – the excitement of which has never left me since the day I first engaged with the medium.
Over the years of being involved with printmaking as a practitioner and a researcher, I realised that there is a severe lacuna in the documenting of its history in the Sub-continent, even though it’s trajectory is unique against the larger backdrop of the development of printmaking the world over. Also, since the inception of printmaking in the Sub-continent is intrinsically interlinked with the printing and publishing industry, the medium closely reflects the sweeping political, social and economic trajectory of Sub-continental history and therefore makes interesting viewing/reading for an international audience, particularly one with a high percentage of South Asian viewers or close links with South Asia over the centuries.
CT: Is it common to see shows displaying both Indian and Pakistani art either on the Sub-continent or in major arts institutions around the world?
CHC: It wasn’t clear to me until recently how important this show is, because I’d always assumed that somewhere somebody had done a curated show on Pakistani and Indian art. I knew this was probably the first printmaking show but beyond antiquities, I personally have been searching and have not been able to find any museum exhibition exclusively featuring Indian and Pakistani art with a narrow curatorial intent.
CT: Why did you select to highlight the 19th and 21st century printmaking tradition in India and Pakistan? What developments are particularly significant?
CHC: Printmaking started out as primarily printing, which was a commercial exercise undertaken by people who aimed to showcase elements of popular culture (such as gods and goddesses), as well as for advertisements and illustrations. In their prints, British colonials favoured anglicised imagery that orientalised the subcontinent. Then around the 1920s, Sub-continental artists took the established medium of printmaking and reclaimed and redefined it to make the visual indigenous. They wanted to distinguish it from the western visual that is in print even though the technology – the printing press – itself was imported from the West.
CT: Which artist or work included in Trajectories surprised you or taught you the most?
PS: ‘Dropadi Chirharan/The Disrobing of Draupadi’, a late-19th century chromolithograph from Karachi by a Hindu artist called Narottam Nathdwara, representing a scene from the popular Hindu epic Mahabharata. Loaned by the Delhi Art Gallery after much persuasion, this is an extremely rare example of bazaar printmaking activity in the area that is today known as Pakistan. Though parallels from centres of 19th-century bazaar printmaking in present-day India are readily available, this is the only one that I have ever come across from Pakistan. It indicates that similar popular picture-production activity and demand existed across the Sub-continent regardless of social or religious distinctions or concentration.