The uprising and everything after
Contemporary art in Pakistani context is like the proverbial elephant that was discovered by a bunch of blind men. Each, in order to describe what he experienced, reduced the huge animal into the part, which he could grope. Similarly every art critic, professor, curator and collector is mapping the contemporary art according to his/her own vision; versions that differ remarkably from each other and often from the actual entity that they are bend on conveying.
So in numerous discussions, seminars, conferences and papers the debate on defining contemporary art continues. Understandably because it is rather difficult – if not impossible to denote whatever is taking place at close hand and at the same time. It is only after a passage of time and with some spatial distance that things start acquiring their real shape and value. However in order to view the present or contemporary, one needs to locate modern, or modernity in our circumstances. And interestingly, like an uninvited and unexpected guest, modernity arrived at our doorsteps – barehanded. Modernity is generally meant to be a step into industrialization, urbanity and globalization, to which we, like many other nations from the Third World were promoted without meeting the preliminary requisites. Hence what we (the South Asia) received from the West (due to and during the colonial period) was a package that included tools, technologies, education system, language, means of transportation and communication, food, dress, democracy and all that was revised according to local necessities and was adapted in the form of hybrid.
Actually hybrid can be an appropriate term to define our existence through ages. If the history of this region is traced, hybrid was in practice long before this term was coined in the cultural discourse. In the context of South Asia, from the arrival of Aryans, races, religions, languages and customs have been blended in such a way that it is difficult to determine or discern an untarnished ethnic group, a pure tongue, an authentic version of faith or a custom practiced in its original shape (since many have been borrowed from various sources). Numerous examples from our culture testify this tendency to combine the conflicting entities and thus create something new – but not necessarily unique in its origin, format or function; a feature that can be defined as post-modernistic.
Due to this characteristic of South Asia, Thomas McEvilley mentions that 'India was a post-Modern culture before it was a Modern one'. Similarly the cultural practices in Pakistan refer to an assimilation of influences from East and West. Now the terms of East and West are deceptive, because in each culture and context these mean different, often opposite. (Like in the European situation, it demarcated the divide of Communist and non-Communist blocks, or in reference to Middle East and Arabian nationalism, the West comprises of countries from North Africa, the traditional Maghrib [literally the west], which includes Morocco and Mauritania). But in our circumstances, the East is synonymous to indigenous and vernacular culture of South Asia or Asia for that matter, while the West is associated with the European/American elements in all spectrum of life (English colonial period as well as American influences since the Second World War).
Hence from an early stage, the art of Pakistan faced a crucial existential question: Of a split between East and West, a segregation that is translated into division of tradition and modernity, local and alien and the original and imitation. Various solutions towards this mix of contradictory streaks have been sought from an early beginning, starting from the basic attempts to reconcile local with other (a distant past with Art Nouveau in the case of A R Chughtai and European Romantic movement and local landscape in the art of Allah Bux), which later manifested in the form of abstract art of sixties, that were initially inspired by Abstract Expressionist Movement, but was domesticated with the insertion of Islamic calligraphy by Ismail Gulgee, textual traces of Anwar Jalal Shemza and recognizable imagery (still life) of Ahmed Parvez and (figurative) of Ali Imam.
This merger of foreign and local continued in many guises in the later periods of Pakistani art, but in each era the shift denoted a specific solution to the problem of balancing the two. The new miniature painting from Lahore and the popular art movement in Karachi, both from early nineties, witnessed a combination of vernacular and foreign in various schemes, positions and usage; however it was only in the middle of the last decade of twentieth century that a new genre emerged: Contemporary Art of Pakistan. Due to its scale, mediums, imagery, concerns and reception, this art form has been recognized as an important and original voice from this part of the land.
It would be interesting to decode the language that is employed in the contemporary art of Pakistan, but like the fabric of language used at present, in our conversations, soap operas and academic institutions, which is a blend of English and Urdu; the vocabulary of contemporary art is a combination of local idiom and foreign forms of expression. But this division of message and medium, in relation to indigenous and imported is not persistent or constant, because unlike the language, in which one can distinguish local and foreign (even though our national language Urdu has evolved being a mixture of various tongues) both the definitions of what is ethnic and what is alien are blurred, and keep on changing with the passage of time and in each new situation/context. Still, broadly – if not falsely, one can separate two types or elements from the hybrid of contemporary art.
