Nukta Founders and the Biography of an Art Magazine
Nukta Founders and the Biography of an Art Magazine

The spirit of Pakistani art in the early 21st century was perfectly captured by Nukta Art magazine. This magazine on contemporary art was published twice a year, from 2005 to 2013. For those eight years it existed as an intellectually invigorating publication that investigated the art landscape of Pakistan and beyond. It synthesized diverse elements from the cultural production of the times, as it sought “to resonate with the intellectual traditions of South Asia”. Most importantly, it established a solid foundation for spirited discourse on and around art. Arguably, this beautifully designed publication went beyond discourse and broke ground in posing art writing as a form of inquiry. The magazine became a repository of cultural history seen through the lens of art.

Four creative women were instrumental to the founding of Nukta Art: Niilofur Farrukh, Rumana Husain, Amra Ali and Sabiha Mohammed Imani. They talk to The Karachi Collective (TKC) about the genesis of their remarkable idea and its immaculate execution. The publication ended eight years ago but the passion of its founders remains palpable till today.

Nusrat Khawaja (NK): There is a lovely image in the magazine of the four of you in your white outfits and the Arabian Sea in the background. I am curious to know how you came together.

Niilofur Farrukh (NF): Yes, the quintessential Karachi!

Rumana Husain (RH): It was Niilofur’s initiative. She contacted me (and the other partners). She was looking at some art magazine in circulation at that time. This was in 2002. The idea of creating a high quality magazine grew in our mind. Although we started the magazine in 2004/2005, we spent almost two years in discussion. We reflected on the financial considerations. The four of us talked to our spouses who thought it was a whacky idea, and gave us examples of other magazines that had failed to take off…

NF: …issues of sustainability…

RH: The four of us and our spouses met and the discussion concluded that the idea was unfeasible. In a way that strengthened our resolve. We four founders were determined to make a go of it. Farrukh Hussain [Niilofur’s husband] provided the seed money to enable us to start. We also looked at the idea of sponsorships, advertisements, etc. But this was primarily a labor of love for us. The ambition was to bring out a good quality magazine that would have a wow factor, and with really good contributions from across the world.

RH: Amra’s dining table was…

NF: …our office!

RH: We needed a postal address and a place to store issues of the magazine. We linked up with Meher Afroze’s cousin who had rented a room for her printmaking studio in Zamzama. We convinced her to rent the room next to the studio to Nukta with the promise that her privacy would not be invaded. We needed a postal address and a place to store issues of the magazine. So that became the official office but we didn’t feel like meeting there. We enjoyed meeting at Amra’s house and gathering around her dining table.

Amra Ali [AA]: Nusrat, I really think this is the story of all of us women. We tried to have an integrated and holistic approach not just in the magazine but in our lives. My children were growing up and I would sometimes leave my house in the middle of meetings to pick them up from school, or someone’s driver would take them to tuitions. At time, my kids would take minutes of the meetings! The magazine was something we were so passionate about we didn’t differentiate between home and office. Nukta was our life.

NF: The fact is all of us already had a working relationship. Rumana and I had been to the same art school; I was aware of her work as a writer. While I was heading the Communication Design Department at the Indus Valley School, Sabiha was there in the department. I knew Amra through her work as well. We all wanted to create something different with opportunities for art writers. As Rumana pointed out, we were trying to marry the idea of having a magazine that would have popular visual appeal without compromising on the discursive quality. This was the aim right from the beginning.

RH: The discourse and the design aspect were really important and Sabiha was such an asset. We were a dream team, I should say! And I must mention Seema Usman who later became our manager. She took away a lot of the drudgery of bringing out a magazine.

NF: When working on the creative side, you need someone to take care of administrative details.

NF and RH [together]: It was definitely a labor of love!

Sabiha Mohammed [SM]: Yes, it was a labor of love. We were so passionate about it, we had to make it happen. It took a long time to plan, to get the material together, etc., but we were finally able to do it. Funnily enough, the day the first issue came out, there was no magazine at the launch!

RH: Nusrat, we will let you into a secret. The publisher let us down which is why we had no copies of Nukta at the launch. We had invited so many people at the ___ but the magazine wasn’t there! However, we covered it up with a Power Point presentation. That was Sabiha’s brilliant idea as we had the magazine in digital form. And no one thought any the better.

NF & RH [together]: But we pulled it off!

SM: We had come up with a unique product and people saw it on the big screen.

