January Issue 2015
A few months ago, when artist/curator Munawar Ali Syed invited young artists to consciously break away from the practice of using art to depict the politics and violence around them, his aim was to create space for an exploration of fresh trajectories. This act of stepping back from a blood-soaked landscape provided artists the much-needed opportunity to explore the human narrative within the crisis so it could be seen from a wide-eyed lens rather than just a rhetorical pinhole.
This widening of perspective, brought to the fore issues like class politics and the urban/rural tensions; additionally, it raised questions about what was passed on as history. Themes of alienation and disenfranchisement have become the subtext of a disparate body of art and are being articulated in a wide range of art dialects that have expanded as a consequence of the collapse of lines between different genres and an imaginative use of unconventional mediums. Even when artists made stylistic appropriations from classical European paintings, for instance, like those seen in the recent exhibitions of Mohammed Ali and Salman Toor, the highly individualised content pushed it in a fresh direction.
Increased gallery activity led to a roster of back-to-back shows, but this assembly line regimen also made the artists aware of the limitations of the commercial gallery as a platform for growth. Additionally, creative short films made their presence felt and became a medium favoured by both the artist and the documentary-filmmaker.
To counter the commercial context of art and challenge the voyeuristic narratives of a fractured society, a handful of artists have begun the practice of a parallel public art to explore the instrumentalist energy of art. Filmmaker and digital artist Yasir Hussain, along with his wife Zahra Hussain, a horticulturist, are breaking new ground by helping marginalised neighbourhoods to grow plants and create eco-friendly art to de-pollute and give access to fresh produce. When youth from low-income localities shot videos with cell phones, the Mobile Karachi Cinema (a project initiated by Yaminay Chowdary of the Tentative Collective) screened them to provide the video producer and his/her people a platform where intra- and inter-community dialogues could take place in a space provided by art. ‘Bachon say Tabdili,’ a project spearheaded by Shahana Rajani, made art a catalyst for schoolchildren from different parts of the city to identify their concerns and look for solutions. This artist and community partnership is in the vanguard of a movement to change elitist connotations of art by making it relevant to the lived experience of an expanding audience.
In 2014, the sense of dislocation, which has resonated in the work of the diasporic artists through the last decade, began to focus on internal displacement. As the first artist in a family of farmers from the Punjab, young Zahid Mayo compulsively draws crowds ‘to find himself’ in the changed/changing location. This is echoed in similar artistic and physical journeys from the periphery of rural Sindh to the metropolis. A group of artists from small towns, and the artists they have mentored, shared the Koel Gallery space in a show curated by Mohammad Zeeshan. The homogenised contemporary art practice of the artists who have assimilated into the cities had a distinctly different oeuvre from those who have chosen to stay back, and it was only in the panel discussion that they expressed experiences of the rural/urban disconnect.
Ethnic migration within Quetta has imposed a new social geography on the city and ruptured the once unified struggle of the artists’ community at Balochistan University and the Arts Council. Artists of Hazara descent, mostly new entrants, find it impossible to work freely due to targeted attacks and are socially isolated into urban ghettos.
Mutilated faces in frenzied gestures have become Akram Dost Baloch’s daily diary of despair and alienation. A recent portrait of the regal Nawab Bugti disappearing behind a smudge is Baloch’s way of responding to the manner in which a selective history of his people is being erased. Young Saud Baloch’s life-size seated figure, with a hood and tied hands, destabilised the celebration of creativity at the Sanat Residency show with its power to bring the dread of the people of Noshki near Quetta, from where the artist hails, into the gallery: “Your cruelty and your fire-making: these count for nothing. Speaking up for one’s rights, and remaining standing – these are the acts that can’t be erased.” A poem by Mir Gul Khan Naseer quoted in the work seemed to give the silenced a voice.
Discussions on urban anxiety of a different kind were initiated by a bunch of youths, who pointed to the shrinking public space for outdoor activities in the project, ‘Bachon Say Tabdili.’ Hundreds of artworks on their neighbourhoods by Karachi’s schoolchildren were a testament to the claustrophobic encroachments that usurp parks and crowd lanes, raising pollution to suffocating levels. Changing social mores were suggested in the maps of Lyari by students that prominently featured mosques, sometimes several in a neighbourhood, to serve different sects. In the discussions during the workshops, the children spoke of how their elders preferred that they attend religious classes in the neighbourhood mosque instead of playing in unsafe spaces outdoors after school, which was indicative of a shift in the priorities of a community that was once proud of producing some outstanding sportsmen.
