Artists have urged the prime minister and the head of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to take notice of the removal of 10 paintings of A.J. Shemza from the National Art Gallery (NAG) that were handed over to a woman claiming to be the late artist’s niece.

At a webinar organised by the Development Communications Network (Devcom-Pakistan) on Wednesday, the artists said this was the first time in history that artwork donated to a national gallery was claimed by an artist’s heirs and given to them.

Former PNCA director-general Naeem Tahir said this should not have been done in principle, adding that once an artist has donated his or her work to the national gallery, it becomes a national treasure and no one has the right to claim it as their property or to make a decision to return it.

He said artists sometimes donate their work verbally and sometimes with a written letter. Whatever the conditions may be, once it is entered into the gallery’s inventory, it becomes a national asset that no one has the right to remove from the gallery.

National Art Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan is the country's first national art gallery
National Art Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan is the country's first national art gallery

National Artists Association of Pakistan (NAAP) Chairman Mian Ijazul Hassan said: “I am witness to A.J. Shemza’s painting exhibition of 1985 organised in Lahore. As many as 100 paintings were put on display. Each painting was priced between Rs4,000 to Rs5,000; now a single painting is worth millions, and the total loss to the nation is in billions.

“Just being permanently on display, Shemza donated ten of his paintings to the National Art Gallery as many other artists have done including myself,” he said.

Former PNCA executive director Jamal Shah said that in 2017, the PNCA received a letter from the artists’ heirs and a notice from the late Asma Jahangir seeking the return of the paintings. But when they were asked for proof that the pieces were loaned to the gallery, he said they never came back with evidence.

“I had a PNCA board meeting on the issue, all the members had a unanimous decision that the Shemza’s paintings are a national treasure now after he had donated it to the National Art Gallery, and they cannot be returned to any of his ‘heirs’. I had an untoward conversation with Federal Minister Shafqat Mahmood then on the issue. But I did not compromise on it,’ Mr Shah said.

He said a painting by Shemza was recently auctioned at a very high price by Christie’s in the United Kingdom.

Mr Shah said 137 paintings have been stolen from the National Art Gallery, and some of its officials were nominated in inquiries into the thefts.

He said that no action was taken despite a complaint he lodged with the Federal Investigation Agency.

Mr Shah said the prime minister should form a high-level commission that includes prominent artists to investigate the lost paintings and the removal of Shemza’s work.

Actor Tauqeer Nasir, who served in the PNCA for five years, said Shemza’s paintings were not an issue during his tenure.

PNCA’s former executive director of visual arts Amna Ismail Pataudi said she was forced to hand over the paintings to the heirs of the artists but refused to do so knowing it was illegal and a crime.

“They did it on July 17, 2020, after I retired on July 9 the same year,” she said.


Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2020

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