Amna Naqvi is the founder of AAN Foundation and Gandhara Art Space. She is an art collector, philanthropist, publisher and an enabler of art projects and initiatives, which have led to the development of the contemporary Pakistani art space both locally, as well as globally for almost fifteen years. The AAN Collection now comprises of over 800 works of art ranging from 3rd Century Gandhara sculptures to 17th Century Mughal miniatures to contemporary artworks by artists such as Shahzia Sikander, Ai WeiWei, Takashi Murakami, Imran Qureshi, Rashid Rana and Zhang Xiaogang. Works from the collection have been part of major exhibitions at institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, Belvedere Museum Vienna, Singapore Art Museum, Asia Society Museum Hong Kong, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum Michigan, The Aga Khan Museum Toronto, The Venice Biennial, The Sharjah Biennial, The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, MAXXI Museum in Rome amongst others.
The collection is complimented by the AAN Foundation, which supports art exhibitions and projects in Asia as well as globally. Projects supported by the Foundation include ‘Authority as Approximation’ by Shahzia Sikander at Para-Site Art Space in 2009, Ai WeiWei and Vito Acconci’s exhibition at Para-Site, ‘Rising Tide’ a survey show of Pakistani Contemporary Art at the Mohatta Palace Museum Karachi, Lines of Control at the Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Princes and Painters of Delhi at the Asia Society Museum New York, 36 Calendars by Song Dong, an Asia Art Archive project. A very significant part of the AAN Foundation’s aim is to provide support at the very initial/conceptual stages, to projects, which could become platforms for further strengthening the artistic space in their own areas and geographies.
"The focus of philanthropy and patronage in the developing world is mostly towards health, education and disaster relief. We had been supporting these initiatives, but almost ten years ago we realized that along with these we should support the arts as it was such a huge part of our lives."
Driven by intellectual curiosity to explore the culture of the places you lived in, between South Asia and South East Asia, and now in Hong Kong, can you highlight a few works that best represent each place?
At the core of the collection is contemporary art from Pakistan. A few compelling works include Desperately Seeking Paradise by Rashid Rana, Parallax and Seraph by Shahzia Sikander, You Who Are My Love and my Life’s Enemy Too by Imran Qureshi and Lady and the Mirror by the modernist Sadequain. We do collect the works of the Indian moderns as well, and what exemplifies those the best are the abstract works of the modernist S.H. Raza and the landscapes by F.N. Souza. Chinese contemporary artwork would be best represented by Lee & Ali by Wilson Shieh, a granite sculpture by Ju Ming and portraits by Yue Minjun.
SHAHZIA SIKANDER: APARATUS OF POWER, EXHIBITION AT THE ASIA SOCIETY HONG KONG CENTRE, 2016. IMAGE COURTESY OF ASIA SOCIETY HONG KONG CENTRE.
In your recent interview with Ocula in July 2016, you mentioned that the best artists are disruptive by their nature and collectors must move out of their comfort zone to collect. Could you describe particular artists' works and specific collections that fit in to your 'disruptive' and 'out of comfort zone' descriptions?
My husband, Ali, and I have been collecting for over 20 years and I look at the collection in concentric circles leading towards a core. The antique objects link to the modern and the contemporary art collection. For example the 18th and 19th century miniatures link up to the neo-miniatures of Shahzia Sikander and Imran Qureshi. There are various such fascinating ties which form organically between the modernist works of Sadequain, M.F. Hussain, F.N. Souza, Ismail Gulgee, S.H. Raza, Anna Molka and contemporary works by Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi and Khadim Ali.
SHAH ABBAS RECEIVING THE MUGHAL MISSION AT ISFAHAN, INDIA, LUCKNOW OR FAIZABAD, LOT SOLD FOR $119,375. IMAGE COURTESY OF SOTHEBY’S AND THE ARTWORK IS PART OF THE AAN COLLECTION.
I believe in collecting artworks that are challenging or disruptive by their very nature. Challenges could be in the form of the narrative, the scale or the medium. That is why I believed strongly in the neo-miniature movement which emerged from Pakistan in the early nineties as the artists used skills which were honed in tradition and then subverted these to hone narratives that were informed by the social and political issues that the artists encountered. This includes the pioneering work of Shahzia Sikander at the Miniature Department at the National College of Arts in the early 90s, which is then carried forward by Imran Qureshi, Khadim Ali and Aisha Khalid who are all making for a strong presence of contemporary miniature in the art world currently.
