Wahab Jaffer is one of the country’s foremost art collectors. He is also an acclaimed artist in his own right and has seen the art scene in Pakistan evolve from the days when it all centred around the iconic Indus Gallery to the burgeoning of multiple spaces today.
Gracious and welcoming, the artist shared his home and memories with us.
Your art collection is a formidable one. But you sold a large part of it.
I had to sell it. I moved home and no longer had the place to house all of it. But I didn’t break it up, the condition was that it must remain as a collection. Some Pakistani doctors from the US were interested in buying it and they wanted to divide up the paintings amongst themselves. But I wanted it to preferably stay in Pakistan and remain a collection.
So I sold it to the Rangoonwala trust. My hope was that they would show the artwork to the public. One can curate so many shows from that collection, of different artists from different periods in their life, different styles. But nothing of that sort has happened. They have not even catalogued the paintings.
Who came first, Wahab Jaffar the artist or the collector?
The artist. I was always drawn to painting and drawing from my school days. I had a passion for maps, I still do and I have a collection of antique maps. But then I joined the family business and had little time for art.
Someone with your temperament must have been very unusual in a business family?
Very unusual. I always say I have Mr Bhutto to thank for my career as an artist. After nationalization, I had nothing to do and so had leisure to start painting. I had been going to the Indus Gallery and buying paintings from Ali Imam [artist and owner of the iconic Indus Gallery]. Then I asked him to give me painting lessons. He used to joke with me saying: “I know why you want to come,” because many ladies were taking lessons as well. But finally he relented and I started painting in 1972.
When was your first exhibition?
In 1981. Ali Imam wouldn’t give me a show before that. I had participated in group shows but not a solo exhibition. He said I was too influenced by Ahmad Pervaiz, he said until you don’t get away from that I won’t give you a solo.
The influence of Ahmad Pervaiz on your work is well known. What drew you to his style of painting?
I loved his work, the colours really drew me. He also had a very colourful personality, he was articulate, read a lot, was full of stories from his days spent as an artist in London and New York.
Once he told me that a gallery in New York was exhibiting his paintings. He said “Go and buy one. ” I went to the gallery and asked to buy a painting but I told them it was too expensive. Then I told them I knew the artist and showed them Ahmad Pervaiz’s letter, telling me to buy the painting and they gave it to me at half price.
Indus Gallery was the hub of all things art related at that time.
Oh yes! We met up every single week: artists like myself, Shahid Sajjad, art critic Dr Akbar Naqvi, Athar Sahib, an associate of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and of course the host, Ali Imam, were the regulars. And others would come and go. We discussed, art, poetry, the leftist movement…
Meanwhile, your collection was growing…
Yes, I was buying art at home and abroad. In 1976, The World of Islam Festival was held in London which exhibited pieces brought in from various museums around the world; miniatures, calligraphy, glasswork, metalwork… This inspired me to start collecting Islamic art.
I have bought many things from Portobello Road in London, including paintings by Pakistani and Indian painters which later went on to sell for hundreds of thousands at the famous auction houses.
The antique business in Pakistan seems to have dried up.
That’s correct. It all goes abroad now. There used to be a wonderful shop, Disposal House; the owner used to get amazing things from interior Sindh, glass lamps, figurines, etc. But not anymore.
You still paint with the same enthusiasm from 1972 till today.
Well I live between Karachi and Toronto and I paint in both places. In fact, I have a show coming up in Islamabad in November. Painting is a passion for me. I paint every day. Everything inspires me…I guess my biggest inspiration is colour. I love the freedom of putting colour anywhere.
When I was in business, I used to feel as if my hands were tied, I wasn’t free to make decisions. I love the freedom painting gives me.
Photography by Naeema Kapadia