Salima Hashmi, artist, curator and contemporary art historian, taught at Lahore's National College of Arts for 31 years before working as its principal for four years. Currently dean at the Beaconhouse National University’s school of visual arts, she is known to promote a unique intellectual perspective among students, teaching them to appreciate nature, cultural traditions and sacredness of the crafts. Her method of communicating with her students over the decades has been extraordinarily unconventional and effective in developing their practice.
Having witnessed the evolution of Pakistani art over the last five decades, she is uniquely placed in the art milieu to discuss art practices, and newer pricing mechanisms for Pakistani artwork, especially during the last decade or so. Here Hashmi talks to Ayesha Jatoi on the role of women artists, the impact of varied evolving mediums in the development of Pakistani art and why Pakistani artists are fast gaining international recognition.
Q. What are the major concerns and trends that have emerged in Pakistani art in the last decade or so?
A. Probably the first thing that one notices is the number of practitioners who have emerged from Pakistan. Fifteen years ago, when one looked at the landscape of contemporary art, it was with difficultly that one could find a dozen people who were doing groundbreaking work or whose work showed some really fresh ideas. But if you look around today, you will probably name six times that number. That is growth of an unprecedented kind.
Compared with the economy or any other sector, where one finds a dismal state of affairs, this is a time of great hope in the visual arts. It is inspiring to see such growth which is why I am saddened that there is not even a single practising artist on the new board of governors of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts. What on earth was the Ministry of Culture thinking? Are they unaware that the major players in the cultural scene today are, in fact, studio practitioners who have put our country on the contemporary art world map? There are artists now who are being written about and exhibited in major international biennials and triennials. And they have actually strengthened the conversation between Pakistan and other countries because of their practice and their ability to think in ways that go beyond the borders of Pakistan.
Q. How would you locate the work of women artists in the last decade in what you call “the landscape of Pakistan art”?
A. Looking back, I think it was, in fact, the women artists who initially forged new ways of working and who took their own lives as the basis for content in their work. Ten years ago, there were very important artists like Shazia Sikander and Naiza Khan who made their mark. And there were people who were already established like Meher Afroz, for example. And though they happen to be women and gender does form the spine of their work, it is not necessarily the major issue, or only issue, that concerns them. There are other issues [in their work] that concern our daily lives, whether it is economic deprivation, the rise of conflict of all kinds — partly religious, partly urban, partly cross-border conflict. But I think the presence of these issues in art has not been extremely overt. There is a kind of sophistication in the practices of these artists. Many of these issues have become internalised; they come to the fore in many unexpected and fresh ways.
If you look at certain groundbreaking instances, I would say Naiza Khan going out into the streets of Karachi and doing Henna Hands was an important event. Mapping Karachi by Roohi Ahmed was important as was Adeela Suleman’s work on motorcycle gear for women. But the major contribution of women artists in the late 90s and the early part of the 2000s was that they could turn domestic processes into artistic practices. Individuals like Ruby Chisti, Masooma Syed and Risham Syed took up the stuff that women work with and made it into something else.
The breakthrough happened because there was a lot of soul-searching and cul-de-sacs. For example, Chisti’s first works were lifeless bodies made of khaddar. It was only after probing and searching and pushing herself to put more into it that the idea of recycling every kind of material emerged connected to her personal life. Nusra Latif Qureshi’s work also started to go beyond the sophisticated-but-constrained miniatures and you had her looking at colonial presence which suddenly liberated her from the kind of imagery that she was so familiar with.
Q. And much of this inspiration came from your generation of women artists.
A. We were not convinced that what we were doing [as artists] had anything to do with our lives. But we were constantly pushing the boundaries in the classroom. That the making of meaning comes out of experience; that practice evolves by doing; that there has to be a sense of belonging to your community — for me these are the three stepping stones for teachers who have some idea where to lead their students and how to get them to question. And then students take the process further. Shazia Sikander did just that. Even though she has left Pakistan, I think she took with her the experience that still serves her well because it constantly refers back to so many things that continue to tug at her heartstrings.
Q. You mention Shazia and I cannot help but wonder that many artists who have made a name actually do not live in Pakistan.
A. We are talking about a diaspora that keeps coming back and sustaining itself from what is here. One thing that Pakistani contemporary art has benefited from is that the diaspora is not cut-off [from its roots]. So you have people like Talha Rathore and Faiza Butt who come back and this to-ing and fro-ing is enriching their art. But you also have artists living and working in Pakistan who are well travelled — like Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid. For them going away is really to make connections they bring back with them and that has opened doors for practising artists. You would not think of so many of today’s practitioners being able to do what they are doing if they did not have the opportunity to show their work aboard and to have conversations in all kinds of places from Fukuoka to London and from Bangladesh to Paris.
International residencies have also certainly been of value to our artists. The ability to feel that you are not estranged from the world but very much part of it is important. Despite their difficult circumstances, often residencies allow you to share your content with people elsewhere who also bring their stories and their suffering to share with you. This has been a major development for the last 10 years. I still remember Aisha Khalid’s residency in Bombay and how difficult it was but also how important it became for her own development. There have been great moments for Pakistani artists in all corners of the world.