Probably the division is based upon the content and form (if these two entities can be separated!). In majority of contemporary art works, mainly the themes and issues are connected to this region. For instance if one includes modern miniature and popular art in this genre (and one must), the idea of revoking tradition with a modern sensibility has been a recurrent motif in the contemporary art, similarly the focus on popular culture – in the form of transport art and cinema posters/hoarding comprises of a significant part of contemporary art. In these practices (as well as other art forms/genres), the issues of identity – of a nation that seeks to search its historic and (popular) cultural roots are visible, since the most crucial quest has been the matter of identity of this nation in comparison to the West, especially in the age, in which the agricultural centres have been shifted to urban localities, consequently resulting in the questions of alienations, segregations, gender and other issues. Questions, which invited many discourse, discussions and disagreements, both as academic pursuits and in public debates, but these turned more urgent after the attacks on Twin Towers in USA. A single incident (which significantly and symbolically started the third millennium) converted these philosophical inquiries into existentialis problems.
Subsequently an individual belonging to this part of the world had to define himself, vis-à-vis the war on terror and his position in a world, that is mainly 'different' from his, and partially puts him into a group of 'Other', the fundamentalist camp. Since then, the issue of identity is a matter of real consequences, because one needs to define, determine and explain one's position both for the outsiders (at the immigration counter of a foreign port) and for locals too. The exhibition of contemporary art, 'The Rising Tide' encompassed artists' views on multiple issues and concerns. Curated by Naiza Khan, the exhibition was held from 1st November 2010 to 30th March 2011 at Mohatta Palace Museum, Karachi. The show, being the first of its kind, scale and appeal, represented diversity of Pakistani art from the last two decades.
In the exhibition one could view how the artists, like Rashid Rana, Faiza Butt, Adeela Suleman, Farida Batool, Roohi Ahmed, Imran Qureshi and Jamil Baloch have been dealing with the division of world, or new world order and its aftermath in the form of violence. The exhibition also conveyed how a number of other artists are engaged with identity: of a gender, city and class like Anwar Saeed, Samina Mansuri, Nausheen Saeed, Risham Syed and Arif Mahmood. A few artists have been focusing on personal concerns and political ideas, like Hamra Abbas, Fahd Burki, Nusra Latif, Ayaz Jokhio, Muhammad Ali Talpur and Ahmad Ali Manganhar. Some artists are exploring the formal language of contemporary art, and have been experimenting with new media and installation like Bani Abidi, Abdullah Syed and Ehsan ul Haq.
'The Rising Tide' affirms that these individuals and many more working today formulate a form of art that is different from the past not only in its concerns, imagery, technique but in its audience too. Presently the artists who are busy fabricating their works in their studio are aware of the viewers who are not situated around the corner, in the same city, or in their country, but all over the world; through the advent of internet, opportunities of participating in the international exhibitions and invitations for biennales, triennials, art fairs and auction houses (and in the form of readers of this magazine too!). This late attention from the world has altered the notions of art in our sphere, since Pakistani artists are now aware of their presence and position at the international art scene. This newly discovered fact makes 'The Rising Tide' an important occurrence in our midst, because it provided the rare opportunity to glimpse the works of contemporary Pakistani art on a large scale and interact with each other. An experience of this kind signifies that our contemporary artists have been moving beyond the restrictions such as tradition, cultural identity or political duty, because probably they have realized that whatever is created in this time and place, no matter how far it is from their immediate surroundings, in the end will provide the testimony of its time. So they have managed to create a language in their art, that by and large, is international (or internationally understood) but spoken with a local accent. This language was eloquently spoken through 'The Rising Tide', at the Mohatta Palace Museum, in Karachi – with its echoes still in the air.
QUDDUS MIRZA is an artist, art critic and curator who lives and works in Lahore. He has extensively written and published on contemporary art of Pakistan in regional and international publications.