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Today, in search of Pakistan

A new book looks at contemporary art in Pakistan, which reflects the country’s turbulent, provocative relationship with its political and social fabric, writes Kareena Gianani

Even before a reader could run her finger down the contents of the book, The Eye Still Seeks, which looks at Pakistan’s contemporary art scene, she is greeted by an artwork of a cherubic child, barely three, holding a pistol. His glee is unmistakable, as is the background in artist Faiza Butt’s artwork, splattered with scenes of violence.

An artwork by Pakistani contemporary artist Faiza Butt. (Below, L-R) Some eclectic artwork by Hamra Abbas and artist Salman Toor
An artwork by Pakistani contemporary artist Faiza Butt. (Below, L-R) Some eclectic artwork by Hamra Abbas and artist Salman Toor

To think ‘Pakistan’ is to think of its turbulent history and the violence it endures with alarming regularity even today. So, it is a departure from norm when it barely resurfaces in a conversation with Salima Hashmi, Pakistani artist and editor of The Eye Still Seeks.

Pakistan and surprises
To the naked eye, The Eye Still Seeks is about Pakistani contemporary artists’ experiments with a range of media such as digital, video, sculpture, painting and installations. But, look deeper, and these are experiments with naked truth. Religion, gender and politics are as unmistakable as colours mixed together, as if never to be separated from Pakistan’s fabric. Yet, when Hashmi began curating this book, she had her eye on only one idea — what are Indians curious about when it comes to Pakistani art? She decided not to pay much heed to the oft-discussed what-is-common-between-Indian-and-Pakistani-art question. “Indian and Pakistani Modernists had much in common. In fact, Indian artist SH Raza’s younger brother is a Pakistani artist. But this commonality wasn’t of interest to me, because it is Pakistan’s contemporary art which is bold and holds more surprises for the world,” says Hashmi over a telephone call from Lahore.

Salima
Artist and writer Salima Hashmi

The Eye Still Seeks takes a refreshing approach — it has Pakistan’s best fiction writers writing about artists they admire, looking into their work and then looking inward to place the art in personal and political context. So, Kamila Shamsie writes on Naiza Hasan’s art, while Mohsin Hamid writes a beautiful meditation on the work of Rashid Rana. Another experiment is one wherein artists and partners Aisha Kahled and Imran Qureshi explore their works in a conversation. “My initial idea was to get Pakistan’s political scientists to write, but none of them were interested in art. That’s when I hit upon this idea, because they are such relevant parallels —crisscrossing Pakistan’s fiction and art. I selected authors who are not only interested in art, but could also articulate why the artists they chose resonate with them,”  says Hashmi.

Art beyond Pakistan
Pakistan’s contemporary artists, says Hashmi, do not carry the burden of being Pakistani, someone she cannot say about their Indian counterparts. “I feel Indian contemporary artists are still very self-conscious of their Indian-ness. But say, works of someone like sculptor and photographer Huma Mulji grapple with Pakistan’s issues, but her materials are from anywhere else. The same goes for Naiza and Rana,” says Hashmi.

It could be everything to do with a unique trend among Pakistan’s contemporary artists — they all, without question, teach full-time, unlike Indian artists, says Hashmi. “The tradition is much like the guru-shishya one, but the approach is very modern — open methods, seminar-kind teaching,” explains the anti-nuclear weapon activist. This tradition has its roots in Pakistan’s art history, where, due to lack of patronage, academies became artists’ refuge. Even during Pakistan’s darkest period — Zia-ul-Haq’s regime — teaching institutions provided shelter to dissenters, and artists got some degree of academic freedom within an institution. While religious groups tried to make inroads here, institutions continued to survive and created a sense of community. Opinions differed, but the community was united.

“Till date, even the smallest of Pakistan’s universities have robust fine arts departments. What happens then, is that exploration becomes paramount. It is difficult to get international curators to Pakistan because of the turmoil here, so an artist is not greatly concerned with the art market. Pakistani art commands way lesser money than Indian art even today. So, a contemporary artist in Pakistan, in this atmosphere, has no choice but to be nuanced because this country alone shapes your art,” says Hashmi.

Giving artists their due
Through this book, Hashmi wanted to curate seminal works and highlight artists whom stardom has passed by because they are too self-effacing. “Anwar Saeed is one such Pakistani artist. He has produced a steady stream of great work, and mentors some of the brightest minds. His work is deeply rooted in the Pakistani milieu — in the ordinary people on the streets — but he is reticent and hasn’t received his due,” feels Hashmi.

An artwork by contemporary artist Anwar Saeed
An artwork by contemporary artist Anwar Saeed

Another ambition Hashmi has is to give women Pakistani artists their due. “While I was growing up, I had no women role models and women artists play a critical role in Pakistan — go to Pakistan’s galleries or colleges and you see most of the heads are women! During Haq’s regime, 17 of us signed a secret document because we felt expression was being choked, and that became a movement in the Pakistani art scene. Now, women artists look at human rights, but those like Naiza are producing some cutting, feminist work which needs to be seen and understood,” feels Hashmi. Then, there is the emergence of neo-miniature, artists such as Aisha and Imran Qureshi not restricting themselves to one medium and turning installation artists, Aisha also experimenting with embroidery — all of which, says Hashmi, is a turning point for her country.

“These are artists who tell Pakistan that if tradition is not dynamic, you are under no obligation to carry it,” believes Hashmi.

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