NK: It is such a beautiful magazine. It is such a rich magazine in terms of content and context. I had a question regarding this anomaly: contemporary art had taken off in Pakistan in the early 2000s but the magazine had to come to an end. This seems like a contradiction. I would have thought there would be more interest with more people subscribing to such a high quality magazine, promoting its longevity.

NF: Nusrat that is the myth. You see, art is a commodity and it is still being looked at as such. People looked at art as an investment and they could not connect with the discursive side of it. Even the artists they only read what is written on them.

NK: I’ve noticed that and it is shocking.

NF: That is the reality. We tried to engage with collectors. We had a Collector’s Column in the magazine. As there are hardly any museums, we felt the only way to look at art was through collections. So we began to engage collectors in the conversation. Even then, it was a sad scenario that after so many years of work, there was little engagement. People who bought the magazine would not necessarily read it. We made the magazine very rich pictorially. We included the photo essay. Sabiha made it very attractive in terms of the design with large images…

RH: …and the covers, we spent a lot of time on them. Sabiha would show us several options to select from. Generally, the habit of reading is not there in our country. If a 1000 or 2000 copies are printed, it is considered a big deal and that too in a country with such a large population. And then art writing was a niche market in any case.

NF: Right from the beginning, we were engaging with the national art scene. Islamabad, Quetta, Lahore…we were writing on everybody. We were not thinking parochially at all. We reached out to everyone. And even took the magazine to Art Dubai. We tried to widen the readership base but I think we were ahead of our time.

NK: I wonder if you would be ahead of our time today as art colleges do have courses in theory and art history now. I wonder if it would be different if Nukta were to come out today.

NF: We had theory even back then. I was at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and at the Central School of Arts & Crafts, Karachi. But it must be said that the course content does not encourage looking at material like this.

SM: Other magazines have also closed down such as Newsline and Herald. People are just not reading books any more. It’s all online. If you want to look it up, you just do it online.

RH: We produced two issues a year but the day an issue came out, the very next day we would start work on the next issue. We were deeply invested in it. You know we had writers from all over the world.

NK: It is impressive! You had all the continents represented in the course of a couple of years. I was interested in the comment made in one of the editorials on linking art practice and art perception. Given that art writing is niche and that people hardly read, what kind of impact were you making by bringing this quality of periodical into the market?

RH: That’s for you readers to say!

NF: When we wrote for newspapers, the space was limited. There was no art resource being developed with research-based content. Newsline was the only magazine giving decent space and of course Gallery (of DAWN). But we wanted to talk about context because it was the one bridge through which people linked to art. When you talk about Nukta you are talking about many things. For instance, ecology – it was the first project on ecology and art in Pakistan.

NK: Yes, in 2010: Art Interventions in Ecology.

NF: Take for example the Faiz Art Prize. Faiz is a name we linked to art. So we did a lot of things. Nukta, from a journal, became a platform for art. We were constantly linking it to the community.

NK: In one of your editorials you have said you wanted to discuss authenticity and authority. Where were you looking for the strands of authority?

NF: Obviously within ourselves. Pakistan and its stand with a particular narrative. We were looking at the narrative. How it had evolved. We were not plucking ideas from the internet or from theoretical texts. We were trying to build an authentic narrative with its richness and layers. And obviously, with authenticity comes authority, because when you speak with knowledge, you establish some form of authority as well.

RH: The newspapers and magazines were more about the reviews and covering shows. We also included reviews in Nukta. We used to call it…

NF: …Small art at Nukta…

RH: So yes, we had reviews but we also wanted to include these narratives. We wanted in-depth writing. We wanted to look at a theme from different angles from other parts of the world and, of course, from within ourselves. The newspapers could not fulfill these desires.

NK: It was very clear that you were trying to make a critical voice emerge from the experience of art in Pakistan and to connect it to global art.

AA: You just said global art. When Nukta was born, the global markets were just emerging. It wasn’t like it is today. There was no social media to allow for the creation of a persona of an artist, curator, gallerist or writer, and glamour as it is today. I wrote openly and contested the emerging narratives, especially those that  I believed were catering to those markets by transporting the “exotic” and bashing the local.  A new  local/international dynamics was unfolding before us. I was reminded time and again of conversations with Ali Imam, who questioned what he termed as an “appropriation” of the West. Incidentally, that was the time I started to meet Rasheed Araeen on his regular visits to Karachi and was fortunate to share mutual concerns. Zarina Hashmi was a good friend of Nukta and we met her regularly on her visits to Karachi, and one of our issues carries her interview.

