Political Art & Pakistan

This article was originally published in Dawn on http://dawn.com/2012/06/04/political-art-and-pakistan/

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In 2010, I abandoned a career in the Diplomatic Service in favour of becoming a full-time artist (and finishing my book). At the time, it felt like an emotional escape from my disillusionment with the world of international relations – my specialisation in conflict and communications feeling somewhat impotent in a sea of global instability and media menace. However, a vision of myself surrounded by paint and canvas, disengaged from the world, could not have been further from the truth.

Two years on, and my art-work has begun to be a place where I can genuinely express how I feel about the world around me. It is going way beyond straightforward painting on canvas. It has become a place where I can engage and include far-flung communities.

Having explored British-Pakistani artists and their talents I am dedicating this post to Pakistani artists. My main motivation being that despite making several pleas to my usually well-connected online community, very few were able to name Pakistani artists that were socially or politically engaged. I found three that particularly struck a chord with my own work and passions. There are thousands more.

Born in Junagarh as the World War II began, Abdul Rahim Nagori, sadly passed away last year. His paintings were anti-military, anti-dictator, anti-violence – and Pakistan lost not just an artist, but an activist. Researching his work, I nearly fell off my chair when I saw his work with playing cards. Having just spent months hand-painting a set of 52 playing cards, I was intrigued to find AR Nagori using the very same language. His three paintings of the kings of spades, hearts and clubs show Pakistani dictators – General Pervez Musharraf, General Ziaul Haq and Ayub Khan. Sixteen years ago, Nagori said, ‘Some artists are interested in solving the problems of style and techniques, while others use style and technique to express their social and political views and in the process undertake ‘artistic responsibility’. He argued that as long as there are “socio-political wrongs to be righted and as long as an unjust and ugly condition requires change” – art should visually educate and lead people to awareness for a better society.

The work of Salima Hashmi is both delicate and dynamic, both feminine and strong. Hashmi takes a political stance as an anti-nuclear-weapon campaigner and peace and women’s rights activist. In 2001, she published a book about the lives and works of women artists in Pakistan. Salima has creativity and politics in her blood – she is the daughter of renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and peace activist Ayls Faiz and her cousin was the late Salmaan Taseer.

The multi-talented Ijaz ul Hassan writes as well as paints. His work spans decades and is diverse and iconic –from abstract to the figurative, from drawing to mural. Since Hassan was one of the first activists to be arrested by General Zia and thrown into Lahore Fort, he has not shied from political content – sometimes in obvious in-your-face depictions of executions – others in subtle content woven into the nature of trees.

By presenting these three, I have only scratched the surface of social and political art in Pakistan, but it is there for the taking. During a visit to Karachi University last year, I was astounded at the quality of work being produced by the fine art students – one artist cutting up thousands of passport photos in a comment on social identity, another fixing thorns onto lipstick and baby bottles -demonstrating a sophisticated contemporary art-practice way beyond what I expected in a “developing nation.”

Some queried my move from foreign-policy to art-practice and although there is fierce debate about whether art changes or simply reflects society – I have no doubt that it contributes positively to debate and open society. Furthermore, the way art can work in our connected world, can mean greater public input into the development and participation of art. It is not just the finished aesthetic that takes on meaning, but art, like my own playing cards, can now be funded by art appreciator and communities of people interested in what you have to say. It is far more than paint on canvas.

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