Toronto Dispatch: Art Provokes Dialogue
The curious gazes of children in poor squalid slums, mountains covered in colourful paper flags, and garlanded bullocks are part of an exhibition of photographs at the Promenade Gallery in Mississauga entitled Image and Identity: Being Ethnic (South Asian). The exhibition represents the work of several photographers settled in Canada, whose origins are in Pakistan and India.
The show, curated by Toronto-based Ali Adil Khan and Asma Arshad Mahmood, opened in August as part of a larger South Asian festival called Mosaic. It is described as ‘an exploration of the way we form our public identity… define our ethnicity, and illustrates a natural desire for an identification and relationship to the past.’
Naureen Shah, who sold one of her photographs on opening day — a study of a prostitute preparing herself for her appearance in public — explains why she identifies with the subjects of her work: the men and women she photographed in places like a mental asylum in Karachi and in the alleys of Peshawar. “We are minorities here and they are minorities there, outsiders to society, just as sometimes we are outsiders to society here, don’t you think? I’m so fluid. These photos express my identity as a woman and I see myself in each of these people,” she says.
Shah participated in another exhibition recently, titled Naked Stare of a Pakistani Man, which was shown at the Industrial Art Gallery in Toronto in July. She was unfazed that the exhibit offended many Pakistanis who saw it as an unfairly sweeping statement.
Back at the Promenade Gallary, Asif Raza’s photograph of slums show narrow lanes between the walls of the homes in a dirt poor area, with small boys looking out from doorways. He says the photos made people uncomfortable because these particular alleys are situated close to wealthier urban centres. “In Pakistan most people thought they were inner city slums, but all this is much nearer than most people would like to admit.” He believes it is his purpose in life to point out what we tend to ignore in Pakistan and concludes that the past will always be part of his identity. “My parents migrated to Pakistan from India and I migrated from Pakistan to Canada. Should I lose my identity to become completely Canadian? Canada encourages multiculturalism and acknowledging our roots,” he says.
While it is easier to exhibit together under the South Asian umbrella, particularly on this occasion, other opportunities do exist in Canada for these photographers. “While a combined exhibit has its own comfort levels, I am also working on an individual exhibit on statelessness, about the millions of so-called Pakistanis in Bangladesh, the Biharis, who have no rights, no schools, no bank accounts and no papers. I want to bring attention to their plight. There are no boundaries to identity, only curiosity and innovation,” says Raza.
The co-curator of the Mosaic exhibit Asma Arshad Mehmood believes that non-South Asian visitors prefer photographs that show diversity rather than scenes of poverty. In that context the exhibition was eclectic: Asif Rehman’s photos were of Canadian Muslims engaged in their daily activities, Fozia Baloch’s work portrayed fully-veiled women and Amin Rehman’s series critiques the ship-breaking industry in South Asia and the hazardous waste it creates.
In August, another exhibition called Pakistan NOW! Resurgence and Subversion in Art, at the Fourth Eye Gallery in downtown Toronto, curated by Ameena Chaudhry and Ali Adil Khan was also a must-see. “The subject matter is often controversial, dealing with politics, religion and the demons summoned from within. What’s evident is the sarcasm and subversion as new South Asian art enters the Western spotlight,” the curators write.
The show featured young and adventurous Pakistani neo-miniaturists, who though trained in the techniques of Mughal miniature art, turn the genre on its head by introducing surreal dimensions to the traditional format.
Sumeira Tazeen’s massive, ruby red painting reminiscent of traditional miniatures was a stand-out. The painting of a garden in intense red was inspired by Rumi’s poetry. The work is inspired by the Persian verses of tales of animals from the Masnavi, as well as Quranic verses that relate to animals, and identifies them with elements of the human psyche. “This is Rumi,” Tazeen pointed to Persian writing on one side of the frame as she described her painting to this scribe, “This is the poetry taken from the Masnavi, and here are Quranic Arabic verses referring animals. Here is the lion. The message is that we get to the garden by killing the animal, our inner animal,” she says.
A modernised version of the traditional Mughal miniature was Shiblee Munir’s ‘Once upon a time in history, God with Facebook,’ a depiction of elephants, horse riders and other figures in burnished gold tones. The show also featured Naureen Rasheed’s dancing figures, Aakif Suri’s floating human and hairy animal limbs, Kausar Iqbal’s burqa series, art on paper hanging off threads by Sana Kazi, symbolically drawn rupee notes by Reeta Saeed, Romessa Khan’s black and white whorls and rusting enameled tin sheets arranged in an abstract fashion by Shahzad Hassan Ghazi.
Though the gallery only sold a few pieces on opening night they were expecting more sales in the days to come. The gallery owner believes that there has been a revival of interest in art from the subcontinent, mostly from younger Pakistanis or South Asians. Some of the Pakistanis present at the gallery were ambiguous about the show, recognising the high quality of the work but not drawn to the social statements behind certain pieces, even though a few viewers found echoes of colonialism in some of the art work.
Ameena plans to organise more exhibitions featuring new and edgy artists from Pakistan and other south Asian countries. Six Women, an upcoming exhibition in September features contemporary female artists of South Asian descent The aim is to garner appreciation from a local audience and continue to make a mark in Toronto’s contemporary art world.