Playing for the past

February 5, 2023

An attempt to contextualise the art of Now

Playing for the past


n a passage in her book Play: Subversive Contemporary Art in Pakistan and the Diaspora, Atteqa Ali talks about “the general methodological contrast between the NCA and Indus Valley (and other newer schools)”. She explains: “They might have offered the same course – World Art – but the former school’s emphasis was on providing information about particular artworks, while at the latter, there would be an effort to contextualise art within political, social and economic frameworks”.

Anyone who was a student of Atteqa Ali’s art history courses at the NCA (National College of Arts) from 2005 to 2013 could attest that her approach had been to discuss artworks in a larger context, i.e., social, political, economic and global. A well-respected and admired tutor, she trained several art students engaged today in activities as diverse as teaching, writing, curating, music, film and theatre.

Like all notable art schools of Pakistan, every mentionable book on Pakistani art acknowledges that one cannot isolate art from life. Ali’s recent publication is an example, focusing primarily on contemporary art, the issues of globalisation and post-colonialism. However, to completely comprehend what is unfolding in front of us, we need to rely on the past. Ali notes in the second chapter, Back to the Future, “looking back leads the view to the future. This action of moving to and fro is indicative of life now in Pakistan as a post-colonial nation”; hence a discussion on contemporary art entails an analysis of the origins.

Atteqa Ali adequately provides this in her extensive introduction, Historical Building Blocks: Pedagogy, Art, Politics. A discourse follows in chapters The Influence of Art Academies at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century in Pakistan, and Back to the Future: Historical Authorities and the Postcolonial Condition Today. The author compares art institutions’ position and role in shaping generations of artists. Important because Pakistan’s art world is unique due to its major artists simultaneously working in academia. In the past, we had Shakir Ali, Anna Molka Ahmed, Zahoor-ul Akhlaq, Lala Rukh; today there are several international stars marking their daily attendance at the faculty registers. Zahoor-u Akhlaq was an instrumental figure as the head of the Fine Art Department in establishing a degree course in miniature painting. Atteqa Ali acknowledges his contributions, as well as of Bashir Ahmed, the foremost miniature teacher at the NCA, but her text includes some superficial generalisation. For example, while mentioning Ahmed’s commitment to “his cultural heritage” the writer claims that Bashir Ahmed “believed that his students should only copy masterpieces from older, historical styles.” The fact is different from this popular notion. During Ahmed’s tenure as the leading professor in this new degree programme, the first pair of graduates, Fatima Latif and Nahid Fakhar, in 1984, created their thesis works based on original compositions, present-day views of Lahore (Latif) and girls busy at their sewing machines, playing, and or engaged in domestic activities, all in the attire and settings of the late twentieth-century (Fakhar).

Most contemporary art emerging from Pakistan (both in the mainland and from the Diaspora) has a tint of subversion; a trait and outcome of oppressive regimes in the past and the presence of an intolerant society.

The revival of miniature painting holds great significance in contemporary art and its discourse; and the subversion of its traditional forms, imagery, ideas, formats, techniques is an account of its success, which consists of a long list of later graduates like Shahzia Sikander (1991), Imran Qureshi (1994), Talha Rathore (1995), Aisha Khalid (1997), Nusra Latif Qureshi (1997), Saira Wasim (1999), Waseem Ahmed (2000) Hasnat Mehmood (2001), Muhammad Zeeshan (2003).

A quality of Ali’s book is the effort to draw links between the modern and contemporary art in India and Pakistan. Artists’ response to partition, which did not end in 1947 but has continued in the arena of diplomacy, art, sports and trade, is highlighted in detail, with reference to Rashid Rana’s Ommatidia, “portraits of Bollywood stars”, which comprise of tiny pictures of Pakistani audiences. Ali also brings in the example of Bani Abidi’s Mangoes and The News, as well as the project Aar Paar, initiated by Shilpa Gupta and Huma Mulji (a series of small works or prints that were displayed across the borders), to challenge the state of mutual mistrust, and a step towards diffusing it.

The most interesting premise of Ali’s publication is its emphasis on subversion, which takes place at various levels and through different strategies. Artists like Risham Syed, Hasnat Mehmood and Nusra Latif Qureshi (the subject of her second Chapter) deviate from dominant narratives through a shift in technique (Needlework Series by Syed), or “ghostly presence of the past in her miniature paintings” (Qureshi). But if one analyses, most contemporary art emerging from Pakistan (both in the mainland and from the Diaspora) has a tint of subversion; a trait and outcome of oppressive regimes in the past and the presence of an intolerant society.

One act of subversion that rightfully required an exclusive chapter – The Globalized World and Localized Traditions – was the Karkhana Project. Initiated by Imran Qureshi for an exhibition in the UK (2003), the venture included six miniature painters, who, in a manner similar to Postal Art, worked on each other’s visuals to make a collective body of artworks owned by all six participants; thus dismantling the hierarchy of the modern/ Western practice and prestige of a sole maker/ author. Imran Qureshi, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore, Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mehmood, and Saira Wasim collaborated in their creations, and while doing so “revisited a local art tradition”, the Mughal ateliers in which several painters worked on a single miniature, to the extent that the Emperor Jahangir, a connoisseur of the genre, proclaims in his autobiography Tuzk-i-Jahangiri that if a painting with different characters is produced by separate artists, he could recognise each painter; or if one figure is painted by multiple hands, he could identify which part was rendered by whom; and if many participated in making a single portrait, he could still figure out everyone who drew various features.

Play: Subversive Contemporary Art in Pakistan and the Diaspora is an attempt to contextualise the art of Now, a rare, hence commendable endeavour, because as the author confesses, “Although the title of the book uses the phrase, ‘Contemporary Art in Pakistan and the Diaspora’, there is no effort to limit what can be classified as Pakistani art.”


Subversive Contemporary Art in Pakistan and the Diaspora

Author: Atteqa Ali

Publisher: Oxford

University Press, 2022

Pages: 168

Price: Rs 1,995

The reviewer is an art critic based in Lahore

Playing for the past