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Art, beyond borders

The recently concluded, major exhibition of art from Pakistan mounted in India, was a manifestation comprising more than 150 works. What did an Indian viewership expect from this show, asks NANCY ADAJANIA.


"Farman", 1966, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, etching print.

IN a recent work, Bani Abidi turned the video screen into a mirror of history in a studiedly casual gesture. The Pakistani artist danced animatedly, even breathlessly, to the lyrics of aggressive nationalism, performing "Pakistan" as well as "India"; the split screen that was her key device matched each country's triumphalist rhetoric with the other's. Aptly titled "Anthems", Abidi's work showed us how South Asia's competitive nationalisms are mirror images, and also how they claimed power over the modernising self (symbolised here by the young woman in jeans), to the point where this self became complicit in retrograde agendas. "Anthems" held the key to the historical crisis in which both India and Pakistan find themselves today. As an Indian art critic, I felt this work did more for our understanding of one another's countries than the kababs-and-ghazals bonhomie of older liberals or the Either-Us-Or-Them annihilationism of younger extremists on both sides of the border.

Such thoughts assumed urgency while we savoured the first major exhibition of art from Pakistan mounted in India: "Beyond Borders: Art of Pakistan" (February 17 to March 17, 2005), a huge manifestation that comprised more than 150 works that ranged from paintings and sculptures to installations and video works. What did an Indian viewership expect from this show, co-curated by Quddus Mirza, artist and art critic, and art historian Saryu Doshi, and hosted by the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai? I would conjecture that, considering our politically fraught relationship, the audience's response was based largely on socio-political stereotypes of veil and war, rather than on an understanding of Pakistani artists' difficult aesthetic choices and engagements with specific historical pressures.

Pakistani art?

Mirza disabused us, at the very outset, of any stereotypical notions concerning the art emerging from his country. He emphasised that "there is no such thing as Pakistani art" and rejected the conception of a monolithic national identity: "Sometimes we recognise our roots in the region of the Indian subcontinent; often we associate with the larger Muslim world (with its centre in the Arabian peninsula). And on other occasions we identify with Central Asia ... "

But how did the curators translate this conceptually sound and nuanced argument into a spatial manifestation? They emphasised the metaphor of camouflage, or revelation by concealment, that activated most of the art works on display. The viewer journeyed through a carefully constructed mise en scene coded with visual subterfuges and googlies; beginning with the section "Text and Context", on the use and extension of calligraphy in contemporary art, and concluded with the section on the representation of the body, tantalisingly titled "Now you see, Now you don't".

The curators placed in juxtaposition works of different phases between the 1950s and the present, that is, between the era immediately following Partition and current times. Thus, an art history of ruptures and continuities was dramatised in a new light. The "Text and Context" section, for instance, held works inspired by the Islamic tradition of calligraphy which for obvious reasons has received State sanction in Pakistan because it follows a hallowed tradition of coding that has a long history in Islamic culture. We saw the order and symmetry of this inherited art language, sometimes broken down into an illegible chaos or at other times transformed into a semi-figurative language.

A brand ambassador

"Calligraphy", Afshar Malik, ink on paper, 2001.

The second section, "Tradition as an Idea", reflected on the appropriation of the traditional miniature art form in contemporary painting, a genre that has ironically become the brand ambassador of `Pakistani' art at an international level after Shahzia Sikander's success on the New York gallery circuit in the late 1990s. Pakistani artists have exploded, with irreverent social and political commentary, the feudal-imperial protocols that connote strictly hierarchical relationships in traditional miniature painting. They use diverse approaches to the miniature, ranging from gouache to the computer print.

Hamra Abbas's multi-panel computer print of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan's fabled Padshahnama, an illuminated folio long held in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, was a calculatedly comic send-up of a ceremonial moment in court life. The gifts carried by a group of courtiers "disappeared", got deleted, leaving blanks for the bearers to carry. The adjacent panel warned image-hackers like the artist to avoid reproducing material from the book, whose copyright now resides with the British Crown. In the last panel, the gifts reappeared, floating in isolation; the courtiers had vanished. To my mind, this hide-and-seek approach inserted itself into the ceremonial time of Mughal history-turned-myth like a virus, conducted a guerrilla raid on colonialist wealth-accumulation in virtual time, and was exhibited to the amusement or consternation of audiences at home or overseas in the real time of debate.

The third section, "Popular in Art", had brilliantly quirky works made by David Alesworth and Adeela Suleman. Alesworth ironically presented rockets and other probes of militaristic technology made from galvanised metal as game-machines in an amusement park, while Suleman made special helmets for women using kitchen implements, asking how the body could withstand the traffic lights, the nuclear button and itself except through mask, costume and subterfuge.


All Eyes Skywards during the Annual Parade", 2004, Rashid Rana, digital print.

In the fourth section, "Creating Identity", Rashid Rana broke the human body into a thousand fragments and put it back together with the cracks visible. From a distance, Rana's large digital print showed people looking at the sky during a National Day parade. On closer inspection, their bodies were seen to be made up of miniature images of scenes from Bollywood films, an obsession shared by people across the India-Pakistan border. I thought Rana's work went beyond easy explanations such as the discovery of sameness in difference; rather, it was about the difficulty of reading another culture (one's own too, if I may add), about fragmented views of the other. I would employ a phrase from computer software, to suggest that Rana's work is about "de-fragmenting" ourselves to find a new wholeness.

The last section, "Now you see ... ", which presented the body in art, in its physical limits, veiled, exposed and distorted, came as a big in-your-face surprise to Indian viewers who had assumed that the body would be a taboo subject in an Islamicised culture. "Line of Control", a lenticular print by Farida Batool showing a close-up of two naked bodies in intimate proximity, was an excellent example of how we shifted perspectives on the morality and politics of voyeurism, pornography, love, hate, selfhood and othering. Rana's digital portrait of a veiled woman composed from miniature porn images downloaded from the Net took this subject to its (il)logical end.

This did not mean that censorship does not exist in Pakistan, of course. The catalogue reminded us of at least two occasions when paintings involving bodily exposure were removed from a national exhibition or destroyed by fundamentalists during Zia's regime (1977-1988). But since art tends to be a largely elite activity, a gated and guarded practice — a situation not dissimilar to the Indian one — artists have been able to continue their work fearlessly, subverting the cultural repressiveness of the State.

The "Line of Control" melted, fused, stood out and blurred. Depending on where you stood, the distortion was the image and the image was the distortion. This, truly, is the predicament from which we, as viewers and citizens, must create a new mutual understanding.

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