Over the last ten years, Pakistan has suffered the most violent decade of its history. Now the country’s contemporary artists are challenging the devastation through their art.
Faced with a devastatingly violent socio-political environment, Pakistani artists are not only documenting the nation’s suffering, but also questioning the role of art in their country. Art Radar brings you four artists who have positioned themselves on the frontline of Pakistan’s violence.
The past decade has been the most violent period in Pakistan’s already tumultuous history. The landscape has been splattered with the bloodshed caused by sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the post 9/11 War on Terrorism and the prevalence of extremist Islamic militants.
The condition of the nation has imbued the consciousness of its citizens and it is duly reflected in Pakistan’s art. A new wave of artists has gathered strength, all of whom delve into the problematised politics of Pakistan to create works that not only document the violence, but also attempt to subvert, question and challenge it.
History teaches us of the brutalising effects of violence, but with the rise of the internet and concomitant visual media saturation, it is possible that violent imagery may lose its potency. Karachi-based sculptor Durriya Kazi explains:
We watch Baghdad before, during and after its destruction and are embedded with journalists in the battlefields, the battle comes right into our homes through the screen or the newspaper. I am sure there are many like myself who are drowning or suffocating in the excess of these images.In the age of visual excess, where it is so easy to become apathetic to the violence and loss of humanity, artists are reconsidering the way they respond to atrocities in their work. The following Pakistani artists are at the forefront of responding to violence. They create artworks that “engage with questions behind the entire machinery of terror, draw attention obliquely to realities of everyday life in the face of terror and thereby present creative responses,” according to artist Asma Mundrawala.
Based in Lahore, Imran Qureshi formally trained in miniature painting at the National College of Arts. From his initial practice in miniature painting techniques to site specific installations on the rooftop of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Qureshi has seen a lot of international exposure in recent years. He was awarded Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” in 2013 and has exhibited at Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome and Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, Berlin.
Qureshi juxtaposes old Islamic forms of art against a contemporary context and thus makes his work relevant from an international standpoint. According to Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle’s press release,
In Qureshi’s work, an investigation into ornamentation is both a reference to tradition and a vehicle for criticism: of constricting role models, violent political and religious systems, stereotypes, and conventions. His art delves into the constant alternation between violence and hope, destruction and creation, and calls for peaceful resistance and optimism in difficult times.
Qureshi has made red acrylic his weapon of choice, powerfully using the colour to depict the bloodshed caused by violence. In his “Roof Garden Commission”, on view from 14 May to 3 November 2013 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Qureshi has extended this blood red motif into intricately painted foliage patterns.
Although undoubtedly bloody, Qureshi’s red works also symbolise something more positive:
These forms stem from the effects of violence. They are mingled with the colour of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope, starts.
Abdullah M. I. Syed
Karachi-born Abdullah Syed is a mixed media artist whose work is full of political expression and innate symbolism. His work has been exhibited internationally in Bangladesh, Sharjah, the United States, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand, Australia and Pakistan. Syed divides his time between living and working in his hometown and Sydney.
In the exhibition “The Rising Tide: New Direction in Art From Pakistan 1990-2010“, Syed’s installation Flying Rug of Drones features an overhanging assembly of drones constructed out of the blades of box cutters. These drones are the most discernible symbol of the war on terror, extensively employed by the American army to fire missiles at militants in Pakistan’s tribal zones. Commenting on these attacks Syed said, “Although in the West the drones are often seen as an essential element in the fight against terrorism, in Pakistan they are considered imperial interference by the United States.”
Since 2004 more than 1000 civilians have been killed and wounded by drone attacks. This has lead to a sharp rise in the influx of civilians from tribal areas into urban cities, which has further increased the political tension within the country. According to Syed, “Flying Rug of Drones is a work that ‘aesthetically’ and perhaps ‘poetically’ talks about the history of destruction, menace of war and a wish to be free.”
Bani Abidi, born in 1971, is a Karachi-based contemporary artist whose video works have garnered much international acclaim. A graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Abidi’s video works have been exhibited at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Art Gallery, dOCUMENTA (13) and the Tenth Lyon Biennale amongst many others. Abidi lives and works in Karachi and Delhi.
The interplay between the refuge of private space versus the violence-ridden public spaces in Pakistan is a recurring theme in Abidi’s work. Drawing from a biographical reality of working between two countries which share a conflicted history, her work Security Barriers A-L (2008) feature twelve prints depicting the cameras that monitor borders. According to The Global Contemporary, “Abidi employs temporary architectural elements for an analysis of political manifestations of state violence, the maintenance of state power, and national strategies of demarcation.”
In her video works one of the most noticeable features is Abidi’s creation of fictional characters in order to vocalise her apprehensions towards socio-political concerns. At dOCUMENTA (13), she displayed the video work entitled Death at a 30 Degree Angle, which featured a fictionalised politician and his utter confusion at which stance to adopt for his portrait statue.
Rashid Rana is perhaps Pakistan’s most prominent contemporary artist. Born in Lahore, the artist graduated from Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Since then, Rana has embraced a multitude of media ranging from video performance to photo mosaics. His work has been internationally exhibited in institutions such as Whitechapel Gallery, Saatchi Gallery and Singapore Art Museum.
According to the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art website,
Fascinated by how meaning is often misunderstood in our media-oriented society, Rana’s photographic practice creates images that offer a different view of how popular ideas and stereotypes are created. His art investigates the representation of reality, as well as the politics of gender, violence and authenticity in the age of global communication.
Rana is renowned for his composite images, which explore the dualities between violence and our desensitised attitudes towards it. From afar these works appear to be one large image, but on closer inspection multiple pixel-like images reveal themselves.
Red Carpet-1 (2007) is one such work, stirred by the untimely assassination of the Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. At first glance the work appears to depict a traditional Pakistani carpet, but a closer look reveals that the work is actually made up of images of brutal animal slaughter. One edition of Red Carpet-1 became the highest selling artwork by a Pakistani artist at the Sotheby’s New York May 2008 auction, selling for a record price of USD623,000.