Pakistani Art

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Badge of honour

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s incisive documentary helps reignite the debate on honour killings in Pakistan.

Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters Second success: Sharmeen with her Oscar. Photo: Reuters

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has won the second Oscar for a short documentary that brings international attention to an endemic evil in Pakistan (and India for that matter) known as honour killings. Officially, there are a thousand victims of honour killings every year but the actual number may be much higher. Aside from Sharmeen’s recognition by Hollywood, which by itself is a big win, the Oscar for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a victory for Pakistan’s long list of activists who have been advocating to end this heinous practice. Days before the Oscars ceremony, a special screening of the movie was held at Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s house. The Pakistan PM issued a statement saying he would bring changes to the legislation to end the curse of honour killings. Sharif’s recent overtures to causes such as minority rights and talking about a liberal Pakistan have come as a surprise, given his conservative politics, and his party’s attempts to prevent progressive legislation during the 1990s. Or it is a sign of Pakistan’s drift into extremism that even centrist politicians like Sharif are worried about the future of the country.

A Girl in the River narrates the heart-wrenching story of Saba Qaiser who survived an attempt to kill her and lived to tell her tale. Saba was lucky to survive. Most victims are not. The issue of honour killings is cultural as a woman’s conduct is seen as an instrument of honour of the family. That such tribal and feudal customs continue in the 21st century is a shame indeed. As if the customs were not enough, General Zia-ul-Haq and his successors worked on a law that compounds murder and also enables the murderer to seek forgiveness under an interpretation of Islamic law. In short, honour killings rarely, or never, get punished.

Worse, the parliamentarians, who in any democratic society are required to enact legislation that ends brutal customs, have been divided and complicit. In 1999, a young woman, Samia Sarwar, was killed outside the offices of Pakistan’s renowned human rights lawyers, Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani. A resolution moved by a liberal senator in Parliament could not be carried through as a Pakhtun member of the Awami National Party objected to the attempt to interfere with the ‘honour’ culture. In the Musharraf era, a weak law was enacted but when a woman member of parliament presented a resolution, it was shot down. Sherry Rehman’s earlier efforts to table a reform bill were also rejected by the then ruling party closely allied to Gen Musharraf. The Islamists who were in the opposition supported the government on that front.

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miniature painting goes global

Steeped in the past, and yet, modernist in its application, neo miniature is the new face of Pakistani miniature painting and art. Having evolved as a genre that is entirely indigenous in its expressions, it has also globalized Pakistani cultural idiom and has inspired a generation of artists within and outside the country

Pakistani miniature painting and art. The survival of a revival

Raza Rumi believes the neo-miniature movement is located within the resilience of Pakistani society as well as its struggle to reinvent aesthetic and cultural parameters of identity.

Pakistani miniature painting art

My detailed report for DAWN:

Nearly two generations of Pakistani artists have experimented with the traditional genre of miniature painting and art; some have even gone on to expand its scope and vocabulary. It is on the shoulders of such artistic endeavor and innovation that Pakistan’s neo-miniature movement has now turned global.

Neo-miniatures retain traditional techniques while incorporating contemporary themes, and some have even deconstructed the format and articulated sensibilities that otherwise would be identified with post-modernism.

Its entry into Western markets — galleries and private collections — is are recognition of the rigorous technique and innovative thematic inferences employed by Pakistani artists. Undoubtedly, Pakistani art has found a discernible niche in the global art market. […]

Pakistani Artist Animates the Times Square

Shazia1

This October, the electronic billboards at the maddening Times Square in New York City will display the creative prowess of Shahzia Sikander, an artist of Pakistani descent who lives and works in NYC. Public art involves space, memory and an aesthetic that travels beyond studios and carefully curated museum ethers. It is also a vehicle whereby an artist speaks to, absorbs the milieu, and even reinvents it.

For any artist, this is a moment of fruition and splendor. Every night, from October 1-31, at 11:57 p.m. sharp, Sikander’s animation entitled Gopi-Contagion will add another powerful layer to the skyline of New York City. Not unlike the briskly unfolding stories of the city, the Gopi-Contagion takes the viewer through a fantastic motion of hundreds of digitally animated drawings that swarm and turn into a metaphor for collective performance. There could not be a more befitting tribute to NYC nor a more apt symbol of the energy and undecipherable movement of the urban space.

Midnight Moment: Shahzia Sikander, Gopi-Contagion October 1, 2015 - October 31, 2015 every night from 11:57pm-midnight Photograph by Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts. Midnight Moment is a presentation of the Times Square Advertising Coalition (TSAC) and Times Square Arts. Midnight Moment: A Digital Gallery is the largest coordinated effort in history by the sign operators in Times Square to display synchronized, cutting-edge creative content at the same time every day. Gopi-Contagion consists of flocking particles made up of the silhouettes of hair from the Gopi, female worshipers of the Hindu god, Krishna. Hair from the female figures is then isolated to cultivate new associations. When in motion, the silhouettes looks like insects, birds, bats, or can translate as particles. The flocking reflects behavior of cellular forms that have reached self-organized criticality, resulting in a redistribution of both visual information and experiential memory.(Image credit: Ka-Man Tse for @TSqArts)
Sikander was born and educated in Pakistan. She was trend setter as an undergraduate at Pakistan’s best known art school — the National College of Arts. In early 1990s, she arrived in the United States to pursue an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design. Since 1997, New York is her adopted home like millions of other migrants who delineate the abundance and contradictions of American life. […]

Grace in hand

Komail Aijazuddin’s artwork marks a step beyond the earlier explorations of the baroque symbolism

aijaz Composition with Border 76.2 x 56.3 cm mixed media on paper 2015

Komail Aijazuddin is a representative of Pakistan’s younger generation of artists that is renegotiating the possibilities of artistic expression. In a sense, the works of Komail and many others have helped to create a new aesthetic that draws from the ‘tradition’ but reinterprets and subverts it with much flair.

