Research Log | Contextualizing and Contesting Current Conversations in South Asian Art

‘The Anxious Century: Discourses Waiting to be Born’, 25–26 October 2008, Karachi, Pakistan
Canons of Control and Subordination...
Multiple Modernity’s — Reclaiming Cultural Space...
Art Archival in South Asia...

Small but thriving, the dynamism of the Pakistani arts scene has been growing surely and steadily for a while now. However, despite Pakistani visual artists creating waves at home and in the international art circuit, the intellectual value of art writing and criticism, and more so the introspective and critical engagement with the arts on a broader level remains in its infancy at home.

‘The Anxious Century: Discourses Waiting to be Born’, 25–26 October 2008, Karachi, Pakistan

‘The Anxious Century: Discourses Waiting to be Born’ seminar.
‘The Anxious Century: Discourses Waiting to be Born’ seminar.

The local art community is in unison on the need to create and develop the essential parallel and ultimately multi-tiered deconstructive and introspective dialogue as a mirror to the visual arts, and so things are progressing one baby step at a time. The initiative by NuqtaArt to bring together a collection of pertinent individuals on a single platform to investigate the currents and context of South Asian art and its subtext was, therefore, a welcome one.

The seminar, titled ‘The Anxious Century: Discourses Waiting to be Born’, brought together people from across South Asia and (to a smaller degree) Europe to probe into the birth of new discourses within South Asian art in the twenty-first century, and also into the possible reclamation of old dialogues within South Asian art through the lens of post-colonialism. More importantly, to my mind, the conference engaged the local art community in the audience, and activated discussions on multiple levels. Jointly hosted by NuqtaArt, a local art publication, and the Goethe-Institut and supported by Asia Art Archive, the two-day international seminar had delegates from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Germany and India alongside local participants.

The event was also special in that it marked AAA’s first collaborative project in Pakistan. Supporting the event reflected AAA’s commitment to help in furthering such essential discussions within the Pakistan art circuit. Apart from partnering the event, AAA’s presence was felt as a participant: the seminar ended with a session on the role and significance of art archiving in South Asia, and it was a unique opportunity in cultural exchange of ideas and information.

Canons of Control and Subordination

The first session was begun by Nazish ata Ullah, Principal of the National College of Arts, Lahore. A printmaker and a senior educator, her paper charted the evolution of teaching methodologies within the traditional art of miniature painting at the NCA. NCA is the birthplace of contemporary miniature painting and one of the most important educational spaces within the country, playing a central role in the evolving dynamics of visual arts in Pakistan. Ata-Ullah elucidated on key turning points and figures, focusing particularly on the convergence of historical and contemporary teaching methodologies within this art practice. She charted the development of the NCA’s miniature painting department specifically to illustrate the emergence of the Neo-Miniature Movement through artworks and artists, and the recent adoption of a pluralist approach to this art practice by artists and teachers alike.

In ‘Replacing Language: Strategies in Post-colonial Art Production’, Ziaul Karim, Editor of Jamini from Bangladesh, spoke through a distinctly post-colonial lens of how young Bangladeshi art was appropriating Western post-modern discourse, whilst trying to create identifiable indigenous metaphors in their art, resulting in an interesting hybridism which one could say finds echoes in the wider context of Asian art in general today. He also went on to make the point that the new face of colonialism was to be found at the sites of International art fairs, biennales, etc, and that colonization of art was more economic than cultural in the contemporary context. Heinz-Norbert Jocks, an independent journalist from Germany, in his paper ‘The Vision Which Strikes Everything with Similarity’, explored the porous nature of art movements, while simultaneously examining and questioning the pluralistic nature of the contemporary art scene in general. Bringing a western perspective and looking closely at multi-culturalism, he posed the question: ‘Have we Europeans … really made the effort to try and understand an art which originates in a different culture … isn’t it the case that we always only discover parallels to our own culture … ?’ Fellow German, the Berlin-based Christina Zuck is a photographer and an artist who has been visiting Karachi for a few years now. She presented her work Bodies, which engaged the idea of personal space and cross-cultural communication in different, often highly charged, environments. She placed herself (the Other) in conservative areas of the city and documented reactions to highlight possible cultural tensions.

