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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

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