Q. Parallel to the work of female artists and those out of Pakistan, there has been a fascination with popular culture as a source of inspiration. Would you say this has been limited to Karachi? What are the preoccupations of Lahore-based artists or their contribution to developing the visual vocabulary of contemporary Pakistani art?
A. Popular and vernacular mediums of expression, like truck painting, are important for many like Durriya Kazi, David Alesworth and the Dadis (now living in New York) who are all Karachi-based. Urban imperatives of Karachi have been important for the moving forward of contemporary expression in Pakistan. In Lahore, the women’s movement – and the effect it has had on liberating women’s art practices – and the development of miniature into a contemporary vehicle of expression have made major contributions.
Also, reaching out to the community began in the 90s and has continued periodically. Contemporary Pakistani artists have also addressed major international issues like war in Afghanistan. They have looked at peace in our region as well as the nuclear “misadventure” as something worrying. And, of course, they have looked at fundamentalism and the narrowing of space for artistic expression.
Q. How would you say technology, the internet and other new media tools have affected contemporary artistic practice?
A. The old fashioned view is that “if you can’t see the hand, then you can’t see the work”. But I believe it was always the mind that drove the hand and the mind still drives the tools that are available. We continue to forget that the pencil is only about 250 years old. It hasn’t been around forever. If you have lived as long as I have you will have seen a tremendous change in materials. I was an art student when the first acrylic paints came out and everyone said they would revolutionise everything. Well, it was just another step, another convenience. Every invention when accompanying a new generation of tools and technologies brings novel ways of expression but I think the mind still rules.
Work that is wonderful in a particular medium validates that medium. If the work is just run-of-the-mill, people will blame the medium. Like, for instance, people used to say digital work is awful but then you had a Rashid Rana and digital work became valid. Video has been a natural progression from painting. Sculpture moved out of the studio and into the public space.
Q. What are your views on the commodification of art?
A. Art is selling. This is a major talking point. There are all kinds of views and all kinds of positions that are taken. There are artists who feel that for the first time they can make a living from their art. This comes to many of us as a surprise because I come from a generation in which no one was willing to buy works of art. Friends had to suffer your art on their walls because there was not enough space in your own house.
I still remember when Shakir Ali sold his first painting he was so delighted he said he would use the money to purchase a stove. It was a surprise and a joy that he could pay with his own work for something he wanted. Zahoorul Akhlaq never sold anything for years.
I feel the rush to sell is not so edifying because it can give artists the wrong idea about the worth of their work that is not to be counted in rupees or dollars but is intrinsic. I think artists need to constantly ask themselves, “Who am I working for, who am I trying to talk to? What am I trying to say?” Because they can be misled by sellers and the marketplace. The marketplace can push artists into directions that may or may not be of their own choosing.
But all artists have had to deal with patrons and it is in this that they have to make compromises. The painters that painted the Egyptian tombs made compromises as did Mughal artists and even Parahales. But there are many more options today than ever before and an intelligent use of options is absolutely critical in an artist’s development.
Q. In many ways, given the increased interest in art with a burgeoning market, it is much easier for younger artists to make art today when compared to even a couple of decades ago.
A. But I think this could also change. We live in a fragile world which could suddenly come crashing down like a house of cards, so constantly asking yourself what you are doing and who you are talking to is perhaps your way of making sure you are not out of touch with reality. We may have a time when it may be impossible to create artwork. We may have to hide the work that we make and we should be prepared for that. And this preparedness can only come if we don’t look at the marketplace as the imperative for making art. There should be another imperative. And that other imperative, of course, is to provide lines of communication with your people.
Q. Do art students opt for visual arts because it makes an economically viable career these days?
A. Many of them do and, in fact, some of them pursue it quite relentlessly. But it starts showing in their work after a while. In the 60s and 70s, too, you had people who followed the market but they dropped away. You don’t remember them anymore. You remember the people who work for different reasons and they are the ones who are still around and whose work continues to increase in value.
The difficult part is to determine where we go from here. I believe the marketplace will settle down. I don’t think this rise will continue in the way it has and, of course, the worldwide crash of the art market has affected prices here too. I think artificially keeping up prices – which galleries do – is extremely unwise and I am very much against this practice. If an artist wants to sell a work for two rupees or to give it away for free, it is his/her prerogative. The prerogative of the artist to be free of the marketplace is a very precious thing and as an artist, as a teacher and even a gallerist I really defend it for all it is worth. I think it is terribly important that this ethical basis be respected. But I speak from the position of someone who has always believed that the work belongs to the artist. Of course, the contract to sell it to somebody is also necessary because the artist has to live.
— Ayesha Jatoi was trained at the National College of Arts, Lahore, as a miniaturist and a visual artist. Her practise comments on art making itself and addresses various socio-political concerns.