Two short films made by young filmmakers from Lyari resonate with the impact of target shootings, disappearances, police encounters and bomb blasts. Azmaan by Ahsan Shah deals directly with fear. The Post-Traumatic Syndrome of the protagonist, a little girl, is manifested in the nightmares in which she sees the dead people she has heard about in the news or in gossip around her. She finds herself trapped with them in an eerie landscape, with no route to escape. Economic disparities in Lyari bring to the fore new class tensions, as filmmaker Imran Saquib eavesdrops on conversations in a roadside café. Titled Garr Garr (meaningless chatter), the film captures the schisms within.
The politics of migration, class and poverty that is played out in the lives of the Pathan community of Karachi, that lacks cultural visibility, was pushed to the fore in two films. A Pakhtun Memory, a project of Tentative Collective, projected the subaltern community though its music, played out in a ‘forbidden elitist zone,’ to momentarily destabilise the class hierarchy that has pushed many parts of the population to the margins. Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick’s film picked up the narratives of children who are orphaned – not by death but by poverty in the unforgiving metropolis. In the second film, These Birds Walk, the lives of an Edhi Ambulance driver and a chirpy Pathan runaway intersect at the Edhi Home for Boys. The last scene sums up the desperate circumstances of the boy’s large family. The driver learns that the Edhi Home serves as a sanctuary for the family’s youth, who frequently escape to it to deal with persisting hunger and frustration.
In Mohsin Shafi’s art, with its irreverent portrayal of political mandarins, the real wheeler-dealers of power were re-clothed with layers of collaged cutouts to reveal an image that was the sum of many ugly parts. A part of his Sadaism discourses, the show had stimulating optics in the vein of hard-hitting cartoons and TV parodies, but it found little tolerance and had to be shut down after one day. The gallerist and artist took the risk of holding the show because they found it to be no different from the polemic cartoons and parodies seen on the electronic media. Unfortunately, the media did not rise to the occasion and defend the right to freedom of expression. This incident takes one back to almost three decades, when Ali Imam displayed Nagori’s political statements on canvas which were not allowed to be exhibited in Islamabad by another bully, General Zia-ul-Haq, at the height of his power. At that point, the print media stood with Ali Imam because they understood the need to make their voices heard.
Three retrospectives held this year opened a window on Pakistan’s art history. Pakistan’s First International Print Biennial was held at the VM Gallery. It was a display of prints from the 1930s to 2014, which presented seminal research in the field by curator Romilla Kareem. Rasheed Araeen’s works from the 1950s and 1960s, excavated from his Karachi studio, were exhibited in a show titled Homecoming, revealing his early forays into Modernism, and provided a vital link to the art he created in London during the last half-century. Lastly, a collection of canvases of Laila Shahzada, lent by the artist’s daughter, sister and friends, was exhibited at the Unicorn Gallery last month. It afforded a new generation unfamiliar with this Modernist master, the chance to view her art.
All three retrospectives were private initiatives and had they been supported by the Sindh Ministry of Culture, an extended showing and a bigger outreach may have been possible. Moreover, the funding of an extensive catalogue would also have recorded it for posterity. The provincial ministries of culture must dispense with their political agenda and rise to the occasion to facilitate such important national projects. This way the money earmarked for culture will be spent in the right place.
Two years from now, Pakistan will celebrate 70 years of its independence and there is an urgent need for public art spaces and public art collections in the country’s major cities. Collections from the past and present need to be archived and made accessible to researchers and art historians in order to acknowledge achievements in the visual arts. With every passing year, the irreplaceable art legacy is either dispersed or destroyed due to inadequate conservation. If this continues, Pakistan will lose the cultural capital of its nation.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.
The writer is an art critic and curator. Her work covers art criticism, art history, curatorial projects, art education and art activism. She has been regularly contributing to national and international journals since 80’s.