January issue 2010
Living in a Third Space
Migration, dislocation, forsaking nationalities yet retaining tenuous links with the motherland, the ‘living in a third space’ or ‘neither here nor there’ status of the diaspora and the creativity that emanates from there prompts several questions. What is tradition? What is innovation? What is preservation? How does one’s identity give access to the use of traditional forms? What is authenticity and how important is it? Who has the right to determine what is authentic? How does an audience recognise innovation if they don’t know the tradition? And does this really matter? What is expected of the artist as an ambassador of the culture form? What role does new media, globalisation and location have in effecting cultural change?
Evolving out of experiences in a dispersed existence, diaspora art is a blanket term for a gamut of expressions with a bi-cultural or global stance but with relevance to the country of one’s origin. Today, a fair amount of contemporary art exhibited in Pakistan belongs to artists living in the diaspora. Sifting through the multilayered content of this art, which addresses more than one audience, makes it difficult to determine the cultural identity of an artist. Once a question with no easy answers, this concern, since the 1990s, has been set aside as artists are now less troubled by issues of locality and work freely between two, and sometimes three, cultures.
Many formerly Pakistani artists now live and practice in several important countries and cities of North America, Europe and Australia but continue to exhibit their work and stay in touch with viewership in Pakistan. Receiving validation in the West and celebrated at home, the works of these transnational artists, along with a renewed western interest in the region and in Islamic culture, has helped draw international attention to our contemporary art.
In contrast to the earlier romanticised imagery of the environment or cultural representations, these artists now question the historical and political forces that bind the cultures of the region, particularly issues related to post-colonial realities and globalisation. Using inventive techniques and materials, including electronic technology, video, photography, installation, performance and sculpture, their themes draw attention to social inequities, gender conflicts, human rights violations, environmental and economic issues, neocolonial interests in the region and repressive regimes.
In the recent past, several exhibitions held here by artists in the diaspora have shed new light on the ‘self’ and the struggle for identity in a foreign environment. Unlike the emphasis on personal fragmentation and adjustment by earlier artists like Anwer Jalal Shemza and Lubna Agha, the new generation’s focus is wider. Questioning cultural anomalies at home and in the West, they opt for daring and audacious disclosures. An increasing awareness of the socio-political changes taking place in the world has opened new vistas of artistic expression for them and today, we see them asserting themselves in trying to confront Eurocentric hegemony and the post 9/11 sensibility regarding discrimination, media manipulation and host government harassment strategies. Contemporary artists like Humaira Abid voice their views mainly through gender anxieties, but others like Samina Mansuri, Khalil Chistee, Faiza Butt, Nusra Latif and Sylvat Aziz critique the social and political environment to which they belong.
Anwar Jalal Shemza
Today, when much attention is being lavished on the intricacies of current diaspora art, we have before us an example of diaspora work that began in the early ’60s but has only just come to light courtesy the London-based Green Cardamom Gallery (whose programme is informed by artistic practices in Pakistan, South/Central Asia and the Middle East). Curated by Iftikhar Dadi, an exhibition of works by Anwer Jalal Shemza, titled, Take 1: Calligraphic Abstraction, breathes new life into the works of an early, almost forgotten, modern master.
Later generation Pakistani artists and enthusiasts are largely unaware of Shemza or his art as he relocated to Britain in 1962 and remained there till his death in 1985. A 1947 Mayo School (presently NCA) graduate and member of the radical Lahore Art Circle of the ’50s, Shemza pursued further studies at the Slade School of Art, London from 1956-59. During that period, he exhibited alongside contemporaries like F.N. Souza and held solo shows at the influential New Visions Art Centre and Gallery One. He briefly came back to Pakistan in the early ’60s and there is a record of selected solo shows in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi from 1960-62, but he was unsuccessful in his desire to contribute to art education and the development of students in his homeland. “Bitterly disappointed to find that a teaching salary was inadequate for what he considered a reasonable standard of living,” (quote from article, “Search for Cultural Identity,” by Mary Shemza), the artist “returned to England and anonymity.”
Today, sifting through the Shemza cache at Green Cardamom, one realises how his eastern roots continuously crept into his work in spite of his serious engagement with the fundamentals of modern art of the ’70s and ’80s. The judgment and intelligence required to interact and work in an intellectually and aesthetically stimulating western art climate and, at the same time, bearing and giving creative expression to the anguish of the diaspora, gave his work, “the lightness and joyousness of a springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labour it has cost,” as Shemza said.
As a practicing artist, Lubna Agha was painting her diaspora years long before the term gained currency and the acceptance that it now enjoys.
