Seventy years of art in Pakistan have seen a movement away from a traditionalist approach of image making into more experimental forms of expression. Yet, it would not be incorrect to say that Pakistani art exists on many layers, in overlapping contexts of the past and present, local and global, that define its post colonial sensibility. Its unique history has been shaped by influences that it has absorbed since the classical formalism of pioneer artists such as Abdur Rehman Chughtai, its gradual entry into the modernity of Zubeida Agha, Shemza, Sadequain, Rasheed Araeen, Shakir Ali and many others. The vibrancy of its present form is a combination of looking to the future, as well as elements of its past that surface in new and unusual contexts. This essay briefly identifies some key artists and issues in a generalized approach, and does not present a chronological history. There are many important artists who are not mentioned here, for limitations of space.
Dr. Akbar Naqvi's authoritative book, 'Image and Identity, Painting and Sculpture in Pakistan, 1941-1997 (Oxford University Press, 1998), charts the journey, identifying the 'predecessors' such as A.R. Chughtai (1897-1975), and Haji Sharif, proponents of the Mughal miniature traditions of Lahore. Haji Sharif belonged to a family of court painters to the rajas of the small hill states of Punjab, and later became a teacher at the Mayo School of Art in Lahore, now known at the National College of Arts. Chughtai, born in Lahore, aligned himself to the literary context of the Indian Sub-continent. He painted, inspired by the verses of Mirza Ghalib, and Hindu themes in his early work, Muraqqa-e-Chughtai (1929), and looked to Allama Iqbal's poetry in the post-partition years. More generally, Chughtai's imagery evoked a romanticized style, his rendition typical of the doe-eyed lamenting lover in floating and veiled attire. Paintings such as 'The Flame of Love, or 'Serenade' exemplify that ethos. The drapery of his figures carried the detailing that he acquired in skill as apprentice to the great masters of calligraphic art and Muslim floral wall decoration and ornamentation.
Although Chughtai has remained an esteemed figure in the imagination of the nation's history, the approach of later artists, in his style, has come to be characterized as repetitive and commercial. The issues relating to the Greenbergian division of hi and lo art and the influence of a Westernized reading of art played its role in the influences on local art dynamics as well. Watercolorists such as Sumbul Nazir, who followed this style in the late 70s and 80s, went into obscurity fairly quickly. Islamabad based artist Hajra Mansur, who still practices a similar rendering of the face and figure, has remained on the outskirts of the mainstream for many years. She still maintains her style and this is a sign of the continuity of certain traditions that need not be mainstream but have their own relevance. Similarly, the late Mansur Aye, who lived and worked in Karachi till his death in 2008, resisted the change of new mediums and technology, and continued to paint a similar looking moon faced female, that became his signature.
The exhibitions of Zubeida Agha in the 50s and 60s had a profound affect on the development of modernistic art in the country. As she, and later others such as Shakir Ali, Ali Imam etc returned from Paris, they brought in new approaches that explored a fragmentation in the picture plane into cubistic and abstract spaces. Much later, Jamil Naqsh, who was initially trained in the strict miniature discipline, also moved away into cubistic imagery. Naqsh is an appropriate example of an artist carrying the tradition of copying the masters, and following the ustad-shaagird (mentor-disciple) way, and then breaking away into a clearly individualistic style of rendering the female nude. He was particularly influenced by Picasso's famous work, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907). In his extensive career, Naqsh has produced a remarkable series of calligraphy based work, that take one back to the khattats of the oldest ateliers of Islamic manuscripts. Naqvi uses this relation of the present to time past: 'The English painter David Hockney came to the conclusion that the further you look into space, the further back in time you go'.
Sadequain, who worked through the 60s and 70s, has been considered by far the most prolific artist. In his early years, the cactus at Gadani in Balochistan became his muse. Sadequain's restless line signified an inner yearning, as seen in his famous, 'Sar Baa Kaf' works, where the painter paints a headless self. Issues of identity and social disparity were never depicted with this intensity or directness as they were in his works. An artist of the same generation, Rasheed Araeen, who worked in Karachi from the mid 50s to the 60s, settled in the UK, and his journal, 'Third Text' became one of the most critical voices on non-white representation in the Western mainstream. Araeen moved away into structural and sculptural work, and became known as the pioneer of Minimalism in Post War Britain. In 2014, he showed an extensive series of watercolors, paintings and drawings he had done in Karachi in the 50s and 60s in a mini retrospective held in Karachi. Thus, after a gap of almost sixty years, there were new connections to be made of older work.
The subsequent modernity of the 80s and 90s brought many more women artists to the fore, who painted with an awareness of social and political issues. Salima Hashmi, Meher Afroz, Nahid Raza, Mussarat Mirza, the late Lalarukh; each one has had an extensive body of work and contribution that influenced younger artists. Artists such as Colin David, Iqbal Hussain, Anwar Saeed and others have painted the nude figure in sensitive depictions of empathy, celebration and biography.
There are many more artists to discuss, but one of the most compelling narratives and stories of the last twenty years has been that of the revival of miniature painting. Present day miniature has moved far away from its small scale and conventional frame. Imran Qureshi has received much prominence due to his innovation in this genre. His award winning work at the Sharjah Biennial, 'Blessings Upon the Land of My Love'(2011), was the artist's conversion of the courtyard of a three storey former hospital building into a blood stained massacre site. On closer inspection, one could see the flora and fauna of his early training in miniature art. Qureshi, like many of his contemporaries, addressed the political, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. The miniaturists' expression became a voice to critique the war and suffering in the region, as the work at Sharjah spoke out. More recently, Qureshi's student, Khadim Ali, references the Shahnameh of Firdausi by recreating the character of Rustom. Ali addresses the persecution of the Hazaras in meticulously detailed large-scale paintings. His larger narrative deals with migration, persecution and loss.
Artists are no longer bound by geography of place to be making their contribution to art in Pakistan. New media artist Bani Abidi uses film and photography as her medium, and lives and works between Karachi and Berlin. Faisal Anwar, who lives in Toronto, works with digitally generated material like Tweet. One of the earliest exponents of miniature, Shazia Sikander, lives in New York, and has recently shown a series of digital works at the Times Square, that refers to the Gopis of miniature art.
Karachi and Lahore, the two main centers of art are busy preparing for upcoming Biennials in their respective cities, to be held in the latter half of 2017, and are planning the participation of local and international artists from Pakistan, in extensive shows, performances and public art projects. The opening of new markets in the region has expanded the outreach of artists, which of course comes with the price of a commodification of a different kind. Despite that, artists continue to weave stories of their times, and therein lies their relevance.
Amra Ali is an independent art critic and curator, and is a co-Founder of NuktaArt magazine. She has edited the book, Rasheed Araeen, Homecoming (2014), and curated a retrospective of the same. She has been associated with Daily Dawn as an art reviewer for many years.
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