Celebrating accents

June 5, 2022

Art Fest Karachi 22 was a lively and well-rounded event. A remarkable feature of the event was the homage paid to Jamil Naqsh and Rabia Zuberi, known for their life-long contributions and dedication to the country’s art

Celebrating accents


ecently, a video of a Pakistani artist congratulating the participants and organisers of Art Fest Karachi 22 went viral. This included positive, pleasant and supportive sentiments for an art event that by its structure – rather nature, was an all-inclusive affair. Those who watched the short clip agreed with what was said rightly and good-heartedly.

But there was something else. The way it was said - in an unmistakeably British accent. Surprising because people who have known the artist from his formative years, to his later success on the basis of his originality of thought, strength of imagery and the creative use of material, were a bit shocked by this transformation. In the past, he spoke English, not different from those who had had usual (state-run) schooling in the Islamic Republic, in which English was tackled not like a language, but a continuous curse.

The choice of language, one must admit, is connected to one’s freedom as well as circumstances. You might deliver it imperfectly or with a flair of your native tongue; both are normal in a post-colonial society. English is not our first language, nor we are born in its Oxbridge sounds; it is just another, foreign, imported, imposed medium of instruction/ communication adopted in countries that were once under the British rule. Each of these developed a distinct accent for the language of their former masters. Such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, India, Sri Lanka, and the settlers’ nations such as the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

However, we are still caught in the ‘correct’ English accent. While our neighbours from Kerala, Karnataka, Bengal, Maharashtra, confidently talk in this tongue with a tinge of their regional lingos and have risen to position of power and prestige in the world: of business, technology, literature, science, academia. If you speak substance, ears around the world be tuned to understand you. However, a number of Pakistani artists may feel that once you acquire the British or American – or even Australian accent, you will be regarded with more respect. Hence, the case of one miniature artist, who struggled with English in Lahore, but a two-year stint in a London art institute metamorphosed his vocal cords to such an extent that he sounded a British born. Another one who visited Australia for a short period brought back Aussie accent as his most valuable belonging.

On the other hand, there are a few Pakistani artists, who were either brought up by British mothers (Salima Hashmi), or spent several years in English speaking countries (like Iqbal Geoffrey, Raheel Akbar Javed, Rashid Ahmed Arshad, Sylvat Aziz and others), along with many who were abroad for their higher studies, but you don’t detect a foreign accent in their English. In fact, Iqbal Geoffrey had (or settled for) a pronounced Punjabi tone in his English, possibly to subvert the Western dominance in culture, art and politics.

Celebrating accents

And it’s not only English, many artists (and innumerable citizens) in Pakistan are also dealing with another demon. The shadow of their vernacular dialects. The impact of one’s first language, Punjabi, Seraiki, Hindko, Pashto, Sindhi, Brahui, Balochi, Dari is so strong that a speaker reveals his/ her origin while talking in Urdu. Although we try to follow an ideal accent when we employ Urdu, never realising that we are imitating speech of Delhi and Lucknow, cities that were never part of Pakistan.

When an artist speaks in a distinct regional accent – regardless in the seams of English or Urdu – does his/ her art converse in the same tone? Yes and no. Because some, like Mohammad Ali Talpur, Ali Kazim, Jamil Baloch still carry a tiny tinge of their mother tongue (Sindhi, Punjabi, Balochi) in their Urdu/ English, but their works do not reveal their connection to any region; even to a country. These artists have absolved their creations from all sorts of ‘provincial’ identities.

To certify that it is the work that needs to communicate in a language understood across cultures and continents, and not the maker. Several artists have scraped away their ethnic accent in their works. They may have an initial link to Sukkur, Sargodha, Sibbi or Swabi, but in art, they deal with concerns and imagery which are not limited to one ethnicity or location, or history as witnessed in exhibits at the Art Fest Karachi (curated by Abdul Jabbar Gull) held from 19th to 27th May.

Among several works on display, Imran Channa’s Lost Pages VII; an erased charcoal drawing of Bayeus tapestry depicts the story of Duke William of Normandy’s conquest of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066, on a canvas hung like an enlarged manuscript. Material, surface and technique do not connote to a specific culture, but an artist’s act of viewing the world as an outsider, questioning the past and reshaping a shredded history. Often reference to a particular place is not a limitation but a means to be/ being away. This is evident in the works of Waheeda Baloch and Amjad Ali Talpur. Baloch’s Tracing Paradise is composed of three acrylic boxes, each containing cement, sand and brick, and due to their substances refers to three pre-partition houses in the artist’s surrounding. The work includes segments from historical places (of Hyderabad and Bhit Shah), but in its visual vocabulary is not constrained to an indigenous address/ identity.

Amjad Ali Talpur’s Untitled, a clamp/ vice like press, holds pieces in such a way that the left-out area resembles the map of Pakistan. One can read multiple meanings in the work – from nationalistic sentiments to political propaganda, but the metal sculpture certainly converses in the language of contemporary art, adhering to a local accent. Like the Head/Tomb of Mahbub Shah; a rotating coin, with its profile of the Father of the Nation on one side, moving vertically, thus alternating the face of the most revered national leader with some popular/ historic building, which you visit by paying the same coin. The work signifies the smell of money in the corridors of power, patriotism and public existence.

A remarkable feature of Art Fest Karachi 22 was the homage to Jamil Naqsh and Rabia Zuberi, known for their life-long contributions and dedication to the country’s art. The presence of their works (real or reproduction) at the exhibition certifies that an artist becomes immortal through his/ her output. Along with these deceased artists, the curator (Gull) and the organisers (Sindh Culture Department) of this extraordinary endeavour invited established professionals and emerging individuals to exhibit side by side. Thus, many young artists had the opportunity to showcase their work with Meher Afroz, Moeen Faruqi, Najmi Sura, RM Naeem, Muhammad Zeeshan, Waseem Ahmed, Tazeen Qayyum, Noor Ali Chagani, Rehana Mangi, Mona Naqsh and Sumera Tazeen, in a sense diluting boundaries, barriers and borders between positions, practices, experiences, approaches and solutions vis-à-vis creative pieces.

It was also amazing to come across artists participating in the Art Fest Karachi 22 without being conscious of their origin, ethnicities and accents in their works. What they produced sounded earnest and honest because they ‘talked’ with an accent of art.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

Celebrating accents