Parallel contexts

December 8, 2019

The 2nd National Art Exhibition took place in Alhamra. But how relevant are national exhibitions?

Jamil Naqsh: Woman with pigeon, Acrylic on canvas.

Is the notion of ‘one Pakistan’ possible? Often we hear about the government’s agenda is aiming to provide equality to all citizens in the Islamic Republic. However, putting political rhetoric to the side, one realises that it may not be a practically viable ideal.

Of course, it is crucial to provide health, education, job, food, security, recreation to all inhabitants. However, the methods used to achieve this are more often than not restrictive and impose a sense of uniformity. The term ‘uniform’ is most associated with organisations and establishments where hierarchical discipline and laws must be adhered to.

But often this is meant to impose uniformity. The term ‘uniform’ is associated with organisations and establishments where one has to follow orders from above. Children wear uniforms to schools, and several professions require a particular outfit e.g. military, police, nursing staff, flight crew, sports teams, sanitary workers, railway ticket collectors, etc. The idea of introducing uniform is to keep discipline, perform as a team, and obey the boss.

Haya Zahra: Need a Break, Acylic on canvas.

If clothing represents uniformity in its physicality there also exists its intangible parallel in the realm of ideas, such as language, religion and nationality. However, upon closer inspection one finds that even Urdu, our national language, does not come in a single version. Rather it lives through diverse dialects across various regions in Pakistan and India. Similarly, while Islam is ‘one’ religion, it functions through multiple sects, just as different people in the same nation have customs and rituals unique unto themselves.

While uniformity is an establishment and political construct; in the grander scheme of life, it cannot actually be enforced. Especially in art, where diverse individuals and styles, despite belonging to the same country or city, are not necessarily bound by their national identity — not in their imagination and ability to fantasise at least.

Ijaz ul Hassan: Fitna 2019, Archival print on flex.

One manifestation of uniformity in art, traditionally, is the practice of a ‘national exhibition’. A show which entitles every artist of the country to be included, even if they only meet the standard of ‘national’ rather than ‘artist’. But in present times, two phenomena have eclipsed the continuity of national exhibitions: curated exhibitions, and international shows such as biennales, triennials, art fairs etc. Perhaps that’s why the last National Exhibition, arranged by a federal body, the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA), was held more than 20 years ago, in 1996.

On the other hand, Lahore Arts Council, reviving the concept, organised its 2nd Alhamra National Exhibition of Visual Arts 2019 (November 28-December 6, 2019) in which a total of 145 artists, both established and young graduates, participated. Works of varying approaches and concerns were displayed, with a number of strong pieces that reflected the power of imagination, presence of skill and urge to experiment. The entire collection offered variety, in every sense of the word.

Amongst the current conditions of artistic possibilities; new borders are sketched. More than a national connection, it is the link with a certain kind of art that joins artists from across the globe, regardless of their national identities and official passports.

At the show, one starts to imagine the possibility of a parallel national exhibition (or should it be called international exhibition?) with names who are internationally visible, but were missing in Lahore. Iqbal Geoffrey, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Bani Abidi, Hamra Abbas, Risham Syed, Naiza Khan, Anwar Saeed, Adeela Suleman, Huma Mulji, Aisha Khalid, Waqas Khan, Mohammad Zeeshan, Noor Ali Chagani, Nusra Latif, Ayaz Jokhio and Khadim Ali, to name a few.

With its main qualifying feature being that artists must belong to this country, the show at Alhamra, like many other ventures at the venue, did not leave a lasting mark. It looked more like a compromise, rather than a promise. There were works which represent new sensibilities and visions; like those of Ijaz ul Hassan, the mastery of image-making, by Jamil Naqsh, magic in rendering by Ali Kazim and the poetry of text in Mohammad Ali Talpur, The last two could very well be part of the parallel contemporary art exhibition!

There were also works with complexity and sophistication, occasionally by artists who are not that well-known. Two names in this regard are important. Ghafar Afridi’s work came as a surprise; his Inside (physiography on insulation sheet) was impressive due to its unusual visual solution and manipulation of the medium. Afridi, a student of sculpture in the Department of Fine Art at NCA (2005-2009), never got good grades or approval by his teachers, but was able to clench a distinction for his degree show project. Later, he lost himself in other pursuits, dropped out as a post-graduate student, and missed the opportunity to be a part of mainstream art. However, the quirkiness in his personality and aesthetics has resurfaced — now on the walls of Alhamra.

Another artist, Haya Zahra, has opted for a new visual language. Employing lines as her main mode, she has created overlapping narratives, suggesting spontaneity and liveliness. Her paintings remind of graffiti, child art and naïve imagery, but mainly these denote a new voice which is unique to her.

Apart from sparse works like these, a few miniature paintings (Sidra Gulraiz, Nashrah Saleem), and one sculpture by Asma Nawaz (High Heals), the overall experience of this show exasperated the divide between the two types of art coming out of our nation. One can be termed ‘contemporary’ or mainstream; usually representing Pakistan at international venues. The other is more dependent upon on what is made, seen and consumed here, hence you come across local landscapes; stylised compositions; calligraphy pieces; figurative paintings of women, kids and old people; and still lifes.

Interestingly, at this Alhamra exhibition, works which relied too heavily on vernacular subjects are not essentially different from such paintings produced around the world. One recognises a similar sensibility in Dubai, Istanbul, Almaty, Dakar, Lima etc. Hence a portrayal of peasants from the Punjab may find parallels of bucolic life in Sudan.

Likewise contemporary art produced in Pakistan (apart from national exhibitions) has counterparts in other countries, hence it is understood and appreciated.

Amongst such conditions of artistic possibilities; new borders are sketched. More than a national connection, it is the link with a certain kind of art that joins artists from across the globe, regardless of their national identities and official passports.

Ghafar Afridi: Inside Physiography on insulation sheet.

One Pakistan for arts: Parallel contexts