February Issue 2015
The Art of Politics
Throughout the six decades of the country’s history, Pakistani artists have responded to its shifting, transformative sociological, political and even ideological landscape, imbuing their work with the zeitgeist as all meaningful art does. But never before did this introspection become more poignant than after 9/11 when the war on terror was foisted on our doorstep and Pakistan changed forever. The frissons of shock were felt across the art scene. Aisha Khalid, one of the earliest protagonists of the neo-miniature movement that was begun by the daring Shahzia Sikander, addressed the concerns of feminism in the context of the regressive, punitive rubrics of the Taliban.
In Khalid’s works, some that date back to 2002, the burqa clad figure (an Afghan-style burqa as opposed to a more Pakistani one) is lost in the geometric patterning of the walls and drapes, signifying her loss of identity within the ‘chadar and char diwari’ — an oft repeated phrase that situates the woman squarely in her place — covered by swathes of cloth as required by traditional practice and confined to the four walls of the house she lives within. Khalid’s thematic inference was much more than a feminist statement. The repetitive geometric elements in her work issued from Islamic principles of design that conventionally uses diverse symmetries based on distinct mathematical groups. She thus highlighted a celebrated Islamic heritage, contrasting sharply with its present denigration.
In a 2009 installation, at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Aisha Khalid created an installation consisting of a cubicle of mirrors on which she painted myriads of holes — bullet holes, wounds — each ornately decorative with miniature geometric patterning. Between the early work and this installation Khalid traversed the spectrum of violence and chaos and the rise of extremism in Pakistan.
Since then and after, artists of all categories, emerging and established, working in all mediums, from miniature to installation and video have hitched themselves to the thematic framework of rupture. It’s been a case of BABS — Burqas and Bombs Syndrome. Violence has become platitudinous, almost ubiquitous. Artists have discovered that blood and gore are horrifying but stimulating! Drones and suicide bombers are sexy. Body parts are titillating. It is a notion fed equally in sum by two facets: artists cannot tear themselves away from the physicality of an unprocessed narrative that continues to immerse them; and the international buying market for whom the images of war with an enemy who is their enemy too is far too exhilarating to pass up. Pakistani art has never been bought in such large numbers and in such volume at such high prices as in the last decade, but thematic principles notwithstanding, the plurality of genres, techniques and the sheer qualitative superiority of the art has been compelling enough to draw the attention of the world.
Some artists have opted to view the all-pervasive discourse of the bloodletting in nuanced terms, or even not at all, selecting other societal issues like loss of innocence, crisis of identity, displacement and widening societal divisions. Adeel uz Zafar is an artist whose large scale ‘paintings’ are engravings on vinyl. The objects in his works are common plush toys — teddy bears and bunnies. But these are wrapped in swathes of bandage, always against black backgrounds with each warp and weft of the bandage meticulously scratched into the surface of the vinyl. The toys are western in their provenance suggesting a creeping insidious imperialist influence; the teddy bear is now more coveted by Pakistani children of middle and even lower income families, than the traditional hand-crafted variety of toys. The fact that the objects are bandaged alludes to the wounding of the psyche of the nation and an attempt to salvage the deep fractures of a generation of youngsters that has encountered too much conflict at an age when children in first world countries are toying with playthings. With his use of the bandage, Zafar suggests an effort to salvage what has been scarred and wounded. An interesting layer to the narrative is added when we realise that unlike painting in which paint is applied, Zafar’s technique involves expunging and removal and the idea of destruction and obliteration is added deliberately to the narrative. Then as if to atone for the devastation, the creatures are bandaged by the artist’s loving hands.
Naiza H Khan is a painter, printmaker, sculptor and installation artist with a perceptive view of the country. Her recent explorations have involved an incisive investigation into Manora, an island some 25 kilometres from Karachi harbour that she visited for almost four years. The island once sustained a multi-religious, multi-ethnic community, but has in recent decades seen migration, ruin, neglect and marginalisation. Many of the buildings have been marked for demolition to make place for pie in the sky schematics of plush resorts that have come to naught. For Khan, the island becomes a metaphor for all the discriminations and inequalities that have become the narrative of the nation. Khan’s vast painting ‘Between the Temple and the Playground’ depicts a dystopian landscape of a crumbling Hindu temple and the walls of a school that fell killing four children. Khan’s video installation depicts her painting a pile of broken school chairs and tables a bright sky blue, the same colour painted on the graves of the children killed in the incident. While she works, curious passersby engage with her and help her paint and grouse about the insufficiency of their lives. With frequent visits to the island Khan became a recognisable figure in the community and it was only too natural that they would begin to invest in expectations of her to assist them as if she were a legal or social activist. Khan then wrestled with the idea of the artist’s role in a community but realised her liminal position as an artist for whom the landscape and the people were a metaphor for larger issues and not a physical catalyst for change. It was another thing explaining that to the people of Manora.
The young artist Salman Toor perceives the divisions of social class in all its post-colonial malevolence without the requisite judgmental leftist knuckle-rapping. The domestic help serving drinks and food to a party of wealthy, insouciant revelers becomes the lens through which the artist chooses to see the disparity of resources in a society that resonates with utter schizophrenia; where half a million people enjoy a lavish lifestyle as opposed to a population of 180 million and counting who live in need. The overt flippancy of the scenes in the paintings subverts the dark reality of wanting.
The cerebral quality of art in Pakistan is sadly still undiscovered by the international market but with a complete lack of institutional support or assistance from local conglomerates who cannot yet fathom the need to support the arts, it is the sheer resilience on the part of the artists that they continue to muse and ponder and feel and paint and construct.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.
Nafisa Rizvi is a writer and independent curator. She was founder editor of ArtNow, the first online magazine on contemporary art.