March Issue 2015
The Culture of Silence
When an artist’s lifelong contribution is erased from public memory, the question we need to ask is, who loses out the most? Without any doubt it’s the nation, as the artist has much to offer to the collective cultural spirit. It’s only when undocumented history creates a vacuum that it is filled with half-truths that are open to manipulation. How can Pakistan learn to eulogise the classical singers and dancers of their country if they are never informed about how Nahid Siddiqui became an internationally acclaimed Kathak maestro while she was banned from live performances and national television in Pakistan? How will they know that courage goes hand in hand with passion if history forgets to mention Sheema Kirmani, another classical dancer, who suffered the humiliation of official ‘No Objection Certificates’ instead of recognition, but stuck to performances and teaching, keeping dance alive?
Shahid Sajjad single-handedly kept sculpture alive through the 1980s when the three-dimensional figure became a taboo in art, and in a subversive move he created a figurative sculpture that was installed in the heart of the cantonment from where Zia-ul-Haq’s repressive political Islamisation got its muscle. If we write a history of falsehoods with the important narrative of defiance missing, how can we expect there to be a public consciousness of struggles that have upheld the rights of the citizens of Pakistan?
In the 1980s, state censorship and its implementation through official arms and goons presented a single force, but the recent involvement of non-state players has complicated the attacks on freedom of expression. Instead of state institutions uniting to face this menace, they have fallen into disarray against this pressure. The vicious assault at the Shanakht Festival on the UK-based Nilofer Akmut’s photo-montage that alluded to a continuity of state policies regarding art whether during dictatorship or democracies, did not come from the state but political goons. Instead of a request to remove the work, the exhibition and its curators faced threats. The Arts Council, where it was held, an institution that derives its legitimacy from being the city’s main cultural body, stood as a silent spectator, leaving the artists alone and vulnerable. While this high-handed censorship was protested against on the media, the damage had been done by then, and the Shanakht Festival was withdrawn to safer enclaves depriving mainstream audiences from a wider interaction and the opportunity to see its Citizen’s Archive displays.
The fallout of this had a far-reaching impact, with a new self-censorship on contentious issues by artists, and the creation of a comfort zone within the ‘white cube’ has now contributed to art staying outside public dialogue.
In the past, patriarchs like artist Ali Imam were widely respected in the community and senior journalists who valued freedom of expression would stand behind artists, but this support has been eroded and few media people are willing to stick their neck out as they have experienced the rules of the game change from rational debate to physical intimidation. Even art educational institutions have their own unwritten rules that curtail freedom of thought, and these rules are more often driven by fear than moral concerns.
When Mohsin Shafi’s exhibition recently fell victim to intimidation by goons with a lower tolerance threshold for art than for the political satire on the electronic media, what came as an even greater shock than the intimidation was that art writers and journalists did not want to bring this case of censorship into public discussion. If this trend continues, then the media, which is the main platform for citizens’
concerns, will be abdicating cultural space to political bullies and extremists.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.
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 80â€™s.