Visual Dispatches from Unfinished Wars
With the world impatient to move on after the 'end' of the 21st Century Afghan War and erase old histories to write new versions, closure can never be a tidy matter, if dispatches from a shifting 'ground zero' of the same war keep appearing. Pakistan's political, social and cultural landscape was altered radically by the War on Terror, and artists, like the rest of nation, faced the extreme challenges of destabilization. To understand their changed world and come to terms with the feeling of being pushed against the wall they began to create new mythologies around failures, betrayal and misrepresentations.
This article focuses on the art practice of three contemporary artists who with their interventionist strategies weave strands of pessimism and optimism to counter the meta- narrative of extremist violence and make visible a people's resilience and defiance.
Lahore based Imran Qureshi who has gained international recognition with an art practice that has transformed the tradition of miniature painting with innovative ideas has created an oeuvre based on bloodshed and anxiety with its power to complicate the life of individuals and that of a nation.
Imran's series on the symbolic missile call attention to poverty and repression imposed by arms race in South Asia and the danger of a nuclear holocaust. Taking center stage on his vasli, the missile, like a regal figure in a traditional miniature portrait, often appears garlanded with fine flowering creepers growing around it in a subversive gesture. These series were painted shortly after Pakistan successfully carried out the nuclear test to question its high human cost at the time of jingoist jubilation.
Imran's more recent visual discourse on violence has extended from the local to the global with Blessings upon the Land of my Love, at the Sharjah Biennale (2011). With the big courtyard painted as a bloodstained site of a bomb blast the artist strived to share the trauma burnt into the consciousness of Pakistanis as the number of victims reach 50, 000 in the country.
The artist in an interview shared how he felt the vibrations of a powerful blast nearby and was stunned to hear that a market he frequented with his wife for groceries had been bombed. This work built from splashes of blood also has another layer of meticulously painted floral forms that suggest blooms emerging from the blood as homage to those whose lives were lost. At the Biennale it became a pivotal piece which moved visitors to tears who saw it through the lens of their own experiences, may it be the Arab Spring, an invocation of the tragedy of Karbala, or lives lost in the Japanese Tsunami. The artist's similar work for the rooftop commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York (2013) which coincided with the Boston shooting took on a new meaning in the local context.
The installation And They Still Seek The Traces Of Blood from a verse of Pakistan's poet Faiz was first exhibited at 2013 at gallery at the National
College of Art in Lahore and then at venues in Europe as a part of subsequent shows, with its high pile of crumbled paper with copies of images of the artist's earlier works stained in blood- like red paint offers clues to a history of unsolved murders. The ex Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the late Governor Taseer have yet to get justice for the law like crumbled paper gets discarded for political expediency and human rights violations on the increase become indicators of a new kind of crisis. The translucent red paint that trickles and spreads like claws along the contours of round gold leaf covered discs takes a new form at Imran's most recent exhibitions. The shields in gold, a timeless emblem of power and wealth and an imperial standard of force, mounted on gallery walls dominate the space but stained in red, they cannot shrug off the specter of carnage. Nahid Siddiqi, The Kathak maestro joined the artist with a performance at the opening of his Ikon show in late 2014. Her dance to poetry of defiance became Imran's acknowledgment of her long struggle against ban and persecution by repressive regimes when she tried to establish classical dance as a legitimate creative expression in Pakistan.
A similar interdisciplinary collaboration has been undertaken by Amin Rehman in Other Histories with the eminent commentator and writer Tariq Ali. With his texts on globalization and neo-colonialism, the artist brings them into discussion the misrepresentation and erasures as tools of control. Amin Rehman, who works out of Toronto, has been investigating the role of the spoken and written word in the construction of media stereotypes. Black Hole 2 (Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, 2007) installed in a small black cubicle with bold text at eye-level calling out for attention like headlines. These fragments of propaganda- speak coined to fight an asymmetrical conflict via the media offer entry points into a labyrinth of overtly and covertly disseminated information. 'However the phrases Rehman uses go beyond reiterating newspaper headlines as each term placed closely next to one another like a long a stream of consciousness. As a result, the nature of the words and phrases that are installed onto the walls of the gallery, like the amorphous black holes of the cosmos, set in motion an infinite field of meaning and histories' (Nadia Khurd, Curator's catalog essay, War and Comprehension).
With White Wash (2011) a body of encaustic paintings and installations, the artist began a series of textual statements layered and stylized to resemble classic Arabic Kufic script superimposed with functional san serif fonts. The barely visible Quranic quotes under the false claims of extremist narrative became indicative of the way scriptures are manipulated, in a work one can read a suicide bomber's claim that his act was a ticket to heaven over a contrary Quran edict that the killing of a soul is equivalent to the killing of entire mankind. In yet another one the text of a terrorist's threat note to girls' schools boldly hides the barely legible statement on Islam's respect for knowledge. This interplay of texts in Amin Rehman's art unpacks distortions adopted by the extremists and media alike to further their agendas.
Working on the ground with subaltern communities in Karachi, a city of over 20 million to help them to regain their voice, became Yaminay Chowdhri's motivation to establish The Tentative Collective. Its pivotal project Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema for two years invited citizens throughout the city to make low tech videos on their cell phones. When the mobile cinema, a video projector mounted on a motor rickshaw chugged through narrow lanes and shanty towns to screens them in their neighborhood, it engaged both the filmmaker and the community in an experience that was able to break the isolation brought about by class and geography to give agency. Another project, Pukhtun Memory created space for a community brutalized by social alienation. This was carried out though music as a band of amateur Pukhtun musicians were commissioned to play Pukhtun festive tunes in a busy parking lot at an intersection close to where a large number of Pukhtun workers commute .
The music took them by surprise and brought back familiar memories. The Pukhtun who are a taciturn mountain people known for their serious expressions, began to smile and some spontaneously broke into a dance for some 15 minutes, before the traffic police intervened to break the traffic lockjam. The importance of Pukhtun Memory lies in its attempt to create a momentary memory monument. This puncturing the everyday with new experience was The Tentative Collective's quest to push for a moment that bonds the city with people that often find themselves as the 'other'.
This aesthetic of aggression articulated through different genres, idioms and artistic strategies underlines the unfinished business of the war on terror which with its new ideological partnerships of violence and a State with a diminishing capacity to address the crisis, has intensified communal violence along ethnic and sectarian lines, and exacerbated class tensions. The dominant art trajectory from Pakistan which is rooted in this experience has organically evolved into a loose movement in the last decade. Even though without a formal manifesto, the artists share a tacit understanding that their work is a vital window into their country's complex reality and its memory cannot be allowed to be erased.
NIILOFUR FARRUKH is a Karachi based art critic, curator and art activist. She is the Founding Editor of NuktaArt, Pakistan's Contemporary Art Magazine. Currently she is the President of the Pakistan Section of Paris based, International Art Critics Association (AICA) and Vice President of the AICA International Board. She is the author of Pioneering Perspectives and regularly contributes to local and international art journals.