Vidya Shivadas’s paper was read out, as she was unable to attend the seminar. An art critic and curator from India, her paper examined the process of creating a ‘National Art’ using the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi as a case study. Plugged into her on-going research, her paper studied the role of the State and the museum in creating a ‘national art’, questioning the internal methods and cultural gauges within India that qualify artworks to be icons of ‘national art’. Following her paper was Sumbul Khan, art critic and lecturer at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi. She is a young and exciting new voice in the local art academia circuit; her paper ‘Querying South Asia(n)’ was original and thought provoking. Drawing from post-colonial literature and theory, Khan looked at the term ‘South Asian’ and noted that in the contemporary context it is no longer pertinent as just a regional or geographical indicator. She argued that the term (and all that it subsequently encases within the context of art) should be considered as a cultural signifier. Recognizing that that contemporary ‘South Asian’ art is porous and hybrid, her paper went on question the pertinence of post-colonial interpretations of Homi Bhabha and Edward Saeed, calling for a fresh lens and methodology to decipher and deconstruct contemporary South Asian art.

The panel discussion that ensued was a heated one, with many of the audience members raising questions on the success of contemporary miniature painting and its resonance within the Pakistani art world. There were many frank questions and comments, particularly about how certain visual language(s) (in this case miniature painting) have engaged audiences at home and abroad far more than others, and the possible dangers of internalizing the exoticization of the ‘other’, and worse even — marketing it.

Multiple Modernity’s — Reclaiming Cultural Space

The session commenced with art historian and scholar Dr Hamid Kashmirshiken. His paper, titled ‘Hybridism: Contextualization of Contemporary Iranian Art in the early 21st Century’, was a comprehensive overview of contemporary Irani art, with a particular focus on prolific artists from the ‘Third Generation” (i.e., post the 1979 Islamic Revolution). His paper explored the reasons for strands of ‘hybridism’ within contemporary Irani art through historical social and cultural references and links. It was an excellent insight into a clearly sophisticated and bourgeoning, though somewhat mysterious arts scene.

Amra Ali, a Karachi-based art critic and Senior Editor of NuqtaArt examined the artwork of the Pakistani diasporic community (mostly of those positioned in Europe and North America) in her paper, titled ‘Multiple Identities: Spaces of Negotiation or Subordination?’ She examined artists and their works in the context of themes commonly associated with diaspora, namely, the politics of migration and the negotiation of ‘self’ and ‘Other’, looking at how the artists reconciled ideas of nationhood, journey and multi-culturalism. Professor Abul Mansoor, a Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Chittigong Bangladesh, in his paper ‘The New Art in Bangladesh: Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics’, examined how post-modern discourse can often be alienating. He argued that few outside the realm of Western art, particularly in a South Asian context, have the tools to engage honestly with post-modernism, as the art historical references are mostly Western. He looked at how contemporary Bangladeshi artists invented parallel references in order to create links to the post-modern discourse yet are rooted in Bangladeshi vernacular. He looked particularly at the works of three contemporary avant-garde artists: Dhali Al Mamoon Mahbubur Rahman and Tayeba Begum Lipi.

Sasanka Perra, Professor at the University of Colombo, drew from his own anthropological interests. His paper, ‘Post 1990s Sri Lankan Visual Arts: A ‘para-modern’ Discourse on Recent Social and Political History’, investigated influential visual artists emerging from the 1990s as a commentary on recent social and political change within Sri Lanka. He argued that due to the relative absence of art history and art writing, these works in themselves had become the repository of historical and social commentary. The paper also examined the artists’ break from traditional mediums to more three-dimensional mediums such as installations and performance art.

Art Archival in South Asia

As AAA Researcher for Pakistan, in the final session of the seminar I introduced the audience to AAA, and its work in Asia. More specifically, charting the work that has been done in Pakistan over the last 18 months, since this position had been established. The presentation was made to give the audience further context and understanding of AAA’s role on both a micro and macro level. It also attempted to elucidate the multi-dimensional role of the organization and its commitment to furthering, understanding and facilitating the visual arts in Asia. Pakistan has a significant art history, however fragmented and young. The collection and collation of material will help the Pakistani art community to sieve through and piece together new perspectives of the past and present and ultimately create new histories. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion that aimed to serve as a platform for discussion on the importance of art archiving in Pakistan, and its pragmatic and intellectual challenges. The discussion unveiled how art archiving is not a significant priority in South Asia, and that methodologies and systems are outdated and inefficient. Furthermore, the understanding of the role and significance of an archive within South Asia is also rather weak (which in turns feeds into the problem of funding and priority). Since writing and scholarship in South Asia to a large degree is weak, art archives can fill in important gaps in history and serve as important historical indicators. The discussion took many interesting turns and impressed upon both audience and participants the pertinence and value of creating archives in a responsible, dynamic manner.

South Asian art has a complex and unfolding history of confrontation and compliance with its historical past and, more importantly, with itself. The seminar proved useful in activating a more nuanced understanding of South Asian art and its subtext within multiple theoretic and cultural frameworks. It was an invigorating event and, I hope, a precursor to many more.


Mon, 1 Dec 2008

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The Anxious Century: Discourses Waiting to be Born: A Seminar on Art Criticism
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