Medium has never been a barrier for us. We bought our first video installation by a contemporary artist more than ten years ago, when video was a very new medium especially in South Asia. There are works in every possible medium including, wood, schist, granite, steel, linen, paper, canvas, photography, found objects, gold, velvet, silk, silver as well as digital medium and more. Similarly, size has never been a barrier. The scale of Desperately Seeking Paradise, a gargantuan sculpture by Rashid Rana is one such example. The miniature album by Aisha Khalid also would be considered difficult to collect as it cannot be framed; it has to be enjoyed by viewing it in one’s hands. It is in the form of a codex and is composed of twenty two paintings bound together in the form of a miniature manuscript. As is Parallax, a thirty-six feet, three channel video installation by Shahzia Sikander, which can only be shown in museums and public institutions, as well as a collection of sixteen antique Mughal miniature portraits which are only three inches each in length. If the narrative is compelling, the medium and size pose no challenge.
PARALLAX , 2013 BY SHAHZIA SIKANDER. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE ARTIST & THE ARTWORK IS PART OF THE AAN COLLECTION.
Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid are very prominent Pakistani artists that using very traditional treatment to create contemporary miniature paintings and Gandhara has exhibited them numerous times in Hong Kong. What was the general sentiment of the general public and art collectors for their works at the outset and what makes their artworks so special and relevant to today’s society?
CONVERSATION, 2001 BY AISHA KHALID (VIDEO STILL IMAGE). IMAGE COURTESY OF THE ARTIST & THE ARTWORK IS PART OF THE AAN COLLECTION.
The miniature technique was rejuvenated in the ‘80s by the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. The original curriculum focused on the revival of the traditional miniature painting style of the Mughal, Deccani Pahari, Rajput and Persian schools. In the ‘90s, students initiated their own artistic vernacular using this traditional medium. The work produced challenged the establishment and tradition. To break out of that six to eight inch border in which they are trained to paint is a task in itself, let alone how these artists turned miniature painting utterly on its head. They commented on the social, political and cultural dialogue, which existed in their world and their region.
Gandhara has played a pioneering role in introducing Pakistani contemporary art in Hong Kong and in Asia. Hong Kong is now most definitely the centre of art in Asia and is the third largest art centre after New York and London. This was not the case twelve years ago, when I began Gandhara. I am most proud of the role this small art space from Karachi has played in the development of a more robust art scene in Hong Kong. The number of galleries showing Pakistani contemporary art at Art Basel is a testament to this.
"Culture defines who we are and if that is not shared, disseminated and hence preserved, it can get lost. Art and culture always fall prey to rampant homogenization and we felt that there were ideas, philosophies, voices and opinions that needed to be discovered and explored."
Gandhara Art has shown the works of Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi in three exhibitions in Hong Kong since 2007. The exhibitions were held at the Experimental and Pao Galleries at the Hong Kong Art Centre. We selected a well-known public institution for the exhibitions so these could be shared with the Hong Kong public. The first exhibition titled Portraits and Vortexes featured seventeen works by Qureshi as well an installation in which there was public participation. Khalid also exhibited a number of works including the seminal video installation Conversation that had been created during her residency at Rijksakademie in 2001. Both the shows were extremely well received in Hong Kong and were accompanied by the first ever comprehensive publications on the works of the artists.
IMRAN QURESHI: MIDNIGHT GARDEN. EXHIBITION AT PAO GALLERIES, HONG KONG, 2014. IMAGE COURTESY OF PAO GALLERIES.
The second exhibition in 2010 is critical in the development of both artists' works as it featured the seminal painting You Who Are My Love and My Life’s Enemy Too by Imran Qureshi which has now become the most recognised feature in Qureshi’s current work. The gestural abstraction of the red paint mimicking blood stains with miniature floral imagery denoting hope has become his leitmotif with the award winning installation at the Sharjah Biennial and the installations at the Sydney Biennial and Roof Garden Commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Khalid also showed paintings and most notably a sculpture in silk, velvet and steel pins which is led to the installation at the Sharjah Art Museum and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. In 2014, both Qureshi and Khalid exhibited for the third time with Gandhara at the Hong Kong Art Centre with Qureshi showing his large scale paintings as well as miniatures featuring landscapes which followed from his early miniature Threatened, which he had shown in 2010. This series of miniatures was further developed at his exhibition at The Barbican in London.
