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Without borders

The biggest show of Pakistani popular art packs a sharp sense of humour, writes Paramita Ghosh.

art and culture Updated: Jan 23, 2010 23:42 IST
Paramita Ghosh

One show of contemporary art may not change a thing between India and Pakistan, but it could be a start.

The images on display at the ‘ReassembleReassenble’ exhibition are startling. Popular and official images of Jinnah get an Andy Warholesque framing. A woman in veil hijacks a central icon of Christian mythology — Madonna and child — to pose with a packet of Pampers and a book of erotica. Naked dolls sit at the back of a trash-truck. A video-installation about a Pakistani and an Indian news presenter contradicts the same news event.

A Pakistan with a sense of humour? Artists who can cock a snook at the concept of nation and identity? Laugh at its holy cows? Mock international opinion by subverting the bomb-and- burqa stereotype?

If art from Pakistan is not what you expected it to be, it’s a good thing, says critic Quddus Mirza, who has accompanied artist-curator Rashid Rana to what is probably the biggest show of Pakistani contemporary art in India in recent times. “I didn’t want the Reassemble collection to represent Pakistan like a national survey,” says Rana whose first international show was at Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery in 2004. “I’ve looked for the connections between each exhibit. But each time they seemed to confirm a stereotype, I jumbled them.”

This is why miniaturist Saira Wasim’s work, Nuclear Threat, for example, which comments on the tit-for-tat testing of nuclear devices by India and Pakistan and shows the two nations in diapers, is not followed by war and peace visuals, but Ahsan Jamal’s Kaho na pyar hai. A cameo from everyday life — a pair of lovers against cool, neutral backgrounds.

‘Reassemble’ is interesting in many ways. It shows the tension between Pakistan’s traditional arts, the miniatures, which ties it to its pre-colonial past and the art of the art schools. In the 90s, the contemporary art movement kicked off in Pakistan with the rise of Karachi’s galleries. The city’s Indus Valley School of Art and Arch-

itecture took a lead, adds artist Bani Abidi whose work has been bought by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Artists of the School such as Huma Mulji and Asma Mundrawala struck a different path. They chose not just to tap into existing tradition but introduce materials such as plastics, vinyl, steel and neon into their visual vocabulary “to embellish the urban domestic or public space that had... gone unnoticed by the intelligentsia, who looked elsewhere for aesthetic authenticity in art and culture”, says critic S.Hasmi. The exhibition catalogue reveals another unusual relationship — practising artists interpreting the work of peers and academics mentoring future generations.

One quibble though. A desire to shed its media-given image and an absorption in the identity question has made many of Pakistan’s contemporary artists over-stress the ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘global’ aspect of their work. “It might not be top of mind, but post-9/11, the Aghan war... who we are is a question”, says artist Risham Syed.

How deftly Pakistani art negotiates the inescapable encounter with the gallery on the one hand, and the tensions of a fraught political identity on the other, time will tell. Popular art from Pakistan is important not because it clearly aspires to be art. But also because it is from Pakistan. And there is no shame in that.