Whether it is intended to or not, any form of art has always been a reflection of the times it was created in. What does today’s art tell us about the times we live in?
What compels an artist to pick up their pen, pencil, brush, chisel, or camera? What is so moving about the emotions evoked by a single image, experience, or event that an artist must realize it visually for all to see?
We all have opinions on what is art and what is not. An intricate Sadequain? Art. The video for Ali Azmat’s 2005 single ‘Na Re Na’? Art. A gorgeous, artistically-lit, elaborately art-directed photograph? Of course, art. We will regard Iqbal Bano’s rendition of any classical Urdu poetry as art, but discount new takes on an old classic as trash.
With the advent of digital tools, art has definitely become more fluid and inclusive. Yes, there are still people who will argue that unless you slaved over that canvas for 50 hours, your work could probably be accomplished by chimps, but unfortunately for those people, in the last five years or so, the dimensions of what the term art encapsulates has become as sprawlingly-unplanned as the wondrous city of Karachi itself.
This avalanche of thoughts on how art is positioned today was triggered by digital artist Sana Naeem’s series of illustrations featuring Pakistan’s female music icons. For Sana, who is a digital marketer by profession, but practices her art daily, the series was an exercise in challenging her capabilities and limitations.
“I watched a YouTube video regarding how it’s easy to come with reasons to not draw, but if you pick one thing consistently - which in my case was symmetry – that’s half the battle won. So I’ve been drawing symmetrically because of that and there’s an artist I follow, Muhammed Sajid on Instagram, whose portraits inspired me to attempt human faces which I shy away from because those aren’t my strong suit,” Sana says as she explains why she began the series in the first place.
As if introducing digital implements to the creation of art weren’t enough, artists have also found free platforms to showcase their work on. All you have to do is put up an Instagram page, upload whatever you like on it, and call it art. While this may take away from the exclusivity of ‘high art’, digital avenues do give the masses more access both ways: artist to audience and audience to artist.
What is captivating about the series is Naeem’s choice of subject. While you may think this has been done before, just consider that any and all art in any medium has probably been done before. The genre of pop art itself though has been, well, very mainstream and pop, since before we first set our eyes upon Warhol’s detached imagery of Coca Cola, and Campbell’s soup cans, and that one image of Marylin Monroe that has launched a thousand and one inspired pieces and photo filters. When pop art actually started becoming a thing, it was already asking – and answering – questions about the current world.
Whether art has asked questions or answered them, it has always reflected the mood of the times impeccably. At this juncture in time, in Pakistan, if Sana Naeem chooses to illustrate the powerfully gifted Abida Parveen, a very determined Meesha Shafi, or the now-tragic Nazia Hasan in colors that scream cheerfully and postures that show them in control, we have to wonder if she is asking the question, answering it, or merely stating a fact. The platform she chooses to display her work on states concrete facts about the evolution of art in this age as well.
Andy Warhol’s works have played with the translation of very well-known faces and icons to his prints and paintings, which in appearance were all similar to each other but each iteration was slightly different from the last. For the Marilyn Diptych, the artist places a colored and a black-and-white piece side by side, ostensibly to draw parallels between her public and private life.
Though that may not have been Warhol’s original intention, reproducing a famous face as the pivot point for a work of art gained more momentum with time.
Locally we may have seen it with Rashid Rana’s digital portraits of famous movie stars, their faces comprised of thousands of unknown faces who are the force that shoot an ordinary man to stardom. We have seen, for sure, similar disenchantment with capitalism and celebrity culture in any artists’ work, during any period of time. The subject, the object of any piece of art will comment more and more on the prevalent emotion and concern of the time, whether it wants to or not.
Which brings us back to Naeem’s musician portraits. She says that these are women who are inspirational, which compelled her to choose them as her subjects.
“Art has always been a healing process for me – I only draw when I feel immense helplessness regarding my surroundings or my mental health,” she says.
“Over the past few months, I’ve struggled with both; and what started off as a one-off piece, turned into a tribute to women who refused to let anyone, or any circumstance be a hurdle in the pursuit of self-expression. From being masters of their crafts to smashing the patriarchy to being unapologetically themselves. Each artist represents something intrinsic in us all, the only difference being we allow our fears to hold us back whilst they held their ground, marched forward, and made their mark.”
While she may not explicitly say this, women in Pakistan – and the world over - have implicitly become allies. Whether art has asked questions or answered them, it has always reflected the mood of the times impeccably.
At this juncture in time, in Pakistan, if Sana Naeem chooses to illustrate the powerfully gifted Abida Parveen, a very determined Meesha Shafi, or the now-tragic Nazia Hasan in colors that scream cheerfully and postures that show them in control, we have to wonder if she is asking the question, answering it, or merely stating a fact. The platform she chooses to display her work on states concrete facts about the evolution of art in this age as well.
What may have begun as a mere exercise in illustration, can actually speak to the collective psyche of Pakistani women right now. And even if that wasn’t the artist’s intent, we should just pause and remember what some old cubist told us about art back in his day. Art may not be the truth, but the lie it presents definitely gets us on the road to seeing it better.