Reading Through the Lense of the Political: Contemporary Art in Pakistan

What does it mean to be political in Pakistan in the current times? How is political urgency or political consciousness intertwined with culture in our space as opposed to any other space or country? I think it is important to look at the historical facts that have shaped Pakistani society in the last decade, to understand why artists are inevitably drawn to comment on the state of civil unrest, the impact of a suicide bomb or water riots. At the same time it is necessary to keep in mind that the world of art exists on a parallel ground or hemisphere to the realm of politics, that art is a visual language and, as such, it is a mediation of personal and visual dilemmas on more formal terms.

I feel the consumption of politics, as seen incessantly on Pakistani TV talk shows, and its actual impact on our daily lives is on the rise. In the case of the lawyers’ movement that began in March 2007, minute-by-minute television coverage has raised a collective consciousness of social and political injustice and has culminated in mobilizing vast numbers of people to demand the reinstatement of the Chief Justice and restore the Judiciary. Over this period of time the media played a significant role in the way that images reinforced and re-played the events that seemed to take on an histrionic symbolism. Reality was reconstructed in the form of a dramatic trial, experienced through the safety of television.

During this time, the Vasl workshop ‘13 Satellites II’ began in Lahore with young art students. A number of artists made performances on the street and in roadside cafés that highlighted their desire to interact with a public audience in the act of making art and address immediate political problems. 

Mehreen Murtaza’s digital print Congratulations and Celebrations, made during this time, highlights an apocalyptic vision. As she describes her work, “The atmosphere of subversion leaping out of my work is borne directly out of today’s socio-religious context, wherein modern day computing and technology collide with religious myth, superstition, and ritual… New Social Orders and conspiracy theories conceal the Truth from the masses erupting a fraying political infrastructure.”

If we take a broader view of our geographic position in the region, there is an equal amount of unrest on our eastern border with India and on our west with Afghanistan. Such a state of disruption amongst our neighbours has left us little opportunity for ‘normal’ relations that would help to foster broader cultural affinities within the region. Of course, we cannot forget the fact that Pakistan was created through the bloody struggle of Partition in which ten million people were uprooted and almost one million people died in the ensuing inferno.

Another factor seeping into the art educational institutions is the rising tide of extreme conservatism within society. This makes for greater polarization and less tolerance for the visual and cultural terrain that has little state support or funding. This is another internal war, being fought with opposing, ideological agendas, that is much harder to win by the minority of intellectuals within urban spaces. Ayaz Jokio’s large collage Protest, made in 2007, echoes the global dissent towards all wars. He creates a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, global tribe of protestors that unite in a ‘jihad’ for immigration laws, Hezbollah, Viagra, Afghanistan, abortion and more. The strains of society pulling in all directions can be felt in this work that has a sense of irony.

The number of suicide bombings in the cities of Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta, have been a staple diet for the past two years. They have brought the wars in Afghanistan, Swat and Iraq to our streets and into the lives of ordinary citizens. To a great extent, I feel this face-to-face contact with the violent brutality of war that seems to have no face, yet comes from within, has gripped the minds of writers and artists.

The idea of war and living with war has become a daily factor, to the extent that what we perceive as ’normal’ is a far higher degree of violence and conflict than would constitute ‘normal’ in a place like Hong Kong, Boston or Taipei. 

In Farida Batool’s lenticular print, Nai Reesan Shehr Lahore Diyan (There Is No Match of the City Lahore) we see a girl skipping with a rope in front of the façade of burned-out buildings – the aftermath of arson attacks committed by religious extremists. There is a sense of ruin and ritual, the sacred and the profane in this work, as well as her personal relationship with the city of Lahore. Her image becomes a metaphor for complex political realities and a dialogue between religious and secular forces that never seem to share the same platform, let alone the same pictorial space.

For almost two decades the Neo-Miniature has been the preferred international face of contemporary Pakistani art, much to the neglect of other art practices that were simmering in the wings. This seems to have changed over the last five years or so as more and more artists examine the complex relationship between cultural practice and social encounter. As critic and artist Quddus Mirza observes, “The artists of our country have been fascinated with the violence… most of them, avoiding a direct or sentimental approach, question the basis of the problem and instead of providing an answer, reflect on the nature of the violence. They deal with the image of power and the structure of terrorism, no matter from which quarters it comes from: state, religion or international politics.” In this framework, we see the role of the visual artist as commentator, mediator and provocateur. The commentary has expanded and become more eclectic as artists sift through the process of collective, lived experience, intellectual thought and personal strategies of art making.

Politically motivated works have a market outside Pakistan. There is a healthy appetite for the politically, edgy content that so many international curators and galleries focus on when they look through the magnifying glass at art centres such as Lahore and Karachi. I see this shift not as a superficial supply/demand strategy, but as a real need by artists to pose questions that concern our reality and sense of relationship with the social order. On some level there is a need to tell ‘our story’ without surrendering our complexities; that is so grossly distorted in the international press.

