The coronavirus pandemic has badly affected, in some cases destroyed, the economies of many countries. Although Pakistan has, so far, kept its head above water, the situation with another lockdown likely to be imposed is still a little difficult to control. Experts in financial matters are keeping an eye on the country’s exports upon which its economy depends to a great extent. But much to the surprise of many, pleasantly at that, something positive has emerged in terms of numbers — and in a field that not an awful lot of business analysts would expect Pakistan to do well in: art.
In the ongoing fiscal year, as per data provided by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) on Monday, the country’s export of works of art, collector pieces and antiques has increased exponentially. Even a cursory look at the figures will make practitioners and lovers of art in our part of the world feel mighty proud of ourselves. In the last financial year, exports of works of art, collectors’ pieces and antiques were to the tune of $386,000 (July-March) whereas in the current year it increased to $36,594,000. Unbelievably good!
According to SBP data, exports of works of art, collectors’ pieces and antiques valued over $36.6m in the first nine months of this fiscal year
This begs the question: if the Covid-19 situation has impacted all sectors of the economy with varying degrees of highs and lows, why does art come across as a shining exception?
Talking to Dawn, Khaleel Ahmed, who owns the Ocean Gallery, said, “I’m not surprised by the rise in export. In the past what used to happen was that people (buyers) from abroad would come to Pakistan to attend art events, buy artworks and take them to their respective countries. But because of the pandemic, for the past one year, they have begun to buy paintings online. They would look at a work of art on a website or on WhatsApp, and place an order. Just a few days ago, I sent abroad four boxes in which there were 17 paintings. To boot, they pay the delivery charges themselves.”
That’s not the only reason for the steep rise in art selling abroad. For the buyers, Mr Ahmed says, importing art from Pakistan proves to be a cheaper proposition for them for a significant reason: framing (of a painting) in Pakistan is far less pricey than it is in North America or Europe. Therefore, they get their favourite artworks ready-to-hang in their houses. “The other thing is that coming to Pakistan and taking works of art back home can be time consuming. Import saves them that time. Also, they don’t pay taxes on art import,” he said.
Pakistani art reaches almost everywhere in the world, mainly the US, Canada and Europe. Countries such as Egypt and Turkey, too, are on that list. And it travels overseas from art galleries in all major cities of Pakistan.
Shakira Masood, who is an artist herself and runs Art Chowk, the Gallery, took the figures released by the SBP with a pinch of salt. “I know the number has increased. People are buying art, it is going out, but the figures that you’re quoting are mind boggling. There is a positive turn, for sure. Our gallery has an upturn in sales in recent times, but still…Unless they are selling antiques out of museums.”
Ms Masood agrees that framing in Europe and America is expensive. “As are labour charges but these numbers boggle the mind,” she added.
Artist R.M. Naeem said, “It’s not my area of expertise, since I deal with local art galleries, but if such a number is being quoted then it’s a good sign. However, I do feel that it may largely be due to antiques rather than paintings.”
Originally published in Dawn, April 28th, 2021