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Violence as a visual metaphor

Updated Apr 10, 2015 11:09am
'And how many rains must fall before the stains are washed away' by Imran Qureshi. —AFP
'And how many rains must fall before the stains are washed away' by Imran Qureshi. —AFP

Four art writers explore how contemporary Pakistani artists investigate, articulate and incorporate concerns of violence in their artworks. In a manner befitting South Asian traditional art, these artists remain attached to the notions of embellishment and ornamentation even in the depiction of violence which is itself

Blood and beauty

By Aziz Sohail

Imran Qureshi’s striking installation ‘And how many rains must fall before the stains are washed away’ painted on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last summer was all the more arresting because of the glittering Manhattan landscape in the background.

The audience walked squeamishly onto what seemed to be pools of blood and absorbed Qureshi’s intuitive understanding of the collective ethos of the Pakistani public, weary after years of unspeakable violence, destruction and chaos. Close inspection, however, revealed beautiful petals in the style of the Kangara School’s miniature painting. The work is simple and the message is clear: from despair springs eternal hope and that both must complement the other.

The title of the installation is taken from a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and connotes an aspiration in the face of unspeakable despair — one can only wish upon the heavens for deliverance. As a Pakistani drained by the innumerable acts of violence that continue to engulf us, many might admit to crying privately in reaction to this work and at the state of our country. Maybe the tears are metaphorical rains, referred to in the poem — of the Hazaras bombed as they travel to their home from pilgrimage, or the Hindus abducted and forced to convert in his native province Sindh that might be the eventual answer to ongoing atrocities. Qureshi’s artwork, thus, is an important piece in our artistic and cultural history as a heart-rending work that can lead to a cathartic release from our current despair.

However, Qureshi’s work is not restricted to the sensationalism of blood splatter. He nurtures the concept to encompass the paradigms of Islamic art as seen at the recently opened Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Here, his red becomes green, inspired by the Islamic garden and he goes on to reflect the exact vegetation on the premises of the museum. However, the artist does not forget that all these installations have a sense of ephemerality (something transitory) — the beauty of the garden and the state of violence will both eventually vanish and be part of the eternal pendulum of human struggle between good and evil.

A thematic necessity

By Nafisa Rizvi

Artists in Pakistan have become so habituated to the frissons of violence as a thematic framework in their production, that if there were peace in the country they would be at a loss and may have to pack up their studios.

Of course, this hyperbolic injustice is only to prove the prevalence of violence in art in Pakistan and disqualifies the imperative that art must reflect the zeitgeist and those artists cannot and must not remain untouched by the tumult that shakes their lives. But as much as violence shatters it titillates.

In the West, artists look for and even incite provocative narratives of violence. The Serbian-American performance artist Marina Abramovic invited viewers to injure her. The American artist Chris Burden asked to be nailed to the back of a car and driven around for a few minutes. In Pakistan we have no such pretensions. Fortunately, or rather unfortunately, there are many occasions to cry, to grieve, to rage, to express and to achieve some semblance of catharsis.


Untitled, Aisha Khalid (left) and Untitled, Muhammad Zeeshan (right)
Untitled, Aisha Khalid (left) and Untitled, Muhammad Zeeshan (right)

The world famous artist Aisha Khalid suspends lengthy carpets, tapestries and shawls with inordinately delicate patterns based on the grid of the charbagh or the four gardens representing the blueprint of paradise as described in the Quran. But dichotomously the embroidery is done not with silken threads but common pins that protrude threateningly at the reverse.

Adeela Suleman constructs massive chandeliers with a glorious steel mesh which, when closely observed, reveals a repetitive curtain of dead birds.

However, the young, dynamic miniature artist Muhammad Zeeshan is more overt, though metaphorical in his depiction of violence. The artist depicts torso-less heads of cows, goats and roosters alluding to killings of innocents.

We see then that death and destruction even when experienced closely by artists is articulated with sensitivity. What we have yet to see is the portrayal of the psychological and emotional fallout from violence, the long-term effect on societal behaviour that has already begun to be noticed.


Erosion

By Abdullah Qureshi

Erosion Series, Faiza Butt
Erosion Series, Faiza Butt

In times of conflict, some of the most painful images to emerge are those of children as victims. The poet Susan Sontag discusses the ways in which we empathise with the suffering of others in conflict zone in her book Regarding the Pain of Others.

Photography in particular has played a major role in capturing these images and journalism as well as social media makes them accessible to a global audience. While one might endlessly debate the meaning and purpose of these images, they play a significant role in shaping our understanding of reality.

An example is Nick Ut’s iconic and Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Phan Thi Kim from the Vietnam War in 1972. The image shows the young girl, aged nine, running naked on the road after suffering severe burns caused by an attack. In that instance, the picture revealed and confirmed to the world the horrors that were going on in Vietnam but also prompted President Nixon to question its authenticity.

Faiza Butt, an expat Pakistani artist living in the UK, articulates some of these very questions. In her latest series of works titled ‘Erosion’ portraits of children are drawn on to backgrounds that depict slices of agate or marble. Her style, which renders the subject in a pointillist technique, further echoes the source of her images, often newspapers or other media. These show faces of resilience but also those that are very young, as can be seen in ‘Erosion 6 and 7’. Her artworks further challenge the immunity that is caused by the daily barrage of gruesome images by decontextualising and repositioning them in visual culture, attempting to reframe and lay emphasis on the person in the picture.

Reflecting on the places in the world that are currently erupting, whether it is Gaza, Syria, Iraq or Pakistan, one finds no dearth of material presenting the horrors of war and its impact. The question is how the image can be directed into an emotional or psychological understanding of the suffering of another.


The narrative of war

By Shahana Rajani

The urban landscape of Pakistani cities is dominated by the presence of military monuments. Sighting fighter jets, submarines, tankers and canons, installed at roundabouts is routine experience.

Erected as visual reminders of the nation’s strength and glory, these state-sponsored memories affirm the righteousness of our military, even its divine election. However, these sites are also evasions of memory, a denial of the state’s crimes of destruction and violence against others.

Ayesha Jatoi chose to challenge this denial through a public art performance. She picks as her venue, China Chowk, a roundabout in Lahore where a fighter jet from the 1971 war has been mounted. She shows up with a bucket full of clothes and begins to hang garments dyed red on the fighter jet during rush hour. For the passersby, it is hard to miss the reference of the blood red clothes to bloodshed, war and genocide.

Untitled, Ayesha Jatoi
Untitled, Ayesha Jatoi

Her simple performative gesture challenges official state histories, transforming the roundabout into a counter-monument that literally exposes the nation’s “dirty laundry.” Rather than recalling narratives of patriotic struggle, she forces us to remember 1971 as a moment of rupture and genocidal violence. The wet and limp red clothes evoke the bodies of the millions dead, faceless victims of brutal war crimes.

Such artistic practices of exposure are incredibly crucial at a time when our army is engaged in yet another war in North Waziristan. The very title of the military operation, “Zarb-i-Azb”, emphasises the state’s divine right to wage war, as Azb was the name of Prophet Muhammad’s sword. Our national culture continues to celebrate war within a hyper patriotic frame, which obscures and makes invisible the fate of real bodies.

Artists like Jatoi mobilise necessary tactics and strategies to confront and expose the construction and performance of the state’s denial, bringing into view the lives and faces of silent victims who are forced to live in zones of indistinction, spaces where the rules of law have been usurped and life itself blurred into death.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 16th, 2014