At the dawn of a new millennium, Pakistani artists dealt with issues of violence, racial discrimination, religious identity and travel and other restrictions
n one of his lectures, American philosopher and art critic Arthur C Danto notes: “The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen proclaimed as ‘the greatest work of art ever’ the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001”. One may disagree with the composer, or the critic, but can hardly refute the fact that the incident caused some of the most powerful works of art, especially sprouting out of Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan.
The atrocity of 9/11 forced an average American or European to look up books by dissident authors like Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. It also inclined curators and museum directors to view art being practiced in faraway lands, associated with trouble, terror and extremism. A blessing in disguise for creative individuals originating from the Middle East, North Africa and Near East, including the Islamic Republic.
At the dawn of a new millennium, Pakistani artists, especially those from the younger generation, dealt with the issues of violence, racial discrimination, religious identity and travel and other restrictions in their work. Violence from the two warring sides, the Taliban and the US-led Allied forces, became a recurring motif in works shown here and outside. Terrorist attacks, target killings – and their repeated footage in the media, provided a language to comment on the crises. Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Farida Batool, Khadim Ali and many more, responded to bloodshed, blasts, public display of weapons, from their immediate surroundings, but after transforming these concerns into work that could (and did) survive that terrible period.
However, political conditions were not the only reason for changing the core and characteristics of Pakistani art and for attracting the international attention; there was another factor as well: technology. Internet and connectivity on social media are now abolishing the age-old idea of local time. There is no sunrise or sunset on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social network sites. The echoing busy international airports, never sleep, never shut and never stop.
Along with the expansion of virtual communication, there were opportunities for traveling to art centres of the world. Pakistani artists held exhibitions; were included in museum shows; were invited to biennales and triennials; and participated in art fairs across the globe. Likewise, a number of curators, collectors and art officials visited Pakistan to get acquainted with the new and exciting art coming out of the country.
As distances between places shrank, so did the disparities between styles and techniques. For example, even before the turn of century, abstraction was adopted with a particular content and context in the sculptures and paintings of Rasheed Araeen and Imran Mir; later joined by Mohammad Ali Talpur and Hamra Abbas; as they domesticated an idea that has originated elsewhere, by drawing bridges between Islamic art of geometry and the non-figurative vocabulary of Western art.
The division of East and West, which has been a constant question for artists from colonised nations, was resolved by Iqbal Geoffrey, who amended his regular surname, Jafri into Geoffrey, thus accepting and acknowledging the entirety of our pasts: ancient, medieval and colonial. Geoffrey can be regarded as the major conceptual artist of the country, who challenged boundaries between art and non-art in his work and words; and by his extraordinary vocabulary and unexpected ideas transcended the demarcation of time, geographic limits and confinements of cultural comprehensions, a phenomenon now made possible by computer technology. One is not sure of a friend’s location, or his/ her time zone, while conversing on WhatsApp, or coming across his/ her presence/ posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Rashid Rana; at the beginning of the new century, anticipating this shift in human connection and communication, the potential of virtual medium and the irrelevance of national barriers when it comes to art; adapted to digital media in place of physical formats such as paint, canvas and sculpture. Due to the nature of his medium, he was able to travel (through his images) to distant territories without stepping out of his studio in Lahore.
In the coming years, Pakistani art will remain Pakistani, but one is not certain whether it still be art. The way definitions, descriptions and demarcations are changing, one tends to believe in French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who has observed that objects from the past, which we now consider art were not made as art, and questions how the art created today will be perceived in the future.
This kind of internationalism is witnessed in the concepts, visuals, techniques and sensibilities of several artists like Bani Abidi, Risham Syed, Masooma Syed, Ayaz Jokhio, Mahbub Shah, Ahmed Ali Manganhar, Basir Mahmood, Ehsan ul Haq and Jamil Baloch. (It is also evident in the work of a large number of artists, who chose to live in the US, Europe and Australia, including RaheelAkber Javed, Luba Agha, Masood Kohari, Tassadaq Suhail, Samina Mansuri, Saira Waseem, Ruby Chishti, Khlail Chishti, Sabina Gillani and Humaira Abid).
Several important artists of a relatively younger generation from Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and other cities of Pakistan, through the structure and sensibility of their work, are expressing in the language of internationalism. Even if not in art, in their day to day interaction, they are at par with their counterparts from any part of the planet – may that be Sri Lanka, Israel, Sweden, Mexico, France, Iraq, South Africa, Laos or Australia. Shunning the limits of national borders, a substantial number of Pakistani artists operate on social media (scarcely concealing their national identities), to showcase, promote and market their work. Besides – and because of this, one can spot some new and stark virtues of Pakistani art on the virtual platforms. Like a coin, one side may be deeply rooted in the country’s pictorial past (miniature painting etc), while the other embraces an international idiom. The ground beneath one’s feet is not significant, but the screen under one’s finger is crucial.
Modern gadgets have turned into a substitute for human or physical experiences. To some writers, their laptops are dearer and more indispensable than their immediate relatives. The machine accompanies them everywhere, from their home to office, from their studies to literary festivals, from their neighbourhood coffee shops to continental book tours. In the art world, too, perhaps in the impending years, the age-old notion of artist’s studio will survive as a romantic memory, when everyone is busy producing art on their computers – or whatever the future form may be.
A glimpse of future temporarily occurred in the painful pause of Covid-19. Reduced to their homes during the pandemic, artists were unable to attend exhibitions, ship their work, or access their materials, so everything was conducted online. Virtual tours of exhibitions were shared, digital formats were used to create art and NFTs were purchased. Art education was reduced from spacious halls to laptop screens, where classes in painting, sculpture, printmaking and other disciplines were conducted – with unexpected success.
This offers a scenario for the future, in which perhaps the ‘regular’ art teaching in studios will be discarded as useless (applicants to art schools these days keep on surprising the faculty with their proficiency in sculpture technique, miniature making and understanding of painting – all picked from the YouTube).
In the coming years, Pakistani art will remain Pakistani, but one is not certain whether it still be seen as art. The way definitions, descriptions and demarcations are changing, one tends to believe in French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who has observed that objects from the past, which we now consider art were not made as art, and questions how the art created today will be perceived in the future.
Probably the future art school, future art college, future gallery, future collections – and future studios will be no more than spaces on websites and social media networks. One wonders how in these circumstances one will be able to marry physical/ local to virtual/ global. The match may not be made in heaven but will be possible over the high-speed communication channels manufactured in factories from Shenzhen to California.
The author is an art critic based in Lahore.