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Art identity

February 21, 2016

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The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

ONE of the recent additions to the Karachi Literature Festival has been the Art Now! Pakistan section, a series of panels discussing South Asian art history, contemporary Pakistani art, and its impact on Pakistani society. Some have questioned the relevance of this parallel section taking place at a literary festival, but Pakistani artists are storytellers too, with important perspectives to share with audiences seeking a deeper understanding of our culture.

A vibrant and exciting discipline, Pakistani art is now recognised the world over thanks to the international emergence of its contemporary practitioners. This is not least because Pakistani art tells stories that are uniquely Pakistani, and not necessarily in line with the narrative that the state prescribes for its citizens. Instead, Pakistan’s artists, both visual and literary, have developed an organic vision of Pakistan’s identity, by espousing after Independence what art critic and journalist Raza Rumi terms “a new idiom of contemporary Pakistani art which conversed with society and critiqued what was happening in Pakistan.”

A nod to this uniquely Pakistani idiom in literature is made in an essay by Omer Tarin et al in Pakistani English Literature — A Brief Introduction, 1947 to the Present. Here, the authors posit that uniquely Pakistani English writing possesses “a special, unique Pakistani idiom and voice [that] at some level reflects the Pakistani roots and origins of the writers”.


Even now, there is pressure on our artists to not produce.


All Pakistani art reflecting this genuine Pakistani idiom is rooted deeply in this land, in its multiple identities and its diversity of cultures, languages, religious belief, and ethnic makeup. By portraying these identities in their art, be it that of pre-Islamic Mohen­jodaro in the work of Laila Shahzada, or Hindu communities in Thar in the watercolours of Ali Abbas, art critic Raza Rumi observes that “one of the most important roles artists play in Pakistan is [to have] ensured that the state policy of erasing our non-Muslim heritage has been sabotaged”.

Yet the Pakistani idiom goes much deeper than this. Academic Cara Cilano writes about the Pakistani idiom’s power: “Such a free play of diversity, which would encompass ethnic, linguistic, and religious multiplicities, would destabilise the purported unity of Pakistani nationalist identity, defined and implemented from the top down.”

Pakistani artists are thus powerful because they defy the entire state-defined narrative of Pakistani identity. That is, an identity that is firmly Islamic, anti-Indian, and with strong conservative values that everyone must visibly and vocally ascribe to, or risk social ostracism, state censure, and moral rejection.

It is this threat that brought about the near-complete suppression in the 1980s of the performing arts, particularly Indian classical dancing, all of which were termed ‘obscene’; the accompanying censorship and repression of the visual and literary arts was meant to halt resistance to the state’s project of Islamisation.

Under president Pervez Musharraf’s all-too-brief policy of ‘enlightened moderation’, the arts received a qualified official nod. The so-called ‘boom’ in Pakistani literature, the proliferation of art schools, museums, galleries and exhibitions, and renewed promotion of Pakistani painting and sculpture in the international arena came into the mainstream.

But soon, the menace of Islamic extremism reared up, with its adherents’ hatred of the performing arts, its willingness to violently attack and kill artists, especially in the frontier areas of Pakistan. And the state still occasionally exhibits a continued desire to control artistic expression critical of its actions, especially its violations of human rights.

Thus, there has been a continuation of the severe pressures on Pakistan’s artists to not produce, perform, or protest, that can be felt even in 2016. Yet despite opposition, Pakistani artists have never backed down, and continue to dance, write, paint, make music. Through their commitment to the human need for self-expression and to the artistic values of truth and beauty, the Pakistani idiom in art continues to develop and flourish.

Pakistani artists, then, have a vital message that needs to be heard in the world. It’s not just about Pakistani art per se, but about the climate in which artists operate, and art’s political and psychological functions vis-à-vis the Pakistani experience.

The spread of this message does not merely serve the valuable purpose of countering the agenda-driven narratives about Pakistan, internally and externally produced. There is confluence between all the arts in Pakistan: Pakistani artists, literary, visual and performing, are often the ones charged to narrate the diversity and complexity of the people of this land. And sometimes they’re the only ones brave enough to do so.

The writer is an author.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2016