Again, there is a danger of overlooking works that deal with relevant issues such as the environment, gender, sexuality and unmediated self-expression. Are we overlooking these areas of artists’ practice and failing to see the art beneath the surface? There is also a danger of simplifying the complexities of art making into a convenient mould, whichever issues it may address. I feel we have a growing awareness amongst curators, galleries and artists’ platforms such as Vasl Artists’ Collective, to create alternative discourses and give space to the diverse bodies of work coming out of art schools and studios. 

Risham Syed’s recent work, The Tent of Darius, addresses contemporary Pakistani society and its colonial past and, at the same time, employs her personal interest in embroidery and stitching. She states, “I imagined these coats to have travelled all over, with women having contributed to them by adding a piece of embroidery. They are like these old worn out soldiers... On the one hand they symbolize the imperial power, but on the other hand there is another aspect to this work. How soldiers from the colonies were made to fight (also the same for any army including the Pakistan army, where most soldiers are from Jehlum, Potowar region)... from poor, lower middle-class families and end up with the army because of their physique/tradition, in the hope of making a romantic/glamorous career. If you compare this to the actual reality of war... the aim of it and the beneficiaries of it. I juxtaposed this with an 'oriental' painting called The Tent of Darius... a seventeenth century painting by Charles Le Brun that provides the title for the installation. In it, the Queen of Persia bows to Alexander the Great who has conquered the land. It serves as a metaphor for the West making incisions in the East.”

To a great extent, the classification of art produced in the 1980’s and onwards has become redundant. Artists have moved on from their art school training into works that involve new media, installation and photography. Re-invention is an underlying process that has shaped the transformations that we see taking root – re-invention in relation to tradition, social relations and the explosion in the free media space.

Terms such as ‘miniature’, ‘popular culture’, ‘the body’ and ‘calligraphy’ have consistently been challenged and revised as artists seek to break the formal divides as well as personal moulds to reinvent their positions. However, within many spheres of Pakistani life, religion, ethnicity and ideology, there is an ongoing struggle between tradition and technology. Artists and writers have been relatively more successful in negotiating this crossroads, maintaining a link with tradition whilst moving into forms of representation that reflect the hybrid identities of post-modern life.

Aisha Khalid’s recent installation Face it at the Venice Biennale evokes the bullet, blood-splattered marks on a wall using numerous hand painted ‘miniatures’ that are installed on large-scale mirrors and reflected back onto the viewers’ body. The palette of camouflage that developed in her miniatures after 9/11 is used here as the bullet-holes. After her recent visit to Afghanistan, she responded to the impact of the war in Swat, (Pakistan’s Northern areas) and the contribution of the West in this war. So, on one level, the impetus was to take this installation back to the West, for viewers to experience this work, ‘face it’, and become a part of it.

The artist’s resistance to making choices between modernity and tradition, local or international, has led to a mediation and reconciliation between thought process and technique. We find a language that is often post-modern in its sensibility, paired with traditional processes. It would be fair to say that this is a two-way stream of dialogue, where technology and its many uses are being employed vigorously with a conscious commitment to the vernacular.

The series of works by Rashid Rana, entitled Dis-location, started with the fear that he could find himself in the midst of one of the numerous bomb blasts in the city of Lahore. As the works developed, they claimed a different reading. The sites of chosen buildings are post-1900 colonial developments photographed from the same angle over a 24-hour period and constructed to build the larger image of the same. This time-based piece responds to video work but evokes a nostalgic image akin to the sepia postcards of historical sites… but a new-age postcard that encapsulates the reading of an event in fractured time frames.

There are two factors to consider in Rashid’s work, one is the production of art and the other is the reading of art.  Both these points carry different expectations. Here the issues are played out both in the way that they are expressed to the viewer as well as being the core subject of this exchange.

It is always misleading to view locations through the prism of a static movement or genre, and the nuances of divergent voices can often be a disconcerting task to unravel. I feel that to gain an understanding of Pakistani artists' difficult, aesthetic choices and engagements with specific historical pressures, it is relevant to go back and forth into individual trajectories. These artists are exploring political themes on very personal terms, employing strategies of metaphor, allegory and irony.

If we can imagine that politics in Pakistan is absorbed in a very amorphous way, running parallel to the everyday, yet with few intermediaries between ourselves and this track, then the role of the artist in Pakistan, as cultural shaman, translator, the interface to provide a buffer zone, seems to be of vital significance.

Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners. 

Naiza Khan is a visual artist and researcher based in Karachi for the past 18 years. Her curatorial projects include the forthcoming '2000-2010: Contemporary Pakistani Art' at the Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi. She is a founding member of the Vasl Artists’ Collective (Triangle Network) and is currently on their Advisory Board.


Tue, 1 Sep 2009

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