Pakistani art today is producing such bold and innovative work that cultural commentators are turning towards it with increasing fascination.
What induces this fascination? Part of the appeal is certainly the fact that the dangerous cocktail of socio-political issues that the country faces — sectarian violence, political instability and religious fundamentalism — appears to be stimulating, rather than silencing, creativity.
Contemporary Pakistani art was the subject under discussion at the Asia House on May 5th, where writer Kamila Shamsie chaired a panel consisting of artists Faiza Butt and Naiza H. Khan, cultural critic and painter Salima Hashmi, and art historian Virginia Whiles.
The event celebrated the launch of Hashmi’s book The Eye Still Seeks, a study of leading contemporary Pakistani artists over the last twenty years. An atmosphere of curiosity and excitement was palpable; attendance was so high an adjoining room had to be opened up to accommodate the overflowing crowd.
Early on in the discussion, the subject of censorship was raised.
Shamsie and Butt both drew upon their lives growing up under Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial Islamic regime, where any anti-nationalist or potentially blasphemous behavior could be met with severe consequence. It is clear that both women draw strong parallels between then and now, and see themselves as resisting the growing force of Islamic fundamentalism.
Butt, for instance, spoke of works where she used Islamic calligraphy to produce erotically charged images, and Shamsie made a throwaway comment about ‘mad mullahs’.
This brand of resistance can appear simplistic and outdated to some. For one thing, it contributes to a prevalent Islamophic and imperialist rhetoric around the ‘crazy Muslim’ both within and outside Pakistan. Also, it disregards and arguably reinforces the insidious power structures that define and dominate Pakistani society.
Of course, these are real issues, and resistance occurs on different levels, in response to different systems of power and oppression. Nonetheless, there was something staid and conservative in the politics of Shamsie and Butt, both artists now settled in London, that seemed at odds with some of the art and ideas being showcased at the event.
Hashmi, on the other hand, came across as anything but staid.
A deep thinker and a curious soul, she drew attention to younger artists who are directly engaging with society. She talked about Ayesha Jatoi’s ‘Clothesline’ where Jatoi hung an array of red clothes to dry on a fighter jet mounted in a prominent part of Lahore.
She also spoke of artists who work on public walls, and of an inspiring project where several rooftops were connected through lights in response to a ban on the kite-flying festival of Basant.
Hashmi was constantly and consciously contextualizing, highlighting the plight of Palestinian artists when censorship was mentioned, and speaking of the many areas of threat and havens of safety available to the artist, including the art college and the gallery. "The diversity [of contemporary Pakistani art] is staggering," she said, "and sometimes almost scary. You feel like they are scrutinizing everything." Hashmi too, appears to be scrutinizing everything.
Khan showed a similar engagement with society at large, both in her acknowledgment of the gallery as a bubble and in her obvious investment in teaching and mentorship.
Khan’s work, which was displayed along with others’ in a slideshow as they spoke, is breathtaking. She makes moving works that explore the overlap between fragility and strength: suits of armour in the form of skirts and dresses, and drawings of mountains and cliffs with delicate pen strokes and colour.
Her 2008 Exhale series, a fierce exploration of a woman fighting with and searching for the unknown, is showcased in Hashmi’s book. Khan spoke humourously of a critic defending her honor in the face of her apparently sexualized work, and of the importance of finding safe spaces in hostile social environments.
Hashmi’s The Eye Still Seeks has received good reviews in the press for both the quality of its images and the narratives that frame them, written by acclaimed writers such as Shamsie herself, and Mohsin Hamid.
The excitement in the room and the welcoming mentorship of some of the artists on the panel suggest that the current breakthroughs in contemporary Pakistani art are reflective of a strong cultural movement that is at little risk of being short-lived.