Artists are intimately associated with their immediate environment, and Pakistan for Lubna was home where she was settled with her family and had friends, relatives and a successful career as a practicing artist. Her early years as an artist are fairly well-documented and viewers here are familiar with Lubna’s white paintings but in 1981 she moved to Sacramento, California, along with her family, where she went through the second most important change in her artistic life. Sacramento was a strange new environment where her family had to make ends meet on a limited budget, in cramped housing, among strangers. “A life that was whole became fragmented,” and Lubna, overwhelmed by the displacement, poured her heart out into her canvases.
After a serious engagement with organic abstraction, so central to her white paintings, she has now returned to figuration. When well-known California artist Wayne Theibauld, on viewing her figurative paintings, questioned, “Why are none of your figures grounded?” Lubna responded, “I recently came from Pakistan and don’t have my bearings here yet. It’s a metaphor.” But there was more to these paintings called ‘Tree of Life’ and ‘Three Days’ than just the lack of gravity. Her nudes were not just carefree spirits but in the grasp of an inner turmoil. Some covered their faces while others were upside down and floating. Their gestures and postures symbolised difficulty in adjusting to their surroundings. The imagery reflected Lubna’s personal discomfort in her new home. The tree was nature, the reliable constant she had always clung to. It also represented her heritage.
By the mid-1990s, the Mac11 influence was manifest in Lubna’s oil painting with the computerised phrase ‘Fragmentation Disintegration’ super-imposed over the painted surface. Lubna Agha’s art was a product of her peculiar situation, a Muslim in a western environment. It manifested influences of a life dominated by career advancement, technological developments in art, as well as a deep sensitivity to global politics and its effects on the Muslim population worldwide and in the subcontinent.
An artist who assiduously courts challenge as a necessary element of growth and discovery, Samina Mansuri’s migration to Canada was a liberating experience. Carving a niche for herself while addressing a western audience changed the context of her work, giving her a broader format and greater freedom with which to reinvent herself. She moved from illusionist, painterly space to real space in which she devised installations and made creative use of video art. Initially speaking of the loss of ‘self’ in a tumultuous world, her art comprised hybrid figures, part-human, part-machine and part-animal. As genderless stereotypes with no individuality, these figures were malleable and capable of changing into something else — thus purporting the idea that today identity itself is not fixed but in a state of flux.
Her current work is also of the times; it dwells on the power of the ‘visual’ and how its use and misuse can affect human sensibilities. Appropriating media coverage of conflict-centred areas such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as the Twin Towers and places like New Orleans, ravaged by natural disasters, Mansuri builds her own trajectory of imaginary locations that mimic the ethos of tragedy associated with these sites.
She says, “I am presenting public sites of violence and trauma to address traumatic loss, not simply as an isolated and individual process but as a global one. Viewers around the world are simultaneously detached consumers as well as mediated witnesses to trauma of a place they have not experienced first-hand. I document these sculptural sets in digital photographs and video, and dispense with the actual sets as I am interested in the mediated image.”
Her ‘After Images’ — from the ASH archive set of digital prints — recreate sites of distress but in an impersonal context. By further digitising the already manipulated image, she gives the viewer a taste of how the media spin can redefine the image or layer it with so many meanings that its original context is lost.
A product of NCA, sculptor Khalil Chistee concluded his BFA in 1998 and later acquired an MFA from the California State University in Sacramento, in 2006. Currently, he works in the US and claims he has no home.
Living in the age of plastic, he has adopted this unorthodox substance as his agent of transmission. Applying heat to reams of plastic sheets of the trash bag variety, he creates ghostly apparitions. The gnawed texture and wispy strands of plastic trailing from the objects and bodies of his protagonists speak of work in progress, as if the artist is deliberately purporting a tattered, ragged look. The mixed readings of disarray, ambiguity and a chilling ingloriousness, these works are, physically and conceptually, characteristic of this age. This is where the artist makes his mark — in his identification with the material, cultural and spiritual ethos of the environment in which he exists.
Living abroad has brought Chistee in touch with the systems operative behind the faÃ§ade of prosperity in the land of plenty. Perceiving humanity as pawns in the hands of mega powers, he builds his premise by punning on the title of the famous chain, Toys “R” Us, giving his figures toy-like semblances and expressions of people living a programmed existence. His sculpture of a nuclear family, a couple and an offspring — android like in appearance — are an exposÃ© of this syndrome. Mimicking the umbilical cord attached to the womb, he has connected his ‘beings’ to a machine similar to one that dispenses gasoline. He deliberately presents them as transparent, down to their undergarments, to accentuate how see-through their life is. He emphasises, “This transparency is opaque … it hides all truths,” making it difficult to understand how “healers are actually the ones causing pain.”
