Untitled, Needle Work Lesson (2001), Risham Syed
Untitled, Needle Work Lesson (2001), Risham Syed

There is a moment in an elaborate video animation by Shazia Sikander titled ‘The Last Post’ (2010) where a man dressed in the attire of the East India Company official explodes and shatters to pieces, as if made of the most delicate porcelain or glass. The moment is dramatic, pivotal and powerful. Shards of the painted image gradually fade into oblivion and we really begin to observe the background for the first time during this process as it consists of a tumultuous mix of stormy hues in gouache bleeding into and flowing out of each other. Is it water, land or the sky? This remnant landscape is hard to decipher because the boundaries are blurred. It is just one of the many stills in the monumental video sequence that embody the dilemma of colonial legacy and its aftermath. Was the curse of colonial authority really vanquished? What kind of slippage is produced when identity, cultural knowledge and memory undergo such seismic shifts, ruptures and transforms courtesy of colonial authority?

Many contemporary Pakistani artists are now grappling with and questioning what it means to live in such a postcolonial society today. Our aesthetics, imagination and material culture has been dominated and informed by colonial frameworks. Even choice of medium is not exempt from colonial influence. Oil painting and easel painting which was largely unknown to India was first introduced by the British when they built art schools in Calcutta (now Kalkota), Bombay (now Chennai) and Madras (now Mumbai) specifically to promote Western art education. Yet, contemporary Pakistani artists today are attempting to turn the tables and critique this vast scope of colonial influence by consciously experimenting with other mediums associated with the British colonial past.

One of these is needlework and embroidery which was part of Victorian life in Britain; the subject was mandatory in many missionary schools in Lahore. Famed Pakistani artist Risham Syed has channeled that experience into making works that challenge and question the authenticity of culture. In one of her series, Syed borrows iconography from embroidery pattern books to comment on our need to appropriate and fetishise everything foreign or British so that our idea of a perfect home emerges from European magazines and aesthetics. French chairs, Salon style frames, floral wallpapers, in short — the artist points out through the use of her mixed media and collage paintings — that to date anything “foreign” or European is still the benchmark for what is considered “high art.”

Has the curse of colonial authority vanished? Contemporary artists are trying to find the answer to this important question

Embroidered red-roofed cottages that are seen in European pattern books are framed with foliage and juxtaposed with a fake turf of grass. The idyllic scene of homely bliss is mocked as a colonial construct. A pillow cover recreated using paper with newsprint as lace is accompanied by quilting which is painted in gouache. Buttons and babies are collaged on the surface — these works embody and comment upon the desire to mimic the coloniser in habits, customs and preferences as pointed out by and elaborated upon by Homi Bhabha, a leading scholar in postcolonial studies.

“What does an image mean when it is unhinged from its own representation?” questions Shazia Sikander in one of her interviews. It is a question one might also ask when unpacking the whimsical drawings and renderings in needle and thread of Sarah Mumtaz. On the surface, they appear to be anecdotal fantasies that feature vocabulary of birds, bees, frogs and little girls in frocks and pinafores with fish heads but implicit in the preference for such a visual vocabulary is an inclination towards a steady diet of European fairytales and English storybooks that was cultivated throughout childhood and featured a similar bevy of motifs. The “borrowed” aesthetics transform our reading of the work.

One of Mumtaz’s most potent images rendered in needlework on cloth was produced during her brief stint at the Murree Museum Artit’s Residency (2017) and is displayed almost like a faux European tapestry rendered and built in thread on an off-white fabric. What is unnerving is the blurring of fact and fiction; in such mimicry is ensconced our profound sense of loss and its critique. The sloping roofs of the colonial architecture of Murree in the background are punctuated by the presence of a gigantic bird and two equally large rabbits that seem to have emerged out of Grimm’s fairytales. One of them is a hybrid with human legs. Little boys with brown hair dressed in shalwar kameez play and dominate the mock European landscape as we cannot identify where they are from or where the viewer is. Specificity and temporality is rendered insignificant and our sense of dislocation is complete.

It is at such junctures that artists are exploring and contesting identity to ask themselves what happens when cultures are encountered in colonial relationships of power and authority.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 22nd, 2018