PAKISTAN’S EXISTENTIAL CRISIS FOMENTS SOME OF THE MOST PROLIFIC, ENGAGING AND CONTROVERSIAL PIECES OF CONTEMPORARY ART, DISCOVERS MAITHILI PAREKH
Why shouldn’t Indian school children get to see Pakistani art? It is such a lovely way of bridging the divide between our two countries,” collector Anupam Poddar once said to me, just as he was getting ready to showcase a Pakistani contemporary art show at his Devi Art Foundation in Delhi, curated by Rashid Rana, Pakistan’s international star artist. Now represented by UK’S prestigious Lisson gallery (the very same that represents Anish Kapoor), Rana is well-known among international art collectors. Younger Pakistani artists such as Huma Mulji, Bani Abidi, Saira Wasim and Hamra Abbas are among the next generation, creating compelling works in a country described by author Mohsin Hamid as “full of surprises, of kinks and twists, of unexpected titillations and empathetic connections, of a diversity that can only be described as human.”
Pakistan, riddled with a myriad of social, economic and political complexities, has proved to be fertile ground in recent years for some of the most prolific, fresh and controversial contemporary art. The past decade has focussed the world’s attention on the region’s security issues, political conflicts, military role and of course, terrorism. These are all a part of the daily existence of the people living in Pakistan. Looking back at history, where some of the most important art was created during troubled times—picasso’s Guernica was born after the bombings of the Spanish Civil War; Goya’s Disasters of War and closer to home MF Husain’s series on Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.
A distinct feature of Pakistan’s art is the country’s art institutions and faculty resources. Colleges such as the National College of Arts, Beaconhouse National University
and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture have given the opportunity for young Pakistanis to express themselves through art. Figures such as Rashid Rana (faculty member at Beaconhouse) and Salima Hashmi have played the critical role of mentors , encouraging the younger generation to explore diverse media such as photography, video, installation and new media as well as engage with the cultural realities of daily existence: a complex history, issues of partition and globalization, identity and tradition, impact of militarisation, and women’s status, among others.
One of my personal favourites is Bani Abidi, who works with complex political themes that plague the nation-state. Her video work, Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star
Spangled Banner, was created in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Us-led invasion of Iraq. Abidi commissioned a local Pakistani brass band (itself a colonial legacy) with tartans and bagpipes to learn the American national anthem in one day. The result: a layered metaphor of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States; the depiction of a nation’s sense of identity, nationhood and political power and its ambivalent relationship with the superpower. Poignant yet comic, the artist manages to illustrate immediate and current issues. She says, “(the work) came from a sense of anxiety and frustration felt in Pakistan in 2003…there was a huge
sense of foreboding about where Pakistani’s alliance with the United States would eventually lead us.”
Other local artists have tapped into Pakistan’s Mughal origins to respond to today’s geopolitical turmoil. Pakistan’s history encompasses the legacy of the Indus Valley Civilisation (2600 BC), the thriving Buddhist centres and later the Mughal courts of the 16th and 17th centuries which left behind the beautiful art of the miniature. While artist Shazia Sikander was perhaps the first to deconstruct this to re-create contemporary miniatures in the 1980s, artists like Imran Qureshi, Talha Rathore and Saira Wasim have contemporized the art of miniature painting in varied ways. Wasim appropriates the miniature format to comment on Pakistan’s political affairs through satire, humour and wit. In a work that was exhibited at the prestigious Whitney Biennial in New York in 2003, Wasim painted former US President George Bush sitting on a throne, resembling the Mughal Maharajas with the then Pakistani President, Musharraf, on his lap, commenting on the hierarchies and dependencies between the governments of the two countries.
While many artists such as Abidi and Wasim deal with Pakistan’s geopolitical complexities, other artists have explored the political through the personal. Take for example, Unum Babbar, an artist I was first introduced to at Poddar’s Devi Foundation show. Titled
‘Wherein All Plunged and Perished’, the installation piece displays an ordinary sink; but as one moves closer, the viewer is met with a video inside the sink hole, projected on an eggshell, where the artist sits, all crouched up, looking up at the viewer. The fragility of medium in using the egg shell, while displaying Babar’s self, all covered in a hijab is a moving depiction of the restrictive society that often engulfs the women of Pakistan.
At a time of severe political uncertainty, economic turmoil and religious, gender and societal fractions, Pakistan’s young artists are using both traditional art forms and contemporary themes and media to comment, illustrate, question and bring about dialogue. Contemporary Pakistani art collections will define a critical moment of world history; one that will be a visual archive of our times. Through Pakistan’s contemporary art practice, as Poddar suggests and one hopes, culture can build the bridge between India and its neighbour.
The author is Director, Sotheby’s India
Rashid Rana’s Veilno6
Whereinallplungedandperished, Unum Babar’s selfportrait on the restrictive yet protective society for women
Rashid Rana’s Meetingpoint is a two-channel video installation created in 2006