March Issue 2015
Footprints in the Sand
Outsiders to cultural activities in the United Arab Emirates are often unaware that the small emirate of Sharjah has an extended history of art patronage. Its neighbour Dubai, with its many galleries and annual art fair, and more recently Abu Dhabi, with its expansive museum projects, the Guggenheim and the Louvre (whose construction workers’ treatment by the concerned authorities elicited protests from artists at the Sharjah Biennial last year) along with the national museum, and Qatar, are more frequently covered in the media. But a little probing reveals that Sharjah has a long-standing home-grown art culture, more organic and less commercial than Dubai. The state uses its Museums Department for social outreach; the latter consists of 16 museums, originally independent, which include the arts, heritage and marine life and science. The Sharjah Bienniale, currently headed by Sheikha Hoor al Qasimi, daughter of the ruler of Sharjah, who trained both as a printmaker and curator, is a two-decade old event. Al Qasimi has considerable exposure to the art scene in the United Kingdom, where she studied. Under her direction, the event has acquired a new vitality. Moreover, despite the rigid laws of the Middle East, the art on display carries messages and challenges for a local public that is new to the idea of questioning anything.
Trajectories, a major exhibition of printmaking from the subcontinent, was held at the Sharjah Art Museum from September to November 2014. Set against the backdrop of the competition by the various emirates to put the area on the world art map, this was a ground-breaking show, the first in the area to focus on subcontinental art.
In 2012, the Sharjah Art Museum had approached Camilla Hadi Chaudhary, curator of ArtChowk and a co-founder of the forthcoming Karachi Biennale, to curate an exhibition of art from Pakistan. Very soon the project became more specific, centring on prints and finally expanding to include work from both Pakistan and India. Trajectories traced the development of printmaking in the subcontinent from the nineteenth century, when British tutelage introduced new technologies to modernise an ancient craft, through to the twenty first century. Prints from the latter period show a lively sophistication which seamlessly marries new and old technologies with a modern, indigenously-rooted aesthetic that is quick to respond to social and political concerns.
Initially the sole curator of the show, Camilla soon realised that she needed help from an expert in the field from India, who understood her idea for the exhibition. Discovering the book, Four Centuries of Indian Printmaking, at a friend’s house, her search for its author, Dr Paula Sengupta, yielded nothing until quite by chance she found her listed, with an email address, on a Pakistani website. The resulting harmonious partnership is visible in the selection of prints and the accompanying essay to the catalogue, which sketches the parallels and divergences of the genre in the two nations, clearly demarcating the periods in its development.
It begins with the inception of the genre, in the form of book illustrations for the printing industry, which came to the subcontinent in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the establishment of several colleges by the ruling British, which focused on arts and crafts as a vocation rather than as an art form, and were aimed at an educated urban middle class, led to the formation of the bazaar schools. Printmakers from the Punjab and Kolkata used lithography and etching to produce prints on classical, folk and mythological themes. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Punjab and Madras schools focused on lithographs for advertising posters and the applied arts, while the Bombay and Calcutta schools followed a more artistic bent. From the twenties onwards, however, with the rise of Indian nationalism, both the Punjab (The Mayo School of Arts under A.R. Chughtai) and the Kolkata schools (along with the Shantiniketan set up by Rabindranath Tagore’s sons), saw further individualisation. Under Chughtai, the former took inspiration from the Indo-Persian miniature tradition, using modern printmaking techniques to foster an indigenous South Asian style based on Muslim cultural legacy; while in the East, Shantiniketan’s artists produced work such as the socially and politically critical cartoon album, Adbhut Lok (Realm of the Absurd) of Gaganendranath Tagore, and prints on socialist themes such as the celebration of labour.
In post-partition Pakistan, despite a lack of equipment and access to new technical processes, and the fact that printmaking as a genre did not receive full recognition until recently, artists who were committed to the medium experimented freely with the form.
In the 1960s, a hydraulic press was brought to Karachi for the Ponce de Leon workshop; interestingly, in the then East Pakistan, the Government Institute of the Arts was the recipient of several presses in the late sixties and early seventies. The discourses emerging from the latter, run by Zainul Abedin and Qamrul Hasan, both members of the Calcutta Group, established in response to the Bengal famine just before Partition, had a significant impact on printmaking. The National College of Arts (formerly the Mayo School of Art) was given an intaglio press in the mid-1960s (adding to its existing lithography equipment) when the printmaking department was headed by Zahoor-ul-Ikhlaque. However, the facility took off in earnest in the early 1980s under Naazish Ataullah and Anwar Saeed with the acquisition of etching presses. The department at the Indus Valley School in Karachi was actively developed under Usman Ghouri from the mid-90s until his untimely death in 2010.
The 60 artists whose work was showcased made for a comprehensive exhibition, the prints from either side of the subcontinent reflecting their shared experience of identity and loss caused by the Partition, as well as divergent social and political paths. Mid-twentieth century Pakistani artists explored the female form until the late seventies, when Zia-ul-Haq came to power. Later, however, Pakistani printmakers’ concerns were responses to the tension in the country; subversive political messages in an era of censorship in the eighties; a feminist response to regressive policies, as in Naazish Ataullah’s and Naiza Khan’s work; and identity in the wake of religious ascendancy, exemplified in Meher Afroz’s and Laila Rahman’s prints. Afroz, who migrated from India in 1970, is a cerebral printmaker who uses symbols to examine themes of heritage, womanhood and identity. The Indian printmaker, Zarina Hashmi, produces similarly cerebral work, in which mapping in the form of abstract lines and text come together to form a narrative of identity and loss related to Partition.
Artists from the late twentieth century onwards in India developed in different directions, focusing on women’s issues and sexuality, and the individual in an urban setting in the wake of rapid urbanisation. Anupam Sud’s masterfully detailed etchings and aquatints represent urban interiors and isolation, while her student Subha Ghosh uses the same medium to depict the metropolis’ underbelly. Physical and emotional trauma are the subject of the doyen of Indian printmaking, Somnath Hore’s famous Wounds, a series of white on white pulp prints interspersed with patches of red, stemming first from his experience of Partition and later in response to other conflicts. Offering a stark contrast are those artists whose work incorporates colour, folk motif and fantasy, often telling a story, such as that of Pakistan’s Afshaar Malik and Jyoti Bhatt and Arun Bose from India.
The last and most extensive sections dealt with modernism and contemporary practices. They showcased works post the 1980s, when artists were absorbed with technical prowess. Mastering the technology of the ex-colonial masters so to speak, sometimes to the detriment of content, they have reached a point where they confidently manipulate new and old processes. Paula Sengupta combines etching, aquatint and chine colle on paper in ‘The Gallery of Anxiety,’ a set of four frames in which symbols of war (a pistol, a helicopter) are vaguely visible behind glass serigraphed with the vague outlines of figures in groups or singly. Ravikumar Basu’s ‘Cross Talk’ depicts a dialogue between a couple, using photocopy transfer and watermark on paper. Shakuntala Kulkarni’s, ‘Untitled’ (from Of Bodies, Armour and Cages) is reminiscent of Naiza Khan’s etchings, ‘Armour’ and ‘Orthopedic Corset’ on the theme of female constriction. And Atif Khan uses digital print to question the subcontinent’s fascination with the West.
Given the scale of this exhibition, one can safely say that printmaking in the subcontinent, as in other South East Asian nations, has become a refined, confident medium of the visual arts. Its practitioners use their canvas in innovative ways, often creating work that has a narrative element which dates back to the days of book illustration, to comment on and question the world around them.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.