Bin Laden’s Parrots Blood Fuel Boom in Pakistan Artists

Osama bin Laden stares out at an army of shadowy figures. Each carries a machine gun and has the head of a parrot.
The roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York is covered with what looks like dried blood. Close up, the work shows shrubbery and bird feathers.

A patriotic picture of the U.S. flag isn’t all it seems. Each of the stars and stripes is made up of tiny Urdu verses asking for forgiveness and mercy from God.
These are all works by Pakistanis — Amir Raza, Imran Qureshi and Muhammad Zeeshan, respectively. Pakistan’s most violent decade in history has come as a boon to the nation’s artists, with prices of paintings, number of art galleries in major cities and frequency of exhibitions all multiplying.
“I don’t think terrorism is the sole factor,” says Shakira Masood, curator at Art Chowk in Karachi, who has been asked to hold exhibitions in Hong Kong and Istanbul. “Artists may have gotten into the limelight from that, but they are very talented.”
The new generation of contemporary artists — which also includes Rashid Rana and Shazia Sikander — has started to sell more in international auction houses and seen greater interest from collectors and investors in Pakistan, the world’s sixth most populous nation. Qureshi is Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year for 2013.
Art Investment
“If you invest in a top artist painting, you will get a higher return” than many other investment avenues, says Tauqeer Muhajir, publisher and editor of art magazine Nigaah. Demand for Pakistani paintings is rising because they are relatively cheap and high in quality, he says.
Zeeshan grew up in the small town of Mirpurkhas. He used to be a poster painter for the local film industry that on rare occasion still resorts to painting two-story-high billboards instead of printing. Never did he imagine his work would be bought by London’s British Museum and New York’s Met museum.
He had a change of fortune after joining the National College of Arts in Lahore. After specializing in miniatures, Zeeshan started to sell works — for less than $100 in 2003 and as much as $20,000 now. He brushes paintings on wasli paper and has even used Pepsi and Coca-Cola cans in his works.
“Pakistan artists caught the eye of international galleries and curators after the 9/11 twin tower attack,” Zeeshan says. “Terrorism, Taliban and Bin Laden are the biggest subjects of the century.”
Taliban Attack
Nationwide attacks by Taliban insurgents have killed 40,000 people since Pakistan decided to support the U.S. war in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Al-Qaeda founder Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 during a raid by U.S. special operations forces on his compound in Abbottabad, a garrison town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the capital, Islamabad.
“Great works are being produced by the artists from the region,” says Deepanjana Klein, a specialist in South Asian modern and contemporary art at Christie’s International Plc that claims to be the first international auction house to include Pakistani art at auction in 2006.
Karachi-based art gallery Eye for Art holds three international exhibitions including two in the U.S. every year. Another gallery, Art Chowk, sells half its collection to buyers from the U.S. to China and Switzerland via its website.
“Pakistani art prices have now recovered to levels before the global financial crisis in 2008, when they peaked and were a better investment than real estate,” says Ali Haider, Eye For Art gallery director in Karachi.
‘Good Job’
Raza, a recent graduate in fine arts, used the subject of terrorism in his first exhibition. His work featuring Bin Laden and the parrots is called “Shabash,” meaning “Good Job.”
In another, a woman in a veil is depicted reading from a book with guns displayed in the background. Raza’s paintings start from 18,000 rupees ($175) and go up to 38,000 rupees.
“Prices of students’ work had to be controlled after complaints from buyers and galleries,” says Adeela Suleman, head of fine arts at the Karachi-based Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. “Prices of portfolio work starts from 1,500 rupees and goes up to 50,000 rupees.”
Nazar Haidri held his first exhibition this summer, 50 years after being an art student and says it’s still tough making a living in Pakistan through art.
Pakistanis prefer investing in real estate to art, says the 70-year-old Haidri.
He was part of the first batch that studied art from regional masters including Pakistan’s Sadequain and Bangladesh’s Zainul Abedin in the 60s at Pakistan Arts Council in Karachi and switched to a career in marketing after failing to make a living as an artist.
Imran Qureshi’s Roof Garden Commission continues until Nov. 3 at the New York Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 10028-0198. Information: +1-212-535-7710 or
Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine, Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night, Greg Evans on television, James Russell on architecture and Mike Di Paola on conservation.

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Eric Write head editor and chief at The Pluto Daily