Salima Hashmi and Shahidul Alam showed, through art and photography from their respective countries, a fairly unknown and unreported side of Pakistan and Bangladesh

A lot of what we know about Pakistan and Bangladesh is either through history or from media reports. But when glimpsed through the prism of art, our outlook on our neighbours is considerably altered.

This formed the focus of the lectures of noted Pakistani artist and art historian Salima Hashmi and one of Bangladesh’s most well-known photographers, Shahidul Alam at the National Gallery of Modern Art last week. Salima, the daughter of revolutionary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in her talk titled Sanctuary and Defiance: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, presented, through the “astounding works” of artists, aspects of a relatively unknown Pakistan.

“Despite being labelled a mono-cultural theocracy, Pakistan, has a rich and varied cultural practice in contemporary art,” says Salima. Few know, for instance, that the Mela Chiraghan (Festival of Lights), held every year for three days at Lahore, is less of a religious event and more a celebration of love. “The Punjabi-Sufi poet Hazrat Shah Hussain renounced his religious principles and changed his name to Hazrat Madho Lal Shah Hussain after he fell in love with Madho Lal. Hundreds gather at his shrine in Lahore every year on his birth anniversary and light lamps in his honour,” Salima explained while she displayed life-like, sepia-toned photographs of the festival.

Other dimensions

The celebration of Muharram in Lahore has always made for brilliant photography, but the images that Salima displayed explore other dimensions to the festival. Laal Haveli, one of the finest examples of Haveli architecture of Lahore, is witness to grand celebrations of Lahore, which, Salima says, has inspired photographers to use them as emblems in their works.

Salima later displayed an image of splashes of red over a white courtyard of an old building. The image, an installation titled Blessings Upon the Land of My Love by Imran Qureshi, is a powerful commentary “on the massacres that we that we see and experience, whether through the media or, in some cases, in reality.” On closer observation, though, the installation comprises a sea of blood-red blossoms, which “in one moment shows the shedding of human blood and on the other, the defiance and celebration of the human spirit.”

Salima next showed striking black-and-white images taken by the Scottish photographer Malcolm Hutcheson. “Hutcheson, who has been living in Lahore for a decade, worked closely with Lahore’s street photographers. He collected their backdrops and bought their negatives, which he displayed at an exhibition. He later, photographed hijras.”

Rashid Rana’s The Red carpet, which at first sight looks like a beautiful carpet is, in fact, a commentary on Pakistani society. “The work is a celebration of the histories of women and children who made these carpets. In a very quiet way, it criticises how we accept this as a face of our tradition. The work is composed of pixels that are actually photographs taken in a slaughter house in Lahore. The year when this painting was done, Rashid Rana returned home after photographing a slaughter house and turned on the television and saw coverage of Benazir’s arrival in Karachi where there had been a bomb blast. He saw the carnage in that procession and somehow what he saw at the slaughter house and footage in which he saw people dying in the procession, forever became one. This led Rashid to render a layered perspective in The Red Carpet.”

Contemporary art in Pakistan is a continuum of the documentation of marginalised communities and alternative perspectives. This, as Salima explained, is evident from the digital art work of Haider Ali Jan; Qasim Riza Shaheen’s unique portrayal of the androgynous community; Farisa Bhatt’s works, full of irony and dark humour, that explore the phenomena of the suicide bomber; Aisha Khalid’s celebration of the female form in her paintings that are experiments with geometric patterns and Saba Khan’s works of parallel media, among others.

While Salima Hashmi’s lecture provided an understanding on Pakistan’s thriving contemporary art, Shahidul Alam’s photographs showed the unreported history of Bangladesh. In his lecture My Journey As A Witness: An Insight into the evolution of contemporary photography, Alam showed images from the Salon movement the Naxalite Movement in Bangladesh and the 1988 floods.

Alam also showed pictures of Bangladesh’s famous photographers, prominent among who were Rashid Talukdar and Manzoor Alam Beg. Rashid Talukdar’s impressive images of idyllic landscapes revealed the culture of Bangladesh. Of Rashid, Alam said: “He was not a trained photographer, he knew neither about the rule of thirds nor that elements had to be put on diagonals, but this made him produce imagery which was different from what Western tradition considered important to photography.”

His initiative Chobi Mela, which takes photography to Bangladesh’s villages, and photography Institute Pathshala has come to define much of contemporary photography in Bangladesh.