LAHORE: With the connivance of the management and staff of Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA), it has been revealed that ten permanent collections of paintings of the eminent artist A J Shemza have been removed illegally from the National Arts Gallery Islamabad and artwork worth billions has been stolen.
The National Artists Association of Pakistan (NAAP) has demanded of Federal Minister for Education, National Heritage and Culture Shafqat Mahmood to recover stolen and removed paintings from the National Art Gallery and take actions against those responsible.
NAAP Chairperson Mian Ijazul Hassan also wrote a letter on August 27, 2020, to Shafqat and made it clear that the PNCA was a national institution tasked with caring and custody of valuable artworks (paintings, sculptures, ceramics, etc.) in the ownership of the government.
“These valuable treasures have over the years either been gifted to the GOP [Government of Pakistan] or have been acquired by the GoP as part of the ‘Permanent Collection’ housed at the National Art Gallery (established as part of PNCA) located at P-5/1, Islamabad. PNCA however, has been unable to keep this Permanent Collection safe and secure. In the year 2016, it surfaced that artworks worth crores were missing from the Permanent Collection. These artworks were invaluable and irreplaceable assets and a part of our cultural heritage and their disappearance due to sheer negligence of PNCA management and staff is a national loss. To date, no concrete action has been taken against the culprits who were involved and responsible for what amounts to outright theft,” the letter states.
The NAAP chairperson also revealed that he had recently learned that ill-intentioned efforts were being made to remove the 10 paintings of the famous Pakistani artist, the late Shemza, from the collection under the guise of his wife demanding their return even though these paintings have been part of the Permanent Collection of National Art Gallery since 1985.
“Late A J Shemza’s Exhibition of ‘The Roots’ series comprising of 100 paintings, was organized by the Lahore Art Council in 1985 at NAAP’s initiative. At the close of the exhibition, PNCA, Islamabad was requested to hold Shemza’s Exhibition at the National Gallery Islamabad but the permission was declined. Upon completion of Shemza’s exhibition at Alhamra, I along with some other prominent artists and members of NAAP have personal knowledge that ten paintings were selected by Mr Shemza’s wife (Ms Mary Katrina) and gifted to the National Art Gallery so that her late husband be on permanent display as a prominent Pakistani artist who had moved to the United Kingdom in the sixties. It is indeed a matter of record that these paintings have been on display and part of the Permanent Collection for almost 33 years now,” he said in the letter.
The letter went on to ask the federal minister to intervene immediately in this matter to ensure that all paintings and other artworks comprising the Permanent Collection at the National Art Gallery at PNCA are preserved and safeguarded, including Shemza’s works.
“You would agree that every effort should be made by PNCA to protect and preserve these national treasures that constitute our national heritage and any removal of Shemza’s paintings would constitute misappropriation of public property with strict legal consequences for all involved. The reputational harm caused to PNCA would also be immense as this illegal attempt at removal of our cultural heritage has all the makings of an international scandal.”
The artist community, in the letter, demanded that any attempt to remove the paintings of the late Shemza from the permanent collection be stopped, and demanded assurance that the Permanent Collection be catalogued so that the complete list can be made public on PNCA’s website.
The artist community has also assured their full support and said that they can help with this essential documentation and cataloguing effort, which they claim can easily be achieved.
The letter also demanded that all lost or stolen artworks be identified from the permanent collection and legal and administrative actions be initiated for the recovery of these artworks. The letter went on to demand legal action against the management, staff members of PNCA, and all others who were responsible for this misappropriation of public property.
Furthermore, it stated that the clear guidelines should be established for the display, handling, removal, movement and storage of all artworks.
“Establish a clear chain of custody for the artworks so that in case of any missing artwork, the custodian is easily identifiable and held responsibly and establish clear guidelines for the security of artworks from theft and other misappropriation,” the letter added.
In the letter, the chairman expressed hope that the federal minister would take immediate action on the matter. “I hope that you will take urgent action in this matter of great national and public importance. If we do not hear back from your office delineating how you intend to respond by Friday September 11, 2020, then we will be constrained to initiate legal action on our own,” the chairman added.