Identifying with identity: Beyond the choice between cherry and jamon
A few weeks ago I was invited for breakfast at the house of an artist couple. At the table along with other delicacies and seasonal delights, they served a bowl full of small dark fruit. While I tasted one piece, I realized these were cherries, only to discover at my next bite that these were mixed with jamons. Both look similar, in their size, shape and colour, even though these initially belonged to two different parts of the world and still are associated with their place of origin.
The two fruits signify East and West. Jamon trees grow in our region, while cherries were imported from Europe. Even though it has been planted in Pakistan, it is still considered an 'outside' flavour. Hence there may not be any other items in our culture today which are connected to two distinct hemispheres so clearly the cherry and jamon. Consider the fact that there is no exact translation of cherry in any languages of Pakistan, nor can one find a substitute for jamon in English language.
So these two fruits, which grow in the same season, represent two sides of our society. Our culture – like any other postcolonial society's – is comprised of an amalgamation of influences from outside and customs from local tradition. Often merged in a seamless manner, for the sake of convenience one puts the easily available labels of East and West to describe some of these currents; although the East has been a different concept/entity in its history and contexts, as has the West, which keeps on altering its boundaries with the change of political and cultural positions. Thus it would be interesting to probe the place of countries like Japan or Israel in East, or question the South American states, as to which political division of the world these fall into? Likewise South Africa, Turkey and Russia are difficult to define in terms of their sociopolitical geography.
Yet most nations, which acquired their freedom from colonial powers (of Europe) perceive their previous masters as West, and in the same patterns, countries, which were subjugated – either administratively or politically and culturally, by the European powers are regarded as East, despite the fact that these are located in the heart of Africa. In fact for a majority of people the divide between East and West is no more than the difference of local and foreign.
So an individual surviving in present society, one that lies on the periphery and beyond the mainstream or centre of the world, is faced with an essential existential dilemma.
He or she is left with the choice of selecting from one or the other. Picking cherry or jamon? And one must remember and realize that these not be much different in terms of taste, colour and size, yet two signify two different histories, system of thoughts (which include language and sciences) and ways of living and looking at the world.
In reality, an ordinary person in our world today, is hardly aware of this choice.
He does not act according to his whims and ideas, because the societal system makes options – rather, occasions, for him.
An inhabitant of Lahore can order a Hamburger meal from McDonald's, while speaking in his mother tongue, Punjabi, and wearing Shalwar Kameez, using a mobile that is manufactured in Malaysia. After his lunch he goes to offer his Friday prayer, in Arabic, before watching a game of cricket between West Indies and Zimbabwe being telecast on a TV imported from China. He reads newspaper from across the globe on his laptop (American make), listens to Persian songs and participates in an eager discussion/debate with his friends on the election in Egypt.
A person who belongs to this age and globe – despite the fact that it is divided into nationalities and groups, experiences almost identical activities, with minor differences, so no one could be restricted to his cultural past, nor is he required to remain into his tradition and heritage. Yet for a creative person, the demands are different. For an artist it is expected that he should adhere to his heritage, take up tradition and produce works, which are in continuation of past examples, practices and ideas. Only because, like prophets, he has a duty to perform, which requires him to see beyond his immediate environment and personal preferences. For him there is a prescribed role, of safeguarding the cultural heritage and becoming a voice of his milieu. Since an art work is part of shaping the identity of a nation, it is through the creative person that a public can identify itself and discover its identity.
Thus the task of an artist is huge, if he belongs to a society that is not from the so-called First World, since those nations are not obsessively involved with the issue of their identity. For instance England, France, Germany and other such countries are not concerned about their national characteristics, which can formulate their identities. The idea of identity is primarily attached to political survival of a country, especially those that had been once under colonial rule. However, the nationalist zeal witnessed a protracted life in the postcolonial era as and when a nation sets out to chart its own path towards progress and also when threatened of its existence or recognized boundaries. In both contexts the question of identity serves as the catalyser for public opinion and thus its emergence as a problem on the political and cultural frontiers.
The states which have been created 'artificially' or were modified with the passage of time, thus, continually faces this issue at multiple levels and stages, including political and cultural registers. Bernard Shaw once aptly pointed out that national identity is just like bones in a man's body. A man is aware of it only when he is not well!
