looking back The journey of art - I

August 7, 2022

Pakistan was created in 1947, but is still being reinvented, reshaped, revised and rehashed

looking back  The journey of art - I


he Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer in his novel Grand Hotel Europa jokes about his art historian partner’s un-packaging of her personal belongings after they move to a new flat; “Art history degrees come with lots of baggage!” Another move that required a lot of baggage, was associated with the bloody migration made 75 years ago – and in a way not complete yet. Pakistan was created in 1947, but is still being reinvented, reshaped, revised, and rehashed.

So are its arts, particularly the visual arts. The practice has continued from an undivided, colonial India to the independent state of Pakistan. The link is deep – to the colonial past, Mughal period, Gandhara tradition, Gupta art and traces of Indus Valley Civilisation. When it comes to pictorial expression, artists of this land are heirs to a lot of diversity in terms of styles, iconography and utility. Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but its artists have assimilated images, symbols and narrative of various beliefs, i.e. Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Zoroastrian as well as blended high and low; profound and popular; decorative and functional (Laila Shahzada is one of the leading names in this regard).

There were multiple voices at the inception of Pakistan including a strong group of artists from the then East Pakistan (Zainul Abedin, Safiddun Ahmad, Quamrul Hassan, Murtaja Baseer, Hamidur Rahman, Novera Ahmed, Syed Jahangir, Kibria, Rashid Chaudhry). However, with the birth of Bangladesh, these names were forgotten and lost to the official archives of Pakistani art (even though Zainul Abedin was instrumental in establishing the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Peshawar, 1964).

These along with their contemporaries from the western wing, formed a group of modernists, who shifted from the figurative imagery of traditional masters like AR Chughtai and Ustad Allah Bux, to find a new mode of expression. Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali and painters of Lahore Art Circle (Ali Imam, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Moyene Najmi, S Safdar. Mariam Habib, Kutub Sheikh, Hanif Ramay), produced a range of work, usually termed as Abstract Art, yet incorporated figurative compositions, references to still life and landscape, and excursions into text.

Intriguingly a number of modernist painters preferred script to construct their non-figurative canvases. Not a random choice, because language is a process of abstracting reality into a system of sounds, shapes and meanings. The physical formation of word/ sound ‘apple’ is a stylised version of round, pulpy and juicy fruit. Script also became a bridge to travel from the past to the present for Shemza, Ramay and later artists like Sadequain, Rashid Arshed, Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Ismail Gulgee. It is a pity that whenever a history of Pakistani art is published, names of such splendid scribes as Hafiz Yousaf Sadidi, Abdul Majeed Parveen Raqm and Tajuddin Zarrin Raqm are missing – probably due to the ‘value’ of their creations and of their status.

This divide between the privileged and the public was paved by Sadequain. He combined pictures, calligraphy and literalness in his paintings – and murals (which by nature were public art).

Sadequain, is conveniently associated with the cultural guidelines of military dictatorship of Gen Zia, which projected the tamed art of text (ideally of Islamic content); and – unintentionally – contributed in the emergence of rebellious art; without the regime’s knowledge and in spite of heavy censorship. During this period of mid-seventies to late-eighties, men and women defied draconian policies of the state on women’s emancipation, rights of speech, and freedom of artistic expression; and in their words and works challenged official restrictions.

looking back  The journey of art - I

Official was political in the guise of moral (ironically the first public speech by Gen Zia was at the inauguration of a sculptor’s solo show in Islamabad. Made in 1977, it proclaimed that religion did not bar figurative representation or other pictorial art). Paradoxically, the government suppressed writers, artists, film makers, dancers and singers because for the dictator, besides politics, human body (bare/ clothed/ concealed, female/ male) became an unacceptable theme.

However, whether as an emblem of freedom, a point of resilience, or a matter of celebration, the body has remained present in the art works from those years till now: Jamil Naqsh, Colin David, Iqbal Hussain, Anwar Saeed, Naiza H Khan, Shahzia Sikander, Nausheen Saeed, Ali Kazim, Salman Toor. Portrait, on the other hand, was considered a kosher form, since it glorified rulers, generals and other elite. Some of the best portraits were prepared by Saeed Akhtar, with his command over medium and control of realistic detail.

The seventies also witnessed politically conscious creations. Women artists of Pakistan, Salima Hashmi, Lala Rukh, Meher Afroz, Nahid Raza and Sumbal Nazir among others, defied the state’s restrictions on their representation in arts and presentation in public life. Fifteen of them signed the Women Artists’ Manifesto in 1983. Some artists, like Ijaz ul Hassan, AR Nagori, Jamal Shah and Akram Dost strove to bring a change through their pictorial practices and engagement in politics. Employing symbols and metaphors of power, brutality and exploitation, they produced an art of resistance (which coincided with the contemporary literature of resistance).

However, their subjects were not limited to a single incident, conflict, country or era. They dealt with episodes of cruelty and oppression across the planet. For instance, Ijaz ul Hassan’s paintings had images of Vietnam War and of killings in Kashmir. Their works can be compared to artists who addressed the idea of identity by rendering local territory and people. Anna Molka Ahmed and Khalid Iqbal inspired generations of painters, who translated the landscape genre into personal idiom, notably Zubeida Javed, Ghulam Rasul, Mussarat Mirza, and Kaleem Khan.

Identity was explored in two, distinct art movements, independently taking shape in the early nineties. The first of these was the revival of miniature painting at the studios of National College of Arts, Lahore, by Ustad Bashir Ahmed (a student of Haji Mohammad Shrif and Sheikh Shujuallah), and graduates like Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathor, Tazeen Qayyum, Waseem Ahmed, Muhammad Zeeshan, Saira Wasim, Hasnat Mehmood, who learnt the conventional discipline, but expanded its language by adapting new mediums, strategies, techniques, styles, dimensions, subjects and concerns.

Today, work of these artists, executed in digital format, installations, mixed media paintings, videos, sound pieces, bears only a remote trace of their early training, but forms an integral component of contemporary art of Pakistan. This group has lately been joined by Waqas Khan, with his meticulously fabricated works on paper, shown at museums and galleries at several national and international venues.

The other indigenous movement noticed, discovered, and appropriated the transport art of Pakistan. David Alesworth, Durriya Kazi, Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi, living and working in Karachi started imbibing the aesthetics of popular art in their works. Imagery, material and craft picked from cinema hoardings, truck painting, decorative pieces, recycled commercial products, advertisement posters were absorbed, to question the border between perfection and compromise, between artist and artisan, between concepts and consumerism. Their ideas and practices were followed by a range of successors including Huma Mulji, Asma Mundrawala, Adeela Suleman and Faiza Butt.

looking back  The journey of art - I

These artists of Karachi Pop were attracted to samples of popular imagery in their surroundings. Meanwhile, millions of people around the world experienced another unforgettable visual at the dawn of new millennium: pictures of two planes hitting the Twin Towers of New York. On September 11, 2001, thus the world truly turned global, as TV channels were telecasting the same live footage across countries and continents.

That moment also made Pakistani art into an international practice, which demands a detailed view – and review.

(To be continued)

The author is an art critic based in Lahore.

looking back The journey of art - I