Abdullah Qureshi – The Evolving Artist

Photography by: Asif Chaudhry

Photography by: Asif Chaudhry

Art forms a fundamental part of any society. Unfortunately, in Pakistan it is not given its due at a macro level the way it should be. However, there are individuals who are creating space for it and encouraging its development process. Abdullah Qureshi, Founder of Gallery 39K is one such individual.  An artist, mentor and teacher, who is currently working with the British Council Pakistan as Senior Consultant Arts Projects and Partnerships.

It might sound a bit clichéd but not being one of the best students at school Abdullah found comfort in art, it was something that he was good at and considered his own.

“I have always been interested in art as far as I can remember”.

His summer holidays were spent in Hunarkada (an arts institute) near his house where he used to work with its then principal, Rakshanda Atawar as well as the Saeed Akhtar Studio to study drawing.

Despite an artistic legacy in his family, he credits them for always being encouraging of his artistic endeavors – supporting him to study at the prestigious Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. This exposure for him turned out to be a life changing experience.

When he used to come back home during holidays Abdullah kept in touch with his art teachers. In one such meet-up Rakshanda Atawar told him that she was no longer associated with the institution and was looking for a space to pursue independent work. On his way back it struck him that he had a space, at his house. He invited Rakhshanda as well as his A-level art teacher, Rubab Uppal, to work together at this space, without any particular outcome in mind. Simply to work.

During this point they realized that perhaps the work they had produced needed to be exhibited, and why not where it was created. Despite the fact that their space looked like a house (which it was!) they presented their work to friends and family. In this way, organically, the idea of 39K was formed, taking inspiration from the address itself, where in 2008, the space was transformed to look more like a gallery, and the idea of Gallery 39K was formally launched.

It was very early on, during their initial interactions that they realized the need to do something different. Instead of simply being an exhibition venue, they wished to engage and facilitate the artistic process thinking itself.

“We opened our space as a studio for artists to come and spend time, and experiment with their work here. This became a space to push creative boundaries. Given that this was started while I was still a student at London, the programme revolved around my holidays from university. This would often include invited artists over for a period of time, working collectively, and exhibiting at the end. Reflecting, those were some of the most enriching experiences of my life.”

The reality was that was limited museum activity, and a general lack of and arts funding. “There was no space that was providing the room for the experimenting process. I had that space and wanted to share it with others.”

Often these are things that act as catalyst for cultural development. So as a way of bridging this gap, 39K began connecting with students and recent graduates of various local universities in Pakistan, including the National College of Arts, Punjab University, Lahore College of Women University, Hunarkada, University of Hazara as well as University of Gujrat amongst others.

“There was no space that was providing the room for the experimenting process. I had that space and wanted to share it with others.”

In 2012, Abdullah moved back to Lahore after completing his education. Since then, 39K has had regular exhibitions, featuring national as well as international artists. At times the attendance ranges from two to four hundred people and others only forty people show up. The numbers don’t bother him as long as the much needed conversation is initiated and is in progress. He talks about this being a diverse group of people, which at the end is what makes it worthwhile and rewarding for him.

Over the years, through 39K, Abdullah has initiated many collaborations – one of these, that he is very proud of, is with THAAP (Trust for History Art and Architecture Pakistan). As an organization, their inclusive and open approach attracted him from the start. Hence, for the third year, he has hosted an exhibition in collaboration with their international conference. This year’s show is called, ‘Is Saye Kay Parcham Tallay’, curated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Abdullah Qureshi himself. Through this, the objective has been to understand difference and diversity and to absorb the cultural contexts of Lahore and Karachi. Attempting to build bridges between artists and their wider community and an attempt to initiate difficult but necessary conversations that our society needs to start engaging in.

Young Street Photographers – A project initiated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

As someone who has also taught art at a couple of institutes, considering it an interesting experience but found that the traditional teaching format was not for him. The work at the gallery is a format of teaching as well, mentoring young artist working with them in developing their proposals and art is something that he finds much more rewarding and therefore for the time being plans to stick with that.

While the gallery has been a place that welcomed artists at very early points in their careers, and has often acted a stepping stone, Abdullah feels the credit at the end of the day lies with the artist. He believes that a lot of it depends on their own initiatives and ability to push themselves.

Talking about the need to support art and artists in the country, Abdullah is of the opinion that there is a lot of room to grow in the creative industry, it is a huge thing and it is untapped in Pakistan. However, it is a responsibility of individuals as well to take the plunge, believe in themselves and take that first step.

In his opinion art can be a form that can help break negative stereotypes as well. Pakistani artists have established themselves in the global community and proved that their skill set is at par with the international level as well. However, from here on it is important that we enter a more pluralistic history on contemporary art that is shared by the world. In art there is no need to set national boundaries, art is and should be beyond these demarcations.

“Self-expression is a fundamental right of every individual and the need of the hour is to create more and more spaces that allow individuals to do that, even if it is just to vent.”

Someone who believes in evolving with time, it should not come as a surprise that he transforms Gallery 39K into a different form that he feels is required or venture into a whole new venture. He is one young Pakistani who is silently breaking stereotypes around him and someone whose work we should be following.

Interview by Hammad Anwar & Fatima Arif | Written by Fatima Arif