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Art fiend: Of politics and change

June 30, 2013

Political activity has been at its peak in Pakistan in the last few months, with the general elections and the assorted parties and candidates promoting their ideologies and manifestos. The mantra of “change” was especially popular, with the youth taking centre stage in this discourse. Not surprisingly, this preoccupation with national politics has spilled into artistic expression as well, with young artists especially engaging in socio-political narratives in their creative works.

Attiya Shaukat is one example of a young artist who has chosen political symbolism in her paintings, as could be seen in her recent exhibition of miniature paintings at Lahore’s Rohtas Gallery. The symbolism was overt and obvious, and representative of what may have been something of an obsession with a large number of young people, especially in the city of Lahore.

Political parties are recognised amongst the public by their chosen colours and symbols, as well as the personas of their leaders. Thus the colours of the mainstream parties, as well as their electoral symbols had been used by the artist to create her Patterns of Politics, a collection of a dozen miniatures, mostly made with gouache on wasli, though other elements like threads, gold and silver leaf were also made use of.

The aforementioned title that is used for all the paintings is relevant more so in a rather literal sense, for Shaukat’s discourse is based on visual elements rather than any complicated political analyses. A significant number of paintings are flooded with block print like repetitive patterns in green, red and white, and within this appear various other symbols like the tiger, bat, arrow or kite, which most people would instantly associate with the political parties they represent.

The moon and the star, symbols of Pakistan also feature in these and are interwoven in the ‘political patterns’. The only person who appears in a couple of these miniatures in a portrait form is Imran Khan, who is credited by many to have played a dramatic role in engaging the youth in real politics, in particular the urban youth who hitherto had not found any attraction in this domain.

Interestingly however, one painting finds this leader in a centrally placed cameo, in a humorous and relaxed mood, and in another one his face, in profile, is seen confronting the head of a tiger, but both of them have no eyes. These literally blind faces, both of man and beast, each representing a partic\ular political party constantly at loggerheads, present a narrative worth pondering about.

The image of Minar-i-Pakistan also features in two works, and these delicately painted miniatures include the portrait of a girl child in such a way that it seems to convey a sense of naivety and overly enthusiastic engagement of young minds with the imagery and rhetoric conveyed to them through political icons.

Shaukat’s preoccupation with political symbols has to do with her own life, for having been immobilised herself by an accident, her main activity was to watch political events on television, and her engagement with politics is mostly based on media portrayal. The youth, in any case, are more ‘connected’ to people and events through the media, including the ‘social media’, and their perceptions often tend to be formed and coloured through these means.

This is quite apparent in the paintings, and is representative of a new generation, and the political patterns and questions that are evolving in their impressionable minds, and which are in search of reassurance through logical conclusions, rather than disappointment with myriad illusions. Shaukat’s own statement that ‘every political group is playing with the emotions of the nation’, is an observation that needs to be pondered upon.