Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer in her novel Grand Hotel Europa jokes about his art historian partner unpacking his belongings after they moved to a new apartment; “Art history degrees come with a lot of baggage!” Another movement that required a lot of baggage, was associated with the bloody migration made 75 years ago – and somehow not yet complete. Pakistan was established in 1947, but is still being reinvented, reshaped, overhauled and revamped.
The same goes for its arts, especially the visual arts. The practice continued from an undivided colonial India to the independent state of Pakistan. The connection is deep – with the colonial past, the Mughal period, the Gandhara tradition, the Gupta art and the traces of the Indus Valley civilization. In terms of pictorial expression, the artists of this land are heirs to a great diversity in terms of styles, iconography and utility. Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim country, but its artists have assimilated images, symbols and stories from various faiths, that’s to say Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Zoroastrian as well as high and low mixed; deep and popular; decorative and functional (Laila Shahzada is one of the main names in this respect).
There were several voices in the creation of Pakistan, including a strong group of artists from East Pakistan at the time (Zainul Abedin, Safiddun Ahmad, Quamrul Hassan, Murtaja Baseer, Hamidur Rahman, Novera Ahmed, Syed Jahangir, Kibria, Rashid Chaudhry). However, with the birth of Bangladesh, these names were forgotten and lost in the official archives of Pakistani art (even though Zainul Abedin was instrumental in establishing the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Peshawar, 1964).
These, together with their West Wing contemporaries, formed a group of modernists, who moved away from the figurative imagery of traditional masters like AR Chughtai and Ustad Allah Bux, to find a new mode of expression. Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali and the painters of the Lahore Art Circle (Ali Imam, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Moyene Najmi, S Safdar. Mariam Habib, Kutub Sheikh, Hanif Ramay), produced a range of work, generally referred to as abstract art , further incorporated figurative compositions, references to still life and landscape, and excursions into the text.
Curiously, a number of modernist painters preferred writing to construct their non-figurative canvases. It is not a random choice, because language is a process of abstracting reality into a system of sounds, shapes and meanings. The physical formation of the word/sound “apple” is a stylized version of a round, pulpy, juicy fruit. The script also became a bridge to travel from past to present for Shemza, Ramay and later artists like Sadequain, Rashid Arshed, Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Ismail Gulgee. It is a pity that whenever a history of Pakistani art is published, the names of such splendid scribes as Hafiz Yousaf Sadidi, Abdul Majeed Parveen Raqm and Tajuddin Zarrin Raqm are missing – probably due to the “value” of their creations and their status.
This split between the privileged and the public was paved over by Sadequain. He combined imagery, calligraphy and literalness in his paintings – and murals (which by their nature were public art).
Sadequain, is conveniently associated with the cultural directives of General Zia’s military dictatorship, which projected the tame art of text (ideally of Islamic content); and – unwittingly – contributed to the emergence of a rebellious art; without the knowledge of the regime and despite strong censorship. During this period from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, men and women challenged the state’s draconian policies on the emancipation of women, the rights of expression and the freedom of artistic expression. ; and in their words and works challenged official restrictions.
Official has been Politics under cover moral (Ironically, General Zia’s first public speech was at the opening of a solo exhibition by a sculptor in Islamabad. Made in 1977, he proclaimed that religion did not prohibit figurative representation or any other pictorial art). Paradoxically, the government suppressed writers, artists, filmmakers, dancers and singers because for the dictator, besides politics, the human body (naked/clothed/hidden, female/male) became an unacceptable theme.
However, whether as an emblem of freedom, a point of resilience or a matter of celebration, the body has remained present in works of art from those years until today: Jamil Naqsh, Colin David, Iqbal Hussain , Anwar Saeed, Naiza H Khan, Shahzia Sikander, Nausheen Saeed, Ali Kazim, Salman Toor. Portraiture, on the other hand, was considered a kosher form, as it glorified rulers, generals, and other elites. Some of the best portraits were prepared by Saeed Akhtar, with his mastery of the medium and control of realistic detail.
The seventies also saw politically conscious creations. Women artists from Pakistan, Salima Hashmi, Lala Rukh, Meher Afroz, Nahid Raza and Sumbal Nazir, among others, have defied state restrictions on their representation in the arts and their presentation in public life. Fifteen of them signed the Manifesto of Women Artists in 1983. Some artists, such as Ijaz ul Hassan, AR Nagori, Jamal Shah and Akram Dost have endeavored to bring about change through their pictorial practices and their political engagement. Using symbols and metaphors of power, brutality and exploitation, they produced resistance art (which coincided with contemporary resistance literature).
However, their subjects were not limited to a single incident, conflict, country or time. They dealt with episodes of cruelty and oppression across the planet. For example, the paintings of Ijaz ul Hassan had images of the Vietnam War and the killings in Kashmir. Their works can be compared to artists who approached the idea of identity by reporting on the territory and the local people. Anna Molka Ahmed and Khalid Iqbal inspired generations of painters, who translated the landscape genre into a personal language, including Zubeida Javed, Ghulam Rasul, Musarrat Mirza and Kaleem Khan.
Identity was explored in two distinct art movements, taking shape independently in the early 1990s. The first of these was the revival of miniature painting in the studios of the National College of Arts in Lahore, by Ustad Bashir Ahmed (a student of Haji Mohammad Shrif and Sheikh Shujuallah), and graduates like Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathor, Tazeen Qayyum, Waseem Ahmed, Muhammad Zeeshan, Saira Wasim, Hasnat Mehmood, who learned the conventional discipline, but expanded its language by adapting new mediums, strategies, techniques, styles, dimensions, subjects and concerns.
Today, the work of these artists, executed in digital format, installations, mixed media paintings, videos, sound pieces, bears only a distant trace of their initial training, but is an integral part of contemporary Pakistani art. . This group was recently joined by Waqas Khan, with his meticulously crafted works on paper exhibited in museums and galleries in several national and international venues.
The other indigenous movement noticed, discovered and appropriated the art of transportation from Pakistan. David Alesworth, Durriya Kazi, Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi, living and working in Karachi, began to imbibe folk art aesthetics in their works. Imagery, materials and craftsmanship taken from cinema billboards, truck paint, decorative pieces, recycled commercial products, advertising posters were absorbed, to question the border between perfection and compromise, between the artist and the craftsman, between concepts and consumerism. Their ideas and practices were followed by a series of successors, including Huma Mulji, Asma Mundrawala, Adeela Suleman and Faiza Butt.
These Karachi Pop artists were drawn to samples of popular imagery in their surroundings. Meanwhile, millions around the world experienced another unforgettable visual at the dawn of the new millennium: images of two planes crashing into New York’s Twin Towers. On September 11, 2001, the world became truly global, with television channels broadcasting the same images live across countries and continents.
This moment also made Pakistani art an international practice, which demands detailed viewing – and examination.
(To be continued)
The author is an art critic based in Lahore.