This is a long debate, but we were very aware of diverging viewpoints, and invited writers without censoring their perspectives, in the hope of a sustained debate. I think that it is important to study the critique and contradictions embedded in that documentation, which unfortunately has yet to be studied. It is useful material for serious researchers on Pakistani art and writing. No one has really studied the stylistic and critical aspects of any of the writing of those years, which interestingly, was very uneven, stylistically, language and content. As well as in its purpose.

My own engagement with art writing started in 1990 when  Beena Sarwar invited me to contribute reviews to The Frontier Post, Peshawar.  I had just come from Canada to settle in Pakistan and started exploring the “context’ and so naturally wrote around the art. I started conversations with artists on their process, in their studios  as opposed to the finished/framed work in the art gallery. In the early 90s Beena invited me to start a column on art for Encore, the News on Sunday. I was able to write freely about issues. Sometimes my review would be just about larger context of history rather than about the actual imagery on view. At other times, I would write about one work that spoke to me rather than 500 other works on view. I was least interested in descriptive writing. We are still struggling with that in Pakistan. Nukta allowed different writers to grow in different ways.

With time, I along with the team at Nukta realized that longer articles and essays were just not possible in newspaper sections on art; which also catered to a general non art readership. So, we juggled with different kinds of writing from local and international writers, well aware of the disparity or uneveness within.. At Nukta, we wanted the voice of the writer to grow and develop in order to highlight what was happening here without masking it in dense borrowed/”appropriated” language.

Even though we were publishing in English, we were having conversations with writers who wrote in Urdu as well, such as Khurram Shafiq who had done extensive research on Waheed Murad and Allama Iqbal and many others. We got  writings by Shafi Aqeel from Urdu to English, which meant that we were trying to make room for these narratives that had been pushed aside due to them being in Urdu, and become peripheral and unfashionable, again as a result of the emergence and hold of new global markets.

RH: That particular topic gave us the opportunity to visit Waheed Murad’s house!

NK: The perks of the job!

AA: We gave space to the writer to develop his/her narrative. Speaking for myself, I was so eager to learn more through conversations with for example Ghalib Baqir or Saba Hussain who was discussing Noon Meem Rashid. It opened layers. We were trying to curate these spaces by a sort of resistance to elitism in art.

NK: I would like to bring Sabiha in here as we have touched upon design. Sabiha please share your insights on the process of bringing out the magazine.

SM: I am a very passionate designer. For me it’s not just about laying out image with text. It’s about creating a story, about weaving the image and the text. From the content page right through the articles, you could see from the images what was being said. We also did a lot of experimentation at Nukta and we explored different styles of presentation. It was different from the static style of a typical magazine. You could go into various sections in the magazine: Small Art, Big Art, photo essays…every article had its own style across the topics of graphic design, architecture, even drama and theatre.

NF: And dance!

SM: many people criticized me for over-designing. We took risks, even with the cover pages because we didn’t always put just one artist’s work on them. We even played around with their work to create a completely new work. In addition, we made bookmarks and calendars from the cover images which were very popular!

RH: Because of the way Sabiha designed, the magazine had a wow factor. It was a thrill to see the printed issue even though we had read through the digital pdf many times.

NK: The images stay on the mind long after you close the magazine. They have a power of their own. All of you have underscored the domestic side of the process (working from the dining table, support of spouses, etc.), but surely all of you being writers – and Sabiha the designer – meant that you were bringing a critical perspective to the project.

NF: We were learning on the job. I think my years with AICA [International Association of Art Critics] helped a lot. Many contributors came from my network there. Amra also went to several international conferences…

AA: I went to Documenta 12 [Kassell, Germany in 2007]. Modernism was the theme of that edition.

RH: We entered a partnership with Art Dubai. They gave us a kiosk. We attended their seminars, watched the performances that took place, etc.

NF: So we were learning, looking at what was out there, figuring how to bring it back and interpret it through our own context. The awareness was that we were not just writers; we felt a bigger responsibility of how to present things to our own readers.

NK: You marked three years of Nukta publication with a phrase I love: “discourse without boundaries”. Any intellectual process has to be free-flowing, with a give and take, so to speak. You can’t just say we will focus on the local and the indigenous without contextualizing it within a global framework.

NF: These day there is a lot of talk on decolonization. I think Nukta on many levels was a project of decolonization. We were looking very consciously at dialogues from the South, and asking: what are artists doing in countries that are similar to ours, who have struggles like ours? How are they managing? When Dubai emerged as a space to bring regional artists together, who may not have been able to do so otherwise because of conflicts, we were there.

