Contemporary Art in Pakistan
by Samantha Segar
Pakistan exists on many levels.
There is the Pakistan you know from the headlines: “Osama bin Laden Killed”, secret terrorist training camps, religious clashes, military uprisings. Then there is the Pakistan you experience in the streets: extreme poverty, daily load shedding, crime, a lack of functioning city infrastructure on every conceivable level. For good measure there are the not so distant remnants of colonialism and partition that serve as an uncomfortable backdrop to it all. In this country rays of light come in small doses and are hard won. One of them, however, is visual art.
Unbeknownst to most of the west, Pakistan has a thriving contemporary art scene. This fact is all the more amazing when you discover that the arts receive no funding from the government whatsoever and among the well to do, the visual arts compete with the more trendy music and fashion scenes for attention and dollars. Yet the visual arts persist. ere are a handful of nonpro t organizations, art magazines, and many respected art schools and galleries that develop, support, and promote Pakistani artists and their work. While headline news items and the daily trials of living in the country certainly influence and drive local artists, these conditions don’t always manifest themselves in their art in quite the way you would expect. The realities may be harsh, but these artists reveal the complexity and humanity of the Pakistani people striving to come to terms with both personal and national identity in the face of seemingly horrific circumstances.
The current superstar of the Pakistani art scene is Rashid Rana. Holding fine arts degrees from both the National College of the Arts in Lahore, and Massachusetts College of the Arts, he has exhibited widely in Pakistan and abroad, including shows with Asia Society New York in 2009 and the Saatchi Gallery in 2010. Shows in London, Paris, Hong Kong, and Singapore in addition to successful sales at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have solidified his position as a contemporary darling in the international art world.
Rana’s work encapsulates the multi-layered reality of Pakistan while simultaneously questioning what you know, or think you know, about it. Working primarily in photography, sculpture, and digital media, Rana’s pieces bait you with expectations and preconceived ideas, and then shrewdly reveal a host of realities contradictory to all you assumed.
From a distance his work Desperately Seeking Paradise appears the ideal contemporary cityscape—an endless sea of skyscrapers set before a cloudless blue sky. Upon closer inspection you realize this “city” is comprised of thousands of photographs of common street life in Lahore, Pakistan—decrepit buildings, donkey carts, trash, dusty sunsets. These realities exist simultaneously; Lahore is both a modern, commercial city, home of international corporations and respected higher learning establishments, and a city of people and places that for a myriad of socioeconomic reasons seem to exist is a world more akin to the 18th century than the 21st.
At 9’ x 9’ x 9’ the sheer physicality of Desperately Seeking Paradise is significant, and the viewer must work to take in even a fraction of the images—the good, bad, seedy, and banal. At certain angles mirrors create an anamorphic effect in addition to reflecting the cube’s surroundings, cleverly incorporating both the viewer and current setting into the city’s tale. It is this duality Rana seeks to expose, as he says, “in this age of uncertainty we have lost the privilege of having one world view. Now every image, idea and truth encompasses its opposite within itself.”
Sarah Khan considers the more particular reality of her heritage. Khan received her MFA from the University of Karachi in 2007 and has exhibited throughout Pakistan. Her first international show took place at Aicon Gallery New York in January 2012. Currently living and working in Karachi, Khan is of Pathan descent, one of the five major ethnic groups in Pakistan. Pathans hail from the northwest part of the country along the Pak-Afgan border, and are a people reputed for their pride, independence, and ferocity, having inhabited a region victim to centuries of conflicts.
While Pathans do have a certain reputation Khan comes from what she calls a “modern family” with few actual ties to the people or region, and no knowledge of the traditional language, Pashto. Teased by classmates and local Pathan shopkeepers for being a “fake Pathan” she sought to come to terms with being de ned by something for which she had little or no connection. Not one to step away from a challenge, Khan turned the tables on her mockers and asked them, “What makes a person Pathan? What words should I know?” Her work “Qaida” documents the results. Using the hallmarks of South Asian miniature painting, vasli (a specially treated paper) and single or ne hair brushes, along with a teaching format from a bygone era, the primer (“qaida” means “primer” in Pashto) or elementary reader, she records the words they propose. “F” is for “fox”, “E” is for “egg”, “S” is for sight and sound, “B” is for “bullet”, “K” is for “Kalashnikov” a kind of rifle —this jumble of the familiar next to objects of violence makes for an unsettling combination, but apparently serves as the basic vocabulary for any good Pathan.
The interpretation one takes from the work varies according to the viewers’ relation to the Pathans; there is the way the group views themselves— proud and strong, the way another Pakistani might view the group—simple and aggressive, the way a foreigner might view the group—scary and provincial, then nally, how any of these might view Khan—open and willing, but not without some derision of her own. All are impressions she seems to take some pleasure in arranging.
Much of her work takes this deft, light-hearted approach, an unusual and refreshing perspective for such weighty topics as identity and the subjectivity of reality. Well aware of the negative connotations inherent in so many of the labels that try to define her, Khan does a monumental job of finding the silver lining and some humor, however dark, in every concept she explores.
Adeel-uz-Zafar’s explorations take a more allegorical, inwardly focused bent. Zafar received his BFA from the National College of the Arts, Lahore in 1998. Afterwards he returned to Karachi and spent the next ten years as a successful children’s book illustrator. It wasn’t until 2008 that he shared his personal works with the public again and has since exhibited in Pakistan, Singapore, and Paris.
In The Lion at Rest a child’s faithful companion, a stu ed toy donkey, has been carefully wrapped in gauze from tip to tail. Normally a source of comfort and safety, the innocent toy appears injured. Set apart from the world no obvious threat is present yet the treasured possession sits quietly in a state of repair. This large diptych suggests an identity or psyche that, while perhaps signi cant and established, has experienced some kind of trauma, symbolic perhaps of our most private self, vulnerable in many ways despite our size. Also to be considered is the “lion” of the title, here barely peeking through on the left flank of our friend. Might these represent the opposing faces of our subconscious, strong and courageous one moment, gentle and recovering the next?
Zafar’s distinct technique is equally captivating. Working in the negative, he scratches, grates, and digs the image from the vinyl. An unforgiving process, errors and accidents can be manipulated into the folds, but each mark is permanent, every attempt recorded. The process only seems to enhance the subject—the scratches wound the surface, the wound creates the bandage, the bandage heals what’s held dear. It’s a bit of a conceptual tongue twister.
Zafar developed this approach while working outside the town of Gilgit in remote and mountainous northern Pakistan, where traditional art supplies were scarce. This dearth of materials sent him in search of alternative mediums. Originally using exposed photographic sheets current works appear on plastic vinyl sheets coated with emulsion and acrylic gel. is unconventional canvas requires him to design custom frames and backings for each work to allow for delicate adjustments, a system he is still perfecting. Zafar’s exploration of such intimate subject matter and demanding choice of medium are illustrative of how he finds substantial challenges all the more rewarding.
These artists provide glimpses into the cities, minds, and hearts of Pakistan, legitimate insights and perspectives that too rarely reach audiences outside of the country. With only more trouble on the horizon local artists are in a unique position to explore and document these little known realities. Hopefully a wider appreciation of this talented visual arts community will lead to a more holistic understanding of this challenging country.