Komail does not belong to a traditional school – or the cabals created across the country – that usually sets the styles of art practices in the country. Trained in New York (at New York University and the Pratt Institute), Komail Aijazuddin brings the Western traditions into his artistic experience and fuses them with the Pakistani traditions of religious symbolism and devotional narratives.

aijaz2 Black Tree 76.2 x 56.3 cm mixed

In Saint in Silver, the division between the sacred and the common is a border

In his early works, Komail ventured into a forbidden arena – of imagining the range of figurative within the Islamic traditions. Thus the Shia and the Catholic motifs found echo, and continues to speak, in the growing corpus of work. He did not stop there but added other traditions into his oeuvre, such as Buddhism, which were once native to regions comprising Pakistan.  Given the nature of contestations and violence that surrounds ‘religion’ in Pakistan, Komail’s work goes beyond the formalism of the motif and has been turning overtly political. The intersections of personal faith and the cultural milieu – littered with the notions of blasphemy, purity and public religiosity – have defined the various and prolific phases of his art practice.

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‘About suffering they were never wrong’

Miniaturist Saira Waseem is the latest exponent in a long list of Pakistani artists resisting the country’s political, cultural and social erosion.

Saira waseem4Passion Cycle, 2005

Pakistani art going global is a remarkable story, for it typifies the ineffable contradictions of the country. In part it is a testament to the country’s creative expression, an explosion of sorts; and partly a mode of resistance to the anti-art ideology that is permeating the social fabric. It’s not just painting or the booming art galleries, there is a revival underway of the moribund television drama, the resuscitation of cinema and continuous experimentation with music.

Salima Hashmi, a leading arts academician and practitioner noted in a recent essay that the “proverbial worst of times are certainly the best of times for contemporary Pakistani art.” Our foremost historian, Ayesha Jalal in her latest book “The Struggle for Pakistan” views the creative expression as a resistance to Pakistan’s forced Islamisation. Jalal writes:

saira waseem5 Ethereal I, 2014

“The globalization of Pakistani music has been accompanied by a remarkable leap in the transnational reach of the creative arts…a younger generation of painters are making creative uses of new ideas and technologies to both access and influence a diverse and dynamic transnational artistic scene. The dazzling array of new directions in the contemporary art, literature, and music of Pakistan displays an ongoing tussle between an officially constructed ideology of nationalism and relatively autonomous social and cultural processes in the construction of a “national culture.”

Jalal as a contemporary historian reminds us that the domestic battle of ideas and ideologies is not over and is assuming newer shapes. At the same time, the issue of a crumbling Pakistani state haunts the future trajectory. Is the arts and literature renaissance of sorts an antidote to a state unable to fulfill its basic functions such as securing the lives of its citizens? There are some immediate examples from the subcontinent that come to mind: The reigns of Wajid Ali Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar in nineteenth century India were also remarkable for their artistic endeavours before the final takeover of the British. Not entirely relevant, these are important phases of our recent history to be remembered.

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Through the looking glass

After a decade of epistolary exchanges, I finally met Shahzia Sikander, Pakistan’s most celebrated global icon of the arts, ironically unsung at home.

SikanderShahzia Sikander Selects, 2009, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York

“Not to be boxed in, to be able to transcend boundaries: for an artist, it’s essential.”

It is a pity that I got to discover Shahzia Sikander’s work only when I left Pakistan. After her initial successes in the 1990s, with her migration to the United States, she slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore. In a different country, she would be celebrated for being a global icon, intensely original and gifted. Not in her country of birth where talent is subjugated to the cliques that define ‘excellence’ and where history has to be doctored to make the present legible and comfortable.

sikander2The Scroll, 1989-91

Sikander graduated from the National College of Arts in 1991. Her innovative work struck everyone since she had done something remarkable with the miniature form. Reinterpreting the format of a traditional Indo-Persian miniature, she crafted a personal relationship and in a way liberated it from the clutches of ‘tradition’. Prior to her work, the late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq inducted postmodern ideas during the 1970s and 1980s and suggested how miniature remained a relevant form for ‘contemporary’ artists. In his own work he borrowed elements of the miniature form and merged them with the abstract style he practiced. Sikander went beyond and using miniature as the foundation for her work created something new. Her teacher Ustad Bashir Ahmed encouraged her and thus began the great revival. Later, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Saira Wasim and many others took this movement forward and they are all globally celebrated artists in their own right.

Counter Terrorism by Urdu Literature

I partiicpated in a VOA show with Ayesha Siddiqa and Wusatullah Khan hosted by Tabinda Naeem on language, literature and current trends.


Raza Rumi on countring terrorism by […]