x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The art of expression

A new generation of Pakistani painters, sculptors and designers are challenging common perceptions of the nation.

Karren Jamir sits next to her sculpture, Suffocation, which she says was inspired by decrees issued when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
Karren Jamir sits next to her sculpture, Suffocation, which she says was inspired by decrees issued when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Human is a simple sculpture of a man covered in cracks, the fissures running over the skin symbolising pain leaving the body. The work is by Ali Reza, a 23-year-old Fine Art student at the National College of Art (NCA) in Lahore, and is indicative of the growing influence that the terrorism experienced by Pakistan is having on the art it produces. Reza says: "When I listened to the news that the Taliban was systematically destroying art and culture in Afghanistan, I was in great pain. I then made Human, showing the hurt held inside of a person. I always condemn terrorist activities through my work."

Vibrant but little-known, contemporary Pakistani art is flourishing, and, increasingly, themes of terror have added to the complex mix influencing artists. A film that surfaced depicting the Taliban in the Swat Valley, publicly flogging a young woman while she screamed for mercy, propelled Reza's fellow NCA painter Nasir Jaan to create Supernatural, a self-portrait that depicts the artist surrounded by the distorted, hate-filled expressions of others and the naked body of a woman.

It shows, Jaan says, that "despite these evils, the Pakistani nation is supernatural - it faces everything and still survives". Galleries in Pakistan's art-rich city are responding well to this evolving climate of artistic comment, carrying graduate and final-year works that define the blossoming contemporary art movement in the country. Tongue in Cheek, an exhibition by the painter Shoaib Mahmood, proved a hit with critics and art enthusiasts when it ran in Lahore's Drawing Room gallery, carrying visually stunning work which criticised the "death" of Urdu in Pakistan at the hands of increasingly common English vocabulary.

The visual artist Zahra Syed spent last year teaching at Lahore's Beaconhouse National University (BNU) and highlights the growing trend among the country's contemporary young artists to comment on negative aspects of Pakistani life. "Of course Pakistani art engages with the terrorism; for one, because it's increasingly the tag by which Pakistanis are perceived by the rest of the world, and also because it is becoming increasingly real," Syed says.

Reports of suicide bombings, kidnappings, hijacks and shootings that pepper news coverage of the country may contribute to the growth of an unfair stereotype, but the impact of attacks by terrorist networks on the country is hard to ignore. Syed adds: "For me it really set in with the Gaddafi Stadium cricket attacks in March. From the Marriot explosions in Islamabad to the Gaddafi attacks, terrorism has invaded the cities we grew up in and so dearly love."

The engagement with terrorism in art is not always blatant. Many artists pivot away from overt references, choosing to comment on themes of paranoia, fear, disorder, tyranny, poverty, inequality, repression and abuse. Karren Jamir's artwork has examined the use of the veil in society, and decrees passed under Taliban rule in Afghanistan in the 1990s. One sculpture by the 22-year-old third-year student, titled Suffocation, depicts the partially veiled faces of a number of women; a comment on female oppression, and what Jamir calls "the hidden social problems women face that mean they can't leave their homes without fear".

Some artists are more direct. The walls of Cooco's Den & Café, the painter Iqbal Hussain's restaurant in the heart of Lahore's Heera Mandi red-light area, are emblazoned with the artist's bold portraits of the district's prostitutes; honest depictions from inside the bedrooms of Lahore's working girls. Pakistan's artistic comment may be adapting to the current climate, but artists are increasingly mixing contemporary themes with traditional mediums.

The distinctly Pakistani contemporary miniature paintings many artists are creating borrow heavily from illuminated Mughal manuscript tradition and many more are developing already well-established genres through their work. Reza comments on the impact of acts of terror through sculpture, saying: "Sculpture has long been one of the most popular forms of fine art, a primary means of artistic expression."

With the changing face of Pakistan's artistic messages, though, also come emerging contemporary genres: mixed media, visual art and film, web posts, interactive and graphic design techniques are flourishing in Lahore's most prestigious art colleges. The graphic design graduate Sherbano Syed, 24, used her final-year BNU thesis to depict cricketers batting away hand-grenades, young men with bullets between their teeth and veiled women in chains.

The slogans on her black, white and red posters read, "Where Sport can Explode", "Where Men are Terrorists" and "Where Women are Oppressed". Her work was as much about commenting on social ills as questioning the blanket perception of Pakistan as a dangerous and failing state, a view that is often propagated by foreign media. She says: "I've often wondered on my travels abroad why people are surprised by my nationality. The problem was that I didn't reflect how they perceived a Pakistani. The image their media had burnt in their minds was of a land where men were violent and women were covered head to toe and confined in the four walls of their homes. This initiated my thesis - the whole idea of how a going perception could not always be 100 per cent accurate."

Middle-class student backgrounds and the almost avant-garde nature of much of Pakistan's contemporary art keep its creators from forming the backbone of a popular "anti-terror" protest movement. Exhibitions are confined to upmarket galleries and art-centric internet forums. In a country where survival can be a struggle, the numbers of students studying to become doctors, lawyers and engineers far outstrips the numbers producing art.

Syed explains: "There is a breed of young people who think drawing pictures and writing poetry is haram. There are those unaware that they can make art commenting on their own experiences. I don't know if the people who think art is a viable medium for social and political comment have any significance in numbers." Interest in contemporary Pakistani art is also growing abroad. Last week, New York's Asia Society Museum exhibition Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan opened. Helmed by Salima Hashmi, one of Pakistan's most influential and well-respected writers and curators, the exhibition's title evokes the idea of delaying judgment based on preconceptions of Pakistan, while examining the socio-political climate the country's artists live and work in.

Some elements of popular protest are also emerging in Pakistan, growing from a largely niche movement. Back in Lahore, the singer Shahvaar Ali Khan says: "Our youth have the ability to re-imagine the world. It is critical that we talk to them in their language, a language that resonates in their hearts and minds."