It is interesting to note that Chistee, in exposing a system, is also revealing his own insecurities. A one-time victim of the very culture he critiques, he has since been able to grapple with his own demons and transcend the situation. Distancing himself from the lure, he examines it objectively to produce works that will enable others to free themselves as well.
A younger generation artist living in the diaspora, Faiza Butt’s interaction with the environment in London, her current residence, also centralises on conflicts and issues surrounding identity in a foreign land, but she brings a New Age sensibility to it.
A 1993 NCA graduate with an MFA from the Slade School of Art, University of London, Butt also has a FETC (Further Education Teachers Certificate) qualification and for the last many years has been a sixth form lecturer in London. An exhibition of her work, The Linear Return at Rohtas 2 in Lahore in 2008, after a hiatus of almost 10 years, centralised on imaginary and delightfully bawdy remixes of people and kitschy consumer paraphernalia from eastern and western cultures. Another series, showing children at play with toy guns and terror-inducing weaponry, was a comment on how young minds internalise prejudice in a climate of discrimination, violence and terror.
Butt builds narrative in her work by fusing newspaper photographs of celebrities with common people from ethnic minorities to create an ‘awkward utopian scenario’ that highlights the void between the native and the alien. Targeting “the power of the media and the printed image, role models, identity, cultural units and gender politics in contemporary western society,” her impossible integrations of traditional and national icons are amusing vignettes of apartheid. Similarly, her technique of painting/drawing is also midway between the miniature pardakth and western pointillism. Making dotted marks with a felt tip pen on mylar or transparent acrylic sheets pasted on Perspex, is also an uneasy truce between two diverse sensibilities — the ancient eastern and the new western media.
Faiza Butt has exhibited her work in Austria, the UK, France, the US, Finland, India and South Africa.
An NCA graduate of the year 2000, Humaira Abid resides in Denver, USA. She is widely travelled and has to her credit several solo exhibitions at home and in varied international locations.
She paints her diaspora largely through reference to self. Exploring gender equation with humour and affection, Abid’s sculptural expression has always been forthright and thoughtful. Her current series — witty, insightful and endearingly candid — reaffirms her ability to imbue the commonplace and the banal with perceptive metaphorical content. Centred on marriage and impending motherhood, the works celebrate togetherness, expectancy and the courage to bear loss in a foreign land, away from family and friends.
Capturing her transition, the ‘Companion’ pieces, consisting of his and her garments, and ‘The Journey,’ a collection of hand and trolley bags, detail her own experience of getting married, acquiring a companion and moving to the US to settle down. Nostalgia and home-sickness prompted the ‘Fountainhead’ pieces; laptops with fountain taps sculpted in wood, spell vital internet connectivity with loved ones at home. Making public the personal and the immediate, Abid’s sculptures quietly draw in the viewer with their apparent simplicity and latent profundity.
Sylvat Aziz holds masters degrees in literature and art from NCA and the Government College in Lahore, and trained in printmaking and painting at the Pratt Institute, New York, and Concordia University, Montreal. She is currently associate professor at Queens University, Kingston Ontario and has exhibited her work in Venice, Istanbul, Bradford, England, New Delhi and Lahore, as well as at many major public and university galleries in Canada.
Her research is focused on problems of representation and the politics of space in early Islamic art and architecture, and the influences, conflicts and compromises addressed therein. In a 2009 exhibition of her work here, her ‘Flying Blind’ digital print came across as an insightful analysis of the situation in which Muslim nations seem to be caught in currently. Theoretically ‘Flying Blind,’ mimicking the sightless flight of bats/birds, conveys a feeling of mass confusion and the need to locate proper direction — a concept so peculiar to humanity in this part of the region. In her own words “‘Flying Blind’ attempts to express the inevitable malaise that engulfs us, the decadence that confounds us, and finally, the rational and meaningful direction that is denied to us.”
Nusra Latif Qureshi is part of the pioneering generation of Pakistani artists who have revived and innovated the traditional art of Mughal miniature painting. After graduating from NCA, she lectured at the National School of Art in Lahore before migrating to Australia, in 2001, to take up postgraduate studies. Other thanas a successful showing of her work at the recently concluded Venice Biennale 2009, she has exhibited in numerous solo and group exhibitions across Asia, the US, Europe and Australia as well as at home in Pakistan. Defining her work motivations, she states that, “My presence as a woman, as an Asian, as a Muslim, as a migrant, as an ex-colonised, as a dark-skinned individual, and as a painter, determine the course of images I make.”
Addressing post-colonial issues and a current social, political and gender concerns, Nusra combines images and practices of Mughal era miniature painting with contemporary techniques and archival imagery from the British Raj. Her current work dwells on ideas of homeland, identity and belonging, and how these ideas change over time.