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Plentitude of Smallness

Author: Dr. Akbar Naqvi      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.134)      Dated: Dec 2002

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The exhibition of Mohammad lmran Qureshis work held last month at Karachis Chawkandi Art was yet another doubtful gift from Lahore. lmran is a traditional musawwir or miniature painter who does not deny his deep love of the art form which is his claim to fame. But his trendy western sensibility mocked musawwari in a rather cruel manner, as if to proclaim that he was an artist of the contemporary mode. A single extraordinary amal of his traditional qalam depicting the shabih of a Liverpudlian punk demonstrated the intended distance between the artists authentic and assumed stance -the latter a ruin of the first.

A work titled East west north south and printed on the invitation card to the exhibition promised what we were to get. Indeed, one was invited to watch a Pakistani artists command performance of self-denial and cultural repudiation. The painting made it clear how the artist wished to be identified. The wasli paper stained to create an illusion of aging, the water-based medium and use of gold leaf were properties of musawwari which lay buried under its contrived ruination.

Before he took the plunge as a contemporary artist Qureshi may well have weighed the advantages of the shagird of Ustaad Bashir, who heads the miniature department at his alma mater the National College of Arts (NCA), and the honour of serving the memory of Zahoorul Akhlaque, the pioneer who combined the miniature tradition with Reinhardts conceptual art to give Pakistan a place in the West. Given the ethos of his alma mater, which locates itself on the cutting edge of this internationalism, Qureshis choice was a foregone conclusion. The art originating from there had to be postmodern. Even so, the artist ensured that he had one true miniature in the exhibition to make his claim to art appear credible. And if there was any shock of pleasure, it was the result of this lonesome work.

According to Qureshi, he has not given up musawwari and returns to it from time to time. Miniature art has a tradition dating back to centuries which reinvigorated itself with new experience and skill when challenged by change. The tradition was based on the ustaad-shagird relationship in which the pupil was prepared to become a school unto himself. He recreated his own tradition of the new, to use a phrase from Harold Rosenberg, meaning that a tradition never died but absorbed change to produce what was required for survival, growth and glorification. That Qureshi chose to mock this was a reflection of Pakistans contemporary art scene in the hands of teachers who are no more than voluntary vassals of the western art of bathos.

The exhibition was a demonstration of the ridiculous postmodernism of Pakistan. This is not to say that conflict between tradition and change can be ignored but one expects artists to find the dialectic for overcoming a tragic dilemma rather than succumbing to it. Sadly, our artists find mockery, abuse and abnegation easy because all of them were trained as technicians and in turn train students to fabricate rather than think art. Besides, it is so convenient to pick up techniques and rely upon them in the name of art. Qureshi keeps himself in fine fettle as a musawwir because he may sit on Ustaad Bashirs gaddi someday and, at the same time, produces art a la Zahoor as required of him. He trashes his tradition and upholds another not for art per se but for other considerations not difficult to decipher.

The trendsetters of contemporary art in Pakistan are the art teachers who have hitched their wagons to western arts internationalism and continue to pay a devastating price for their membership. The issue become further complicated because of their ignorance of Pakistans art history which is not taught in our art schools. They go for study abroad, become artists-in-residence in England and America and come back completely indoctrinated.

This traffic in art has inculcated the belief among our art teachers and students that art cannot be taught, not even as painting and sculpture. Teachers encourage freedom and produce prodigies who, for want of discipline, scavenge art from the West. Students and teachers alike opt for the freedom of the art of enslavement. This is how creativity is taught and practiced in the country without any sense of irony, shame or doubt. There is a market for this kind of mediocrity. With art criticism only a poor version of the public relations press release, galleries sell what they get and buyers buy what their peers are buying. The countrys art market may be minuscule but artists make money to become estimable bourgeoisie, worrying about who sold more to the exclusion of everything else about ideas, styles, and movements and indeed the future of art in the country.

To come back to the work, East west north south has nothing to say about Liverpool where Imran was an artist-in residence at the John Moore University. But Liverpool is a presence in the miniature portrait. Cartography of the self is among the more recent designer labels of art among the artists of Karachi and Lahore. The verb to map became a metaphor for self-discovery in 20th century art, literature and thought of Europe for obvious reasons. Walter Benjamin, one of the fabricators of postmodern European consciousness, wrote: “I have long indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the spheres of life – bios – graphically on a map,” Of course, artists were not to be left behind in scratching, dripping, smudging paper and canvas to make, as a figure of speech, maps of their traumatised psyches.

Our Sufis spoke, on the contrary, of flights from the self to the Self. It was a two-way traffic between the macrocosm and the microcosm, a simultaneously internalised and externalised journey between the cosmos and our hearts and minds. The dancing dervishes, each whirling on the pivot of his self, also described what Wordsworth called “the diurnal course” of the earth. The flight of the 30 avian pilgrims to China to see the Simorgh was on a terrestrial-cum-aerial map from the known to the unknown in Farid-ud Din Attars Manaqet-at-Tair. Qureshis paintings did not map any new oceans and shores: there werent any to discover. In fact, they had nothing to do with the metaphor except as a label of borrowed prestige. His heroes were the grimacing ghosts of Duchamp, Twombly and others. Qureshi was playing Europes game of destruction and pacification.

How the fine arts department of the NCA came to assume authority to canonise Pakistani art and trash another departments heritage is an interesting story. When asked about his complicity in the matter, Qureshi upheld the authority and confessed at having been up to mischief. One wonders why the mischief had to be at the cost of a traditional art form. Wasnt there anything else to laugh at in the modern and postmodern art of Europe and America? The line between laughter and tears is very thin and fragile and contradiction is said to be the source of both comedy and tragedy. It is not surprising that Pakistans modern and postmodern art is neither funny nor serious because it is so mixed up. Qureshis mischief, meant to be funny, was doleful and depressing. The infinitesimally small number of collectors who look for the latest foreign ka item may find this kind of laboured mischief entertaining. lf they knew, however, they would be disappointed with this arts meanness and nervelessness. Even Virginia Whiles, who wrote a certification for Qureshi in her heavy -metal jargon, would not say that he distinguished himself with wit and humour. The subservient Pakistani art of NCA was sending wrong signals all along but after 9/11 its face has looked rather sinister. This art has turned upon itself and like Dostoevskys Kirillov has committed suicide to achieve perfect freedom.

The portrait of a Liverpudlian punk, profusely pierced to put Indian sadhus to shame and coiffured in the Mohican style, occupied the frame of honour reserved in the genre of Moghul miniature for kings, princes, princesses and scholars. The profile could be compared with that of Itamadud Daulah, Shahjehans cllief minister of state, painted by Bichitr in 1635. As many differences and compatibilities could be gathered from the forms “plentitude of smallness”, to use a phrase from the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, which pulls clashes between civilisations into a harmony of opposites according to the aesthetics of Muslim art. Qureshis miniature belonged to a tradition which held its head high and unintimidated under the duplicitous gaze of the exhibitions Euro-American art. There is a profound difference between the universalism of our traditional art and the globalism of western art which was reflected painfully in the showing.