In Pakistan also, the problem of identity is a main concern for its intelligentsia. There have been various efforts to solve it, and in the due course focus being shifted to local, international, historical, as well as favouring either Indianized or Arabized version of our culture. In addition to that the present world poses the problem of how to cope with influences from the outside and how to assimilate these in local culture, or be assimilated into a global market.
In this situation, the artists have opted in various manners. First impulse was to scrutinize history and create a version, which suits the current conditions. Thus the Mughal miniature painting was revived in Lahore (in late eighties), and so were efforts to concentrate and create Islamic calligraphy and innumerable canvases of indigenous landscapes. All these efforts, if on the one hand were attempts to respond to popular demand for something culturally specific; at the same instance these were efforts to create an identity – in/through visual arts. Among these forms/formats, the revived miniature painting is the most popular endeavour/experiment, not only among the local connoisseurs, but for the outsider also appreciated these small works, which were perceived as emblems of beauty and represented an exotic ingredient of the region.
Hence the question of identity in art, particularly for Pakistani painters, was somehow resolved with the modern day 'discovery' of a traditional form for the sake of the present. But this solution served a limited purpose, since after the early explorers of modern miniature painting (which include Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Nusra Latif, Aisha Khalid, Talha Rathore, Saira Wasim and Tazeen Qayyom) the later generation approached miniature painting, not as a link to tradition, but as another genre, which can be questioned, examined, analysed, dismantled and deconstructed to create works of contemporary nature. Hence the artists of younger age group, who were also trained in the strict discipline of miniature painting, are producing works, which can hardly be defined as miniature or categorized as revived forms of a pictorial heritage.
These artists (for example Hasnat Mehmood, Mohammad Zeeshan and Noor Ali Chagani) are making mixed media pieces, sculptures and installations. In fact the later generation of artists are dealing with the idea of tradition on a conceptual level, rather than as a formal pursuit. Although the earlier artists were also experimenting in this direction (with digital prints, video work and works on paper installed in museums by Sikander as well as video installation by Aisha Khalid) but at the same instant they continued producing works in miniature format. It was only after the younger artists started to mould the language of modern miniature into a contemporary idiom, that their predecessors focused more on the contemporary side of their creative expression (hence mixed media works, large surfaces and installations by Khalid and Qureshi).
On the other side of the spectrum of Pakistani art, artists inspired from popular urban culture appropriated imagery, technique and materials from the popular custom of decorating trucks and buses.
But this, although appearing to be an act to identify with local culture, was a complex phenomenon. It was a way of looking at the popular aesthetics and incorporating it in high art, for its exotic pleasure and possibilities.
Probably due to this, the interest in popular culture, although remaining valid for many artists (notably Adeela Suleman today), did not emerge as a movement, unlike the modern miniature painting. Despite the fact that painted trucks and buses were presented and projected as our marks of identity, this was a paradoxical practice, since these vehicles signified Bradford (their place of manufacture in the UK) and the decoration on their outer surface was an amalgamation of local imagery, baroque motifs and British colonial patterns. Due to the change of materials and tools, the present transport art in Pakistan has a different flavour. Now with the advent of computer and digital designs the visuals on these vehicles are not like the previous recognizable forms, but shapes of abstract nature are preferred more. Thus the buses and trucks in present day Pakistan convey the currents of times, which are not bound to a local identity or cultural practice.
Almost parallel to popular transport art, the contemporary art of Pakistan has also moved away from the burden of representation. Not in a formal sense, but the obligation of representing a society, heritage, culture and tradition is no more valid for a number of our artists working today. To them, their work signifies them, or their immediate environment, instead of an ideal and idolized notion of (national) identity are more important. Thus the art of Rashid Rana, Hamra Abbas, Risham Syed, Ayaz Jokhio, Mahbub Shah, Mohammad Ali Talpur, Adeela Suleman and Ehsanul Haq is not terribly ingrained in the national identity, in spite of the fact that it draws its imagery and concerns from its surroundings. But the local elements seep in as a natural, unavoidable process in contrast to the procedure of incorporating cultural substance and elements.
Thus, like the coke, blue jeans and mobile phones, which, generated at one place, have now acquired their independent identities and are recognized/used globally, Pakistani art is also on its way to become a form of expression that belongs to itself rather than to its place of birth. And like a bowl full of cherries and jamons, it would be difficult or rather, impossible, to differentiate, detach or dissect East and West in a comprehensive collection of contemporary art from Pakistan!
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.