‘Art and artists shaped our identity’

September 27, 2020

At the 8th edition of the Mahomedali Habib Distinguished Lecture, Salima Hashmi helped deconstruct associations between artists’ works and the current climate of social resilience

Salima Hashmi guided us through a carefully-selected visual anthology of Pakistani artists for the 8th edition of the Mahomedali Habib Distinguished Lecture. The event was hosted jointly by Habib University in Pakistan and Institute for South Asia Studies, Berkeley Pakistan Initiative, South Asia Art Initiative, Department of History of Art, Department of Art Practice, International and Area Studies (IAS) located at the University of California.

The lecture took place on Zoom. It was hosted by Munis D Faruqui, an associate professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies. It was attended by dozens of students and faculty from both universities and was open to the general public.

Hashmi invited the participants into exploring the ideas, concepts and techniques used by each artist in creating their unique and fierce visual vocabulary in their practices. She drew connections and helped deconstruct associations between their work and the current climate of social resilience. We traversed turbulent histories and the darker decades that Pakistan has faced through the works of Anwar Saeed, Rashid Rana, Risham Syed, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Adeela Suleman, Ali Kazim and Muzzammil Ruheel.

When discussing the works of Risham Syed, Hashmi touched on the themes, visible and hidden, in the handcrafted quilted pieces and the expanded installation work by the artist. In archiving, collecting and mapping of shared history between familial generations, the installation had moved away from the wall hanging format and become object sculpture. Syed had used a combination of painting, family heirlooms, and cultural symbolism to document the migration of her grandmother at the time of partition.

The visual vocabulary of Imran Qureshi, another student of Hashmi, transitioned to large scale site-specific works and installations when he reflected on the trauma and violence experienced by the Pakistani society. Creating beautiful motifs of flowers within his chaotic blood splatter fields, Qureshi has often quoted Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the titles of his works, as a medium of expression of our shared pain and love.

We understood the artists’ psychology as were afforded a glimpse into the moment of transformation for them using their art for resistance. Having supervised the artists as students and colleagues at the National College of Arts, Hashmi shared invaluable insights about what exactly defines Pakistani contemporary art. Her empathy and compassion, the sensibility with which she dissects social commentary, politics and movements make her an art archaeologist, a scholar and an expert at delivering complex answers that help one understand the resilient and passionate spirit of Pakistani art.

Being an artist, writer, educationist and an activist, Hashmi has pushed back stale conventionalism, combated rigidity of classicism and challenged the status quo at every turn in her illustrious career. She has witnessed the revolutionary change that art, poetry, music and culture bring to society. Her appreciation for the younger contemporary art scene is genuine and endearing. She celebrates these artists as the bright future for Pakistani art as a global presence.

Entering into multidisciplinary practices such as installation, typography, photography and community art there were special mentions including Ghulam Muhammad, Asif Khan, Farida Batool, Shazia Sikander, Faiza Butt, Naiza Khan, Bani Abidi and Huma Mulji. The closing of the talk had a performance piece by Ranyya Naseer and Hurmatul Ain that was a satire-commentary on nostalgia and Pakistani culture.

Painting is seen mostly as a classical and traditional art form, Pakistani artists have often deconstructed text, paint, line and form to reclaim the medium as a contemporary practice. Artists such as Ali Kazim and Muhammad Zeeshan are exploring the delicate rendering of colour through portraiture. Moving on to photography and media arts, Hashmi showed the works of Asif Khan and Farida Batool, who explore politics of the state and street in their works. Khan is seen creating playful and interpretive images using film archives belonging to his grandfather, while Batool creates a hyper-reality of collage and tweaking digital photographs creating multilayered narratives. Seeing these works in parallel shows the expansive language used by contemporary artists right now in the country. Playful and unapologetic, younger Pakistani artists are using their practice to reflect the complex and conflicted through the distillation of politics, socio-economic commentary, cultural depictions paired with detective tools of investigation. They can create and revisit tradition with innovation and fresh perspective that has imbued Pakistani art with a subversive and often controversial resilience to challenge the status quo.

The talk was followed by a question and answer session with Asma Kazmi, an assistant professor of performance art at Department of Art Practice at UC-Berkeley; Atreyee Gupta, an assistant professor of global modern art and South and Southeast Asian art at Department of History of Art at UC-Berkeley; and Nauman Naqvi an associate professor of comparative liberal studies at the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Habib University. They discussed the potentiality and symbolism of contemporary South Asian art, and drew comparisons and associations between the works. Hashmi recounted her struggle to overcome censorship, silencing and restrictions on artists; use of figuration; and shared her concerns about the undercurrents of a turbulent future ahead for artists. In the end, she concluded: “Artists are an important part of our history and have an active role in shaping the present identity of Pakistan.” The talk is available to the public on the departmental Youtube channel.

The writer is an artist and an art therapist

‘Art and artists shaped our identity’