Perspectives of pain and pleasure

March 3, 2024

In Salima Hashmi’s work one comes across many references to women’s misery and struggle during the Zia dictatorship

Perspectives of  pain and pleasure


his article is about Salima Hashmi’s two retrospectives. One opened on February 23 at Tollington Market, Lahore, and will continue till March 23; the other started in 1965 and went on until 2019. At 81, an artist is expected to have their work, produced over decades, collected and curated to reveal the creative output of a lifetime. This can be seen in paintings and photographs displayed at a venue not far from the main campus of the National College of Arts – the site of her other retrospective.

The latter retrospective does not include art pieces; it features makers of art. Hashmi taught at the NCA from 1965 to 2000, with a few gaps in between, and later at the Beaconhouse National University from 2003 to 2019 before retiring as dean of the School of Visual Arts. Being a dean, she did not find much time for teaching, but most of her colleagues such as Rashid Rana, Risham Syed, Kiran Khan and Ali Raza had been her students at the NCA.

The art world of Pakistan is populated with her former students, now known for their distinct ideas, imagery, expressions and their prestige around the world and within the country. Mrs Hashmi’s teaching is a great example of a pedagogical approach. An artist with a specific practice, she does not impose her style on her students. Instead, she encourages them to explore new possibilities, mediums and techniques. Thus today her star students are producing digital prints, installations, video projections, miniature paintings, sculptures, paintings and work in AR, photography, film and numerous other formats.

On the other hand, she chose her own mode of art making in a conscious and deliberate manner, as was evident at her recent retrospective, …And then came Spring, (organised by Rohtas 2, in collaboration with Lahore Literary Festival and National College of Arts). It included some of her earliest pieces: a few mathematical renderings of cornices, consoles and columns of buildings in the UK, 1963, and the usual art school drawings with a model and studio setting, dating 1962-1965. In the latter graphite-on-papers, one could glimpse the elements of an aesthetics that bloomed further and blossomed in multiple mediums and periods. Having taken in all the work on display, one realises that the artist remained interested in the construct and image, rather than replicating a familiar reality.

The set of three drawings discloses that the artist was not delineating a female figure with a background, but translating her observation into a variety of marks, patches, daubs, patterns and forms. One sees faceless females amid traces of easels, suggestions of floor and hints of windows and walls, executed in careful and crisp lines, textured areas, and sections of flat white paint. This, a particular scheme of seeing – and showing reality, extended to work from the ’80s onwards.

The exhibition is significant not only to understand the personal growth of an artist, but also to get an idea about the history of Pakistan; the situation of women in the country; and the account of political resistance, gender struggle and class contradictions. Amid the collected work, one discerns two distinct and recurring concerns: her reaction to the condition of women in our society and her response to the white male’s convention of artmaking introduced and imposed on our surroundings.

Apart from a few known figures - like the artist and some prominent feminists - Salima Hashmi has drawn her females featureless: from her Corsham drawings (1962-65) to a series of marker drawings depicting women under chadors (Alive in My Time), to a mixed media painting (Homage to Love, 1992) of a female classical dancer with her face concealed – alluding to how the male dominance, repressed women and certain artforms in the name of ethics and belief.

Like a reader compelled to continue reciting Faiz’s verses, a viewer is inclined to keep looking at Salima Hashmi’s artworks.

In the few works where the face is visible, it is speechless, the mouth is covered with a piece of cloth or behind a cross scrawled in red (A Poem for Zainab, series 1994, 1995). In a number of paintings, the political content is conveyed through certain symbols, like plants and leaves that persist and survive, even when bleeding (Friday Morning III, 1981), or blackened (Absent Gods V, 1989). A pair of resisting hands appear next to a reddened flower (Pursuing Radiance, 2004) or are placed amid a turmoiled surface (Apocalypse I, II, 2005).

In her other work, more than using an identifiable metaphor, it is the matter of conversing with her surface, material and technique that enhances her content. As the retrospective shows – and for those familiar with her art spread over 60 years know – at a particular point in her life Hashmi abandoned the practice of painting in oil on a canvas, a medium she believes was brought to superimpose the Western (read male) art legacy in South Asia, a region with an art tradition going back more than 5,000 years where art is still being produced in clay, stone, bronze paper, water based pigments, dyes and textile materials; a range that did not exclude women or establish the superiority of art over craft; a tradition that did not differentiate between genders or among genres.

Perspectives of  pain and pleasure

Salima Hashmi decided to work on paper, with water-based paints, collage and weaving. The choice could be connected to a long period of teaching drawing for the Foundation Course at NCA as well as the artist’s personal preference for paper. In the latter sense, it is a political act; to decolonise the local art practice and make it more inclusive. A similar political stance is present, though enveloped in poetic diction, in her later imagery. Sensitive surfaces; sequences of marks; softening of tones; smoky clouds;, residues of plants, leaves and flowers; and layers of textures remind one of a tormented, turbulent and terrible world, still habitable on account of the way it is presented. Hence, pain and pleasure are inseparable: a formal quality one also comes across in the poetry of her illustrious father, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Like a reader compelled to keep reciting Faiz’s verses, a viewer is inclined to keep looking at Hashmi’s artworks. Both the father and the daughter excel in their modes of expression.

Also, both of them focus on the plight of the marginalised and the oppressed, suffering due to the might of an omnipresent power, the class system, political forces or societal/ domestic violence.

In the recent exhibition, one comes across many references to women’s misery and struggle during Zia-ul Haq’s military dictatorship; Zainab Noor, the victim of her husband’s brutality; and a female trying to perform kathak. The attempt to portray those on the periphery is evident in a group of black and white photographs from the ’80s, installed at the exhibition. There are women and children from villages, carrying water containers, cleaning mud houses with brooms, spinning cotton on the wheel, carrying kids or working.“If you look hard enough,” these photos (to borrow a phrase from Geoff Dyer) “will always answer your question – even if that answer comes in the form of further questions.”

The remarkable aspect of capturing/ rendering light and shade in these monochromatic pictures, brings them closer to pieces on paper, created one after the other, and to numerous drawings the art and design students produced in her drawing classes. Being one of them, I remember how she explained the importance of light, tones, value and harmony – mainly through her class exercises.

Attending her retrospective, we recognise the same mind at work, represented in a selection of pieces from a creative journey spread over 60 years. We might leave the exhibition thinking – in the words of James Wood – “not of the first and last dates [or work] but of the dateless minutes in between.”

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

Perspectives of pain and pleasure