NK: Nukta included critically important diaspora voices such as those of Dr Rasheed Araeen, Victor Anant. They helped bring out a different angle.

AA: The idea of archiving with research and references was very important for us. I remember we often sent back submissions to writers for clarification, to reduce value judgments. There was resistance by writers who were well-established but we kept a dialogue going. For example, Mahjabeen Abidi-Habib who wrote Water in the Wilderness wanted her research on Gilgit to be printed in Nukta. She trusted the visuals to be treated correctly by us. So a conversation on environment and ecology was integrated with art. Yes, holistic, integrated conversations…

NF: In two or three years, the way Nukta was evolving, began to attract younger writers. It became a platform for the kind of writers we wanted. We gave dozens of writers the chance to write and to researchers to have their work printed.

We were looking futuristically at art and media, art and science. If we attended a conference such as the 43rd AICA Conference with the theme art and science [Dublin, 2009] which I attended, we would bring that knowledge to Nukta. At Documenta 12, Amra looked at artists from Africa. So the African lens was brought in. Rumana had been writing on theatre and film so she brought that to the magazine. Sabiha would bring all the strands together and give cohesion.

NK: Speaking of the future, you held a seminar in partnership with the Goethe Institut titled ‘The Anxious Century’ [October 2008]. In that seminar, there was a segment called Discourses Waiting to be Born. You talk of hybridity and fusion from the theoretical and semiotic aspects that Homi Bhabha has theorized on in The Location of Culture.

AA: Speaking of semiotics, at that seminar, I recall Sumbul Khan focused on Homi Bhabha, I talked about Salman Rushdie. Another important seminar that we held in Karachi was with AICA, under the rubric ‘Mapping the Change’. The participants included Rasheed Araeen (UK),Kamil Khan Mumtaz (Pakistan), Alka Pandey (India) and Sangeeta Thapa (Nepal). Such were the ‘marriages’ that Nukta entered into. AICA had been revived in Pakistan in 2000. Niilofur was President and I was Secretary. She and I conducted workshops with writers from all over Pakistan in collaboration with the British Council Young Critics Programme (2006). In retrospect it looks like things fell into place easily but there were enormous challenges.

NK: I tried to link history and identity when going through the issues. I was pleased to see you did not belabor identity or foist narrow narratives on readers. You left identity to be extrapolated from the critical writing that gave context. In any case, we have a problem with history in Pakistan that goes beyond art. Would you like to go back to producing Nukta?

NF: Nusrat, you have posed the question whether we would like to go back to producing Nukta. That is a very practical question.

I still have a lot to contribute but someone would have to take care of the nitty-gritty aspects of production, the logistics etc. Then there would be a possibility of return. There are two parts to publication. We took Nukta out on a shoestring budget. We never got paid except once when we received a grant. But that was a different time in our lives when we had the energy to do these things.

RH: When you get into a venture like that where you are so passionate, only then does something like Nukta emerge.

NK: Your energies are at a different place. You are still doing a lot.

RH: It took a lot from us, Nusrat. We were financially strapped. We would not have folded up if there was sustainability. Paper was so expensive. The distributor took 30-40% of the intake. We were left with very little. When the ads stopped coming, we had to be realistic.

SM: It was not just the production. The distribution was a big task.

NK: It is amazing how small the scale of sustainability is. I was considering the physical magazine as opposed to the digital one. There is something very holistic about it.

SM: The digital platform has many restrictions as well. The look is not there.

NF: We worked on Nukta for 12 years and now it is really exciting that The Karachi Collective is looking at it!

RH: I want to thank you and The Karachi Collective for the attention. In the years we published Nukta, there was never any such discussion. We value it and we want to thank you for the opportunity to revisit Nukta. Your questions were thought-provoking.

NF: It would be wonderful if Nukta were researched and looked at critically. Unfortunately, I don’t see academia doing that. Incidentally, we gave free sets of Nukta to many academic and art institutions when we were winding up.

NK: I think the relevance of Nukta will increase in the years to come.

Title image: NuktaArt founders, from left to right: Niilofur Farrukh, Amra Ali, Sabiha Mohammed Imani, Rumana Hussain. Photo Credit: Nina Alam (2005)

Nusrat Khawaja is an independent researcher, curator, and landscaper. She writes on art and literature. She is a member of the Karachi Biennale Discursive Committee.

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