October Issue 2015

By | Economy | Published 4 years ago

As someone who has advocated cultural diplomacy for long, more so since 9/11 when the world developed a myopic view of Pakistan, it was particularly exhilarating to see the triumph of cultural diplomacy in Belgium a few weeks ago.

The Pakistan Pavilion at Ghent Fair was the site of this cultural coup, where Pakistan’s status as the chief guest during the celebration of 70 years of the fair’s existence, had placed it in the limelight.  With art and music, documentaries, fashion design and timeless craft at the core of its display, all previous perceptions of Pakistan were challenged as an image of a vibrant and resilient nation unfolded before thousands of European visitors to the fair.

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The Ghent Fair is open to both professionals and the public and draws large crowds from the region. At the inauguration, with its line-up of local officials and European Union diplomats, the response was unanimous: the pavilion had introduced them to a Pakistan they did not know existed, a Pakistan that was capable of presenting world class art and music with taste and aplomb. More than one diplomat and organiser generously remarked that they were pleasantly surprised.

The work on display had been carefully selected to project different facets of Pakistan’s contemporary art. Masuma Halai’s textile-based portraits found resonance in Ghent, which has a long history of textile trade.  Crafted from embroidered fragments, they communicated warmth and accessibility with their sparkling jewel colors. The ethereal installation by Meher Afroz emanated a quiet energy. Its esoteric nastaliq texts and glowing paper panels had a certain spirituality that compelled the audience to linger around it.

Short documentaries screened at the pavilion had many other narratives to offer — ones seen through the lens of young filmmakers from all over the country.

Continuing with the cultural theme, an on-going demonstration of Truck Art on a rickshaw by the Phool Patti group engaged visitors. The rickshaw was later gifted to the city of Ghent from Pakistan.

When folk singer Akhtar Chanal stepped into the crowd with his booming voice and swirling movements, he made an instant connection with the audience and had them clapping to his rendition of Balochi ballads.  And that’s not all. All day long, one could hear the contemporary fusion of Coke Studio music that soon became the pavilion theme music.
Cultural diplomacy received a big push during the Cold War. While  different ideologies shaped international relations, music, literature, art and dance managed to cross the iron curtain and leave their imprint.

With the world experiencing yet another epoch of global polarisation that prevents ordinary citizens from separating violent extremism and everyday reality in Islamic countries, it is only culture which has the potential to confront narrow media presentations. Pakistan, when viewed through the prism of constant news of terrorist activity and social conflict, is not associated with dynamic cultural practices and it is only through actual interaction and dialogue that the country’s image can be restored.

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The Mayor of Ghent pointed out that he was very happy to welcome a predominantly female Pakistani delegation from Pakistan led by Rabia Jhaveri Agha, Secretary, Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP). He also pointed out the presence of the woman Ambassador of Pakistan, Naghmana Hashmi. The evening spent with professional women will hopefully give him an alternative picture whenever he reads some negative news item about women emanating from Pakistan.

Another reality that the impact of culture brought home is that while the Pakistani state is under ideological pressure to politicise its cultural institutions since the 1980s, which has seriously undermined their capacity, a parallel independent scene has evolved which is known for its edgy, informed and world class output. This today is the cultural capital of Pakistan, which is largely unrecognised by the state but has won laurels abroad. It has won a positive image for individuals but not necessarily Pakistan, because these artistes are never owned or promoted at the national level.

Through institutionalised cultural diplomacy, this excellence in music, art, theatre and dance can be projected in the world capitals and at prestigious platforms. Pakistan’s Ambassador to Belgium, Naghmana Hashmi, felt the cultural initiatives would be most effective if several modest events were held throughout the year rather than a huge spectacle followed by a big gap.

To accomplish this, the post of cultural attaches need to be revived at the embassies of Pakistan so that cultural diplomacy is handled by professionals and proper efforts are made to project Pakistan’s culture and improve its image, which has been severely dented by acts of terrorism.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.

Art critic Niilofur Farrukh contributes a monthly column on art-related issues.

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.