Collective Vision


In the traditional karkhanas of the Mughal court, art was used in the service of politics. In contrast, the karkhana of the twenty- first century has produced a voice of protest and resistance against global imperialism and violence. Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration, currently on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, has as its core 12 paintings produced through an international collaboration among six contemporary miniature artists, each with a distinctive approach to miniature painting and a highly developed, personal pictorial language. The juxtaposition of these different artists highlights the vitality and diversity of this contemporary artistic movement in Pakistan. Organised by Jessica Hough, a curator at the Aldrich, Hammad Nasar, a London-based writer and curator, and Anna Sloan, an Islamic art historian working at Mount Holyoke College, this innovative exhibition showcases the work of Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mehmood, Mohammad Imran Qureshi, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Talha Rathore and Saira Wasim, all alumni of the miniature painting department at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore but now spread out in various cities in Pakistan, Australia and the US.

The Karkhana project was initiated and organised by Qureshi in 2003 as a response to profound global transformations in the years following the 9/ 11 attacks. The conceptual framework was inspired by the collaborative nature of art production at the Persian and Mughal courts: artists were organised into workshops and each was responsible for only a particular component of the painting. An ustad oversaw production and determined the overall composition of the paintings. For the contemporary Karkhana project, though, Qureshi rejected hierarchical structures and opted instead for a democratic collaborative approach. Each participating artist started work on two paintings and then passed them on to the next artist until each one had worked on every painting. No specific theme was decided beforehand and no guidelines other than starting dimensions were set.

The exhibition centrepiece comprises the 12 collaborative paintings, hung six-a-piece on either side of the main gallerys centre wall. Along the perimeter walls surrounding these works and in a small adjacent gallery are individual works by each of the six artists. These individual works highlight the motifs, techniques and materials specific to each individual artist: Qureshis painted missiles and scissors, Letraset transfer dots and ballpoint pen squiggles, Rathores painted trees and collaged New York subway maps, Latifs outlined figures, Khalids intricate geometric backgrounds, Mehmoods faux stamps and crows and Wasims highly detailed caricatures of world leaders. These allow the viewer to decode the complicated imagery contained in the multilayered collaborative works. Indeed, part of the unique enjoyment of this exhibition lies in playing just such a game of connoisseurship by alternating between individual and collaborative works to identify each artists particular hand.

As expected, a number of the collaborative pieces lack the cohesion of the artists individual works. But it is precisely this disaccord that imbues them with a palpable verve. The spontaneity, surprise and chance inherent in the collaborative process challenge the traditional autonomy associated with painting as each artists contribution becomes more immediate, raw and accessible to the viewer. Through the work, the presence of the artist and process become transparent.

Artists such as Qureshi, Rathore and Latif – whose individual works share the strategies of collage and mixed media with the Karkhana pieces – seem comfortable with the collaborative mode. On the other hand, Wasim, whose legibility depends on the coherence of her vision and who paints in a manner closest to the traditional approach, seems to struggle with the collaboration. Her exquisitely detailed political portraits and caricatures are often drowned out by the cacophonous abstract language of the other painters, the exception being the two paintings that she began. Faced with the overwhelming abstract patterning of the paintings that Khalid initiated, Wasims contribution is limited to star stickers around the border, which still succeed in serving as powerful reminders of the US and its unfair imperialist policies. Simultaneously, however, the collaborations introduce a complexity to Wasims figurative imagery, countering a common criticism of her work as being too obvious and suggesting a direction in which the artist might develop.

Interestingly enough, the artists represented are from two distinct artistic generations, with Qureshi having taught the younger Wasim and Mehmood. The paintings in the exhibition allow one to trace the playful and conscious references between the artists, especially across the generation divide. ln the collaborative pieces, Mehmood consciously references Qureshis scissors and interest in tailoring patterns and Latifs photograph-based outlines and silhouettes. Similarly, Rathores threads in colour and line mimic Latifs outlines. Moreover, all six artists in this exhibition have strong political convictions, clearly visible in their individual works, which contain both subtle and not-so-subtle critiques of war, imperialism and patriarchy. While the resonances that populate the collaborative works sometimes allow their political convictions to surface, the visual richness often clouds a clear political point. ln fact, the most profound act of political protest in these pieces is embodied in the inherently democratic structure of the process, which subjugates individual ego to collective vision.

After its extended run at the Aldrich, through March 12, 2006, the exhibition will travel over the next two years to important venues on the two coasts of the US: the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 2006 and the Asia Society in New York in 2007. Showcasing the skills and talents of a group of gifted artists, the Karkhana show will do much to raise the profile of contemporary Pakistani art in the country.

The most profound act of political protest in these pieces is embodied in the inherently democratic structure of the process, which subjugates individual ego to collective vision.