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Book Review | Modern Art in Pakistan: History, Tradition, Place

With some of Pakistan biggest cultural events just around the corner (the literary fests whose canopies are soon to go up in the country major cities), there is an air of promise and anticipation regarding the arts and what the artistic community may have in store for the festivals this time. There has, in the past, been much skirmishing in the borderlands where traditional and modern trends meet in Pakistani art, and the still growing international interest in neo-miniature will ensure that talks and celebratory sessions on icons like Zahoor ul Akhlaq (who is credited with the foremost melding of the old and the new) are parts of these gatherings. It is in this climate of artistic and cultural reawakening that Simone Wille Modern Art in Pakistan: History, Tradition, Place has come out.
Published by Routledge (India), as part of their Visual and Media Histories (a series edited by Monica Juneja), Willes research is a timely and comprehensive look at the factors that shaped modern art in Pakistan. It is not only a survey of influences but also a discourse on what exactly defines or constitutes Pakistani modernism. In an informative if somewhat labyrinthine introduction to her study, Wille first explores the unique timeline of the modernist movement in Pakistan  unique because the events or benchmarks which contributed to it are not easily graphable. Rather, as Wille sets out to illustrate, it was an assimilation of aesthetics espoused by various renaissances in the Indo-Pak region that gave rise to an artistic modernism that was not completely Eurocentric.
She looks at the times and practices of three influential Pakistani artists and the chapters on each of them are valuable biographical and critical documents. Shakir Ali, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, and Rashid Rana, by keeping summarily their art inclusive and by taking further what each had initiated, helped formed a visual language that brought together elements from traditional Islamic and Western art not in pastiche or eclecticism but in abstraction that continues to keep their works open-ended. The chapters on Shakir Ali and Zahoor ul Akhlaq are particularly helpful in stitching panoramas of the two artists who belong to a time when the absence of social media and virtual publicity led to very little being disseminated about their work and very little of what they had accomplished being pieced together.
Wille, after spending extensive time in Pakistan interviewing art historians and critics, and friends, families and students of these two artists, has done just that. The chapter on Shakir Ali includes, besides an interesting account of his stint at the studio of Parisian artist Andr Lhote (whose work and writings continued to influence Ali even after his return to Pakistan), snippets from a few priceless interviews he gave that reveal a warmer, more real and animated side of an artist who, at least for a younger generation of artists from Pakistan, has dwindled into that far distance where silhouettes start being obfuscated and lending themselves to mythologising.
Writing, for example, about Ali decision to become a Pakistani citizen on 15th August, 1947, when he was in Prague, away from his new country, Wille quotes from an interview he gave to Jan Marek (in New Orient: Journal for the Modern and Ancient Cultures of Asia and Africa, vol. 6, no. 4, August 1967). Ali recalled being”quite proud to have been the first citizen of Pakistan to unfurl the Pakistani flag in Prague. Naturally, at that time I had no idea what the flag of our new state would look like, so I simply made a little green flag of the Muslim League with a white crescent and star; it was this that I waved in front of the Czechoslovak Parliament when I and other students from India celebrated the liberation of our country from British domination.”
These are details that make giants like Shakir Ali fit in memory, details that must have been arduously gathered yet are imperative for a thorough study of the artist who was the leading force behind modernism in Pakistan. The inspiration he found in Rainer Maria Rilkes work is also explored in detail, making clear the poetry inherent in many of the symbols recurrently used in his paintings, such as birds and flowers. A succinct selection of images of the artist work, some of which are rare and all the more enlightening to see, illustrates the shifts in his oeuvre and the modernist philosophy it came to engender.
Similarly, in the section on Zahoor ul Akhlaq, titled “The Idea of Space as an Abstract System”, Wille methodically takes us through the development of Zahoors seminal visual imagery, alluding to his sources of inspiration along the way (as intriguingly varied as architectural ornamentation from Swat to prints by Jasper Johns) focusing, in particular, on his relationship with the grid. The images that are part of this section offer an organised pictorial supplement to the text. And in addition to important images of most of his works featuring the grid, there is an engaging image of a painting the artist had done as a student at the NCA. It is an academic exercise in figurative painting, masterfully done, a testimony to Zahoors talents, and it serves as a rather poetic reminder of his short but highly innovative career as a modern painter.
The collection Wille offers, of excerpts from significant texts written on the artists in focus, and snatches from personal interviews and conversations, is so rich in insights on their practices that it makes up for what I felt was the tediousness of the analytical portions of her work. One worrisome realisation teaching an art history class in Pakistan can bring with itself is how much a younger generation of artists dreads being forced to understand art through text and that, too, scholarly text. Willes research, though undoubtedly a great addition to writings on Pakistani artists and a wonderful resource for anyone interested in learning or writing about modern artists from Pakistan, is not a friendly read and can be, at best, perused as an academic paper.
Simone Wille,Modern Art in Pakistan: History, Tradition, Place. Published by Routledge India, 2014, 144 pages.
Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan.

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