Art At Heart


lt is tempting to explain the meteoric advance of contemporary Pakistani art as a ne-off` phenomenon, but those who have followed its progress know the attention is overdue. This last decade has witnessed a coming together of many influences, struggles and resonances in the visual arts in Pakistan. As in other parts of South Asia, the roots of modernism in art go back to the 50s and 60s, but there have been some interesting differences in the Pakistani context.

In most parts of the world, the academy or institutions responsible for the teaching of art are considered conservative upholders of tradition not so in Pakistan. Both in Lahore and Karachi, institutions like the National College of Arts (NGA), the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVSAA) and more recently, Karachi University and Beaconhonse National University have played a crucial role in fostering a questioning, lively culture in visual arts and design. Faculty members have been eminent studio practitioners who were and continue to be mentors to several generations of art students. These are the young artists now showing in art fairs, biennials and triennials across the world, from Brisbane to New York.

Another unusual influence is the involvement of the womens movement in arts and literature. Before the 80s, few women could be counted among the better known Pakistani artists. They played a more self-effacing role as teachers in art departments. Their male counterparts were the bohemian stars` of the art world. Important public commissions in libraries, banks, airports, hotels and government buildings went to male artists. Inevitably, their art came to the politically correct over the years, for instance, non-controversial calligraphic works.

lt was at this historic moment, against the backdrop of General Zia-ul-Haqs regime, that female artists emerged as independent commentators who worked in a more informal, intuitive manner, questioning hierarchies and conventions of art. Being teachers, many of them brought their concerns into the classrooms, instigating ripples of change in curriculum and methodologies. This was alongside the growing popularity of female poets like Zehra Nigah, Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz, The trend continues today when artists like Ruby Chishty, Risham Syed and Masooma Syed choose unorthodox materials and processes to navigate issues both personal and political.

The 90s saw the mushrooming of private art galleries in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad as audiences expanded. Large numbers of art graduates began entering the job market, finding places in the graphic design, media and the fashion industry.

Another influence was the mobility of labour and emigration to the Middle East, Europe and North America, which introduced materialism into peoples lives. Televisions, transistors, washing machines, kitchen gadgets and finally the computer arrived.

As in other parts of the Subcontinent, the influx of these consumer goods injected a new set of images into the artists visual vocabulary. The use of non-traditional materials – plastic, vinyl, steel and neon – to decorate the urban domestic or public space ran parallel to that other set of visual images i.e., the art on trucks, rickshaws, camel and donkey carts.

Urban folk art is practised by craftspersons who gather their images from a multitude of sources. This visual sub-culture, which appropriates symbols, images and conventions in a spontaneous manner, illustrates beliefs, needs and desires which cut across a wide cross-section of the population.

Other manifestations of popular culture have been cinema hoardings, calendars, greeting cards, posters and shop signs.

Artists have eyed these visually fertile images with fascination. Duriya Kazi, Asma Mundrawala, Farida Batool and others have incorporated, re-invented and expanded the idiom through collaborative projects in public art, theatre, performance and video.

No commentary on the current decade in Pakistani art can ignore the genre which has come to be recognised as the new miniature. Owing to its initiation and evolution entirely to the Fine Art Department at the NCA in Lahore, the movement has come to represent, for many, the identifiable face of contemporary art in Pakistan.

This phenomenon owes a great deal to the internationally acclaimed artist Shahzia Sikander, who trained at the miniature department and instigated a paradigm shift in its direction. In Sikanders wake followed Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Talha Rathore, Nusra Latif and a legion of others who blazed distinguished paths in New York. Chicago, Berlin, London, Paris, Melbourne, Toronto, Singapore, Hong Kong to name a few. Their art is ruminative and daring, innovative and lyrical, ironic and visionary. Each artist is subverting and experimenting with tradition. This includes moving into digital images, video and performance.

The fearlessness and energy that seems to propel the sensibility of the Pakistani artist is by no means restricted to the neo-miniature. Many divergent practices are jostling for the limelight. Rashid Ranas digital works broke records for Pakistani art at auctions in New York in 2007, and are considered by many to be the most collectable today.

Naiza Khans depiction of the female body and Huma Mulji`s tongue-in-cheek questioning of identities, both fake and real, stole the limelight at Art Dubai. To Search for the commonalities among the many vibrant, emergent practices is not easy. One does notice however, a self-deprecating sense of humour and strung social commentary which echoes in most of the art.

More than anything else, Pakistani art today is brimming with ideas and beguiling self-confidence.