We`re making up for our surrender during the Zia era. And God knows, while there is openness now, the threat remains of the pendulum swinging the other way, real hard.
Wednesday 3rd November 2010
Does conflict produce great art? Do artists respond to crises by rising to a higher level of creativity? Judging by the international response to contemporary Pakistani literature, music and painting, it seems there is a certain correlation between a hostile environment and the human impulse to express inner turmoil, doubts and anger.
This creative ferment is currently on display at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace Museum in probably the finest exhibition of contemporary art I have seen in Pakistan. Professionally and inventively curated by Naiza Khan, the show was an eye-opener for somebody like me who has become more of a visitor to Karachi than a permanent resident. Titled ‘The Rising Tide: new directions in art from Pakistan 1990-2010’, the exhibition displays works of Pakistani artists created over the last two decades. The range and virtuosity of the exhibits took my breath away.
The forty-plus artists included in the show were mostly young men and women who had grown up during Zia’s stifling dictatorship in the Eighties, and had matured in a country increasingly at odds with itself. The Karachi-based artists have had to contend with the ethnic and sectarian violence that has become a daily feature of life in the metropolis. The response to the madness that has gripped the country in the name of religion has been to produce edgy and tense works of art that articulate this experience.
In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, too, I have seen intense, deeply felt paintings and sculptures that seemed to voice the protest of sensitive artists against events over which they have no control, but that still shape their lives in unacceptable ways. In more settled, peaceful societies, art tends to be creative and well-executed, but somehow lacks the passion and anger that is often on display in our part of the world. Our contemporary artists seem to mix a big dollop of adrenalin in their work.
A marvellous spin-off from the exhibition is the catalogue, a publication that includes thoughtful essays and beautifully reproduced paintings and sculptures that could adorn bookshelves and coffee tables anywhere in the world. In her article, curator Naiza Khan quotes Iftikhar Dadi, one of the artists displayed in the exhibition:
“One must also keep in mind the atmosphere in Karachi at that time (the 1990’s). The economy was severely depressed, the art scene did not speak to current realities, and the bloody MQM-government violence was in full swing and virtually nobody from outside was visiting Karachi. There was no widespread internet access. So we sensed that Karachi was simultaneously the best and worst of all worlds. We felt a sense of exhilaration in witnessing a charged atmosphere of violence and street visuality, but there was also a sense of claustrophobia and closedness, intellectually and artistically…”
In a sense, the ongoing cultural ferment is a vibrant and healthy riposte to the brain-death extremist religious elements are trying to impose on society. Starting with Zia, this Wahabi/Deobandi straitjacket is trying to make sure that none of us think for ourselves. This primitive attitude was recently enunciated by Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran when he advised young people to stay away from music. The Taliban routinely target video and music shops before turning their attention to girls’ schools. It is these hateful ideas that artists and writers confront and reject.
Of course, many of our young musicians, writers and artists anchor their words, notes and images in the Sufi traditions that are a reminder of the gentle, syncretic vision of Islam that first put down roots in South Asia. It is this tradition that is under threat from medieval holy warriors who threaten to drag us back to the sixth century. Shrines have been attacked from Peshawar to Karachi by suicide bombers. Clearly, their evil sponsors fear the popularity of long-dead saints who continue to inspire millions with their message of love and tolerance. Popular resistance to the jihadis, led by subversive artists and writers, is more potent than drones or F16’s in fighting the Taliban.
All too often, the creative efforts of a handful of writers and artists are dismissed as the preoccupations of a small elite. The truth is that all over the world, art is created, bought and enjoyed by a tiny fraction of the population. But images and words have a way of percolating into the collective consciousness, and like time bombs, detonate at intervals to shake up preconceptions and prejudices.
I’m glad Mohatta Palace is poised to become a showcase for contemporary art. The ‘museum’ in the name was always a misnomer as it does not have a permanent collection on display. And as it has wonderful spaces, it is entirely appropriate for it to devote time and its curatorial expertise in displaying works by Pakistani artists.
Tailpiece: It seems out of place to end this optimistic article with a whinge, but I would like to share a recent episode with readers. I’m sad to report that bad manners are keeping step with the rising tide of violence in our society. Last Sunday, my wife and I were walking Tabs, my brother’s gentle (and slightly stupid) Dalmatian along the French Beach. Suddenly, somebody’s Golden Retriever raced out of a hut and unprovoked, grabbed Tabs by the scruff of his neck, showing every intention of biting all the way through it. Tabs screamed with pain. Unable to pull the attacker off, I caught it by the collar and succeeded in getting it to loosen its grip. In the process, my hand was quite badly bitten.
So apart from a couple of shots to prevent infection, I am now on a course of anti-rabies injections on the advice of the doctor who treated me in a hospital’s emergency ward. The owner of the Retriever was not in his hut, but I did speak to his father on the phone. He assured me that the dog had been inoculated. At the hospital and later, I expected his son to call and apologise. But it seems that we desis have a hard time saying ‘sorry’. Anyway, any time Zahid Maker picks up the phone to apologise, he can rest assured that, unlike his dog, I won’t bite.
Ouch. Nice way to hurt the dog onwer back. I enjoyed the acknowledgement about people putting down an art as an elite activity, but what is one to do along with organising and protesting? I will admit there is a certain egotism that goes with Pakistani art, but now that egotism seems to have been subsumed into a deployable trope than a heartfelt feeling.