YOU WHO ARE MY LOVE AND MY LIFE’S ENEMY TOO II, 2010 BY IMRAN QURESHI. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE ARTIST & THE ARTWORK IS PART OF THE AAN COLLECTION.
Most, if not all, of the artists who you represent at Gandhara-Art are of Pakistani background and use ink and watercolour on paper as the major medium of choice. What draws you to these works and what is so unique about artworks in this medium in comparison with oil on canvas?
Though we show works across all mediums, paper is very special to Gandhara as we worked with artists working with this medium from the beginning. Historically paper was used for painting in Asia including both Chinese scrolls as well as South Asian miniatures. I had explained earlier my reasons for being drawn to paper as it was the medium of contemporary miniature painting. Paper also appeals to me personally because of its association with text.
Traditionally ink is a dominant medium in Chinese paintings and calligraphy, and we know that many South Asian and Southeast Asian artists also use ink as a medium—as inherited from respective traditions as well. Thus works on paper collectors in Asia are pretty sophisticated. In your experience, do you identify a few similarities and distinctions in the artistic interpretation of ink in different cultures and regions?
Ink used in calligraphy and in South Asian miniatures have parallels to ink painting in China and in West Asia. To my mind collectors acquiring works on paper are daring due to its sensitivity and ephemerality. Paper also has very strong links to text and scholarship, therefore works on paper will always resonate with sophisticated collectors. I recall a lecture in Hong Kong on contemporary miniature painting from Pakistan and interestingly ink paining enthusiasts had come to attend the very same lecture as they saw the similarities between both strands.
Inspired by the fabled Silk Road, Sotheby’s Contemporary Ink Art Department is presenting a thematic sale called Confluence in October this year, featuring works from China and its neighbours in the East, Europe, South Asia and West Asia. What potential do you see in expanding the ink art category beyond a traditionally Chinese genre?
Ink is a medium which is very prevalent in the South Asian traditions and therefore the juxtaposition of using the ‘Silk Road’ as a point of departure or a curatorial premise for this show is a splendid idea. I think we tend to divide art too much within social, political and primarily geographic boundaries. Art did not exist like that; therefore works on ink should not be boxed into China or East Asia, but should look at its historic counterpoints in South Asia and West Asia too. Therefore collectors who veer towards tradition but identify more with contemporary themes should be able to find much to delight in these works.
Being a collector of contemporary miniature, I have the work of Wang Tiande who is a contemporary ink artist in my collection. The work resonated with me and my interest in South Asian miniatures. I think such exhibitions are vital as these open doors for exchange of ideas. The Silk Road was a conduit for the exchange of goods, but did it not lead to exchanges of ideas?
WANG TIANDE, NEW CHINESE CLOTHES III, SOTHEBY'S HONG KONG, APRIL 2017. LOT SOLD FOR HK$162,500.
You and your husband have over 800 pieces of artwork and your house in Hong Kong alone has over 140 artworks. That is a very extensive collection of artworks! What motivates you to buy artworks at auction and what advice do you give to your friends who may also appreciate the works that you do?
In terms of collecting works of art, we acquire both from galleries as well as auction. We have always supported auctions and have collected some very significant works in the collection via auctions. The first factor that motivates me is that everyone has an equal opportunity to collect the works as there are no waiting lists as in the primary market. Also some very iconic works find their way to auction which would otherwise not be available. For example we were able to acquire Red Carpet - 3 by Rashid Rana at a Sotheby’s auction while having dinner in a restaurant in Hong Kong and bidding on the work which was being auctioned in London. As we also collect books, we were able to acquire part of Brooke Astor’s library centred on books on art, as well as architecture, from a Sotheby’s sale in New York. There are such out of print gems in it, that while at The Met Cloisters I was looking for a book with deep scholarship of the Unicorn tapestries and lo and behold I found an out of print gem from amongst Mrs Astor’s art books. Her library has merged very successfully with my own library. The auction houses also help curate the exhibition and have a great role in education and putting the spotlight on works from lesser known regions and developing a presence for these regions on the global art scene.
RASHID RANA, RED CARPET – 3, LOT SOLD FOR £80,500. IMAGE COURTESY THE ARTIST & THE ARTWORK IS PART OF THE AAN COLLECTION.
LEAD IMAGE: IMRAN QURESHI, YOU WHO ARE MY LOVE AND MY LIFE’S ENEMY TOO II, 2010.