A recent show that opened at Gandhara Gallery brings together collaborative artworks between three prominent diasporic Pakistani artists – Khadim Ali, Sher Ali and Mahwish Chishty. The pieces displayed are good reflections of Pakistan’s contemporary miniature art movement, with paintings evolving from Mughal miniature painting traditions of the 16th century, yet representing pertinent issues of today.
I suppose the collaboration, though executed in a slightly different way, is reflective of the collaborative efforts of artists who originally painted for the Mughal courts. In that era, three or four artists worked on a single painting together, each bringing in a separate skill to the piece. In the end, the finished work appeared to be painted by one person. Similarly, the mixed media pieces by Khadim Ali, Sher Ali and Mahwish Chishty in gouache, phototransfer and gold leaf on paper, embedded on hand-embroidered cloth, bring together snippets of various pieces by the artists, composed together to form coherent wholes. Here too, in the end, the work seems to be executed by a single artist.
What is interesting to note is that all three artists live across separate continents: Khadim Ali is based in Australia, Sher Ali is from Afghanistan and Mahwish Chishty in the U.S. Yet, their collaboration displays the blurring of geographical, physical as well as intellectual boundaries: in this exhibition, they all break barriers of space and collectively reconnect with their personal history through the examination of the transition of the decade-long ‘war on terror’. Perhaps any Pakistani and Afghani can easily understand why this topic resonates – rampant terrorism has affected the modes of living and thinking of people from both these nations, and seeped into our trajectories.
Lets take a look into the artists’ backgrounds. Khadim Ali was raised in exile in Quetta after his grandparents escaped a massacre of Hazaras in Afghanistan in the 1890s, and his parents remained in Pakistan. However, that brought no respite; Taliban violence against Hazaras continued, causing Ali to migrate to Australia in 2009 on a Distinguished Talent Visa, soon followed by his parents. His recent work focuses on the relationship of Afghanistan to refugees who have relocated to his home country. Sher Ali, Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, received his first art practices in Kabul in a local art center. In 2013 he completed his BFA at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, Pakistan, on a South Asia Foundation scholarship. Rooted in poetry, culture and history, his works pull in Afghanistan’s past, but with a contemporary perspective. They reflect years of genocide, terror, oppression, and a refusal to forget. Ali now works with installations, performances, videos, painting and sculpture. Mahwish Chishty initially trained as a miniature painter from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan, and later moved to the U.S. She combines new media and conceptual work with her traditional practice. Chishty camouflages modern war machines with folk imagery, and thus sheds light on the complexity of cultural imperialism, politics and power.
The pieces displayed at the gallery are all small in size, typical of miniature paintings, and named Crossfire (I-VIII) after the title of the show. Interestingly, this could represent not only literal crossfire experienced between those at war, but also ’crossfire’ of sorts between the visuals/themes/concerns of the three artists. Indeed, this could be so, as while the paintings appear visually balanced and aesthetically appealing overall, a closer look at each piece individually reveals the uniqueness of the fragments of Ali, Ali and Chishty’s works that are placed together in a single frame. The snippets of each artist’s works compete with each other in boldness, skill and execution, and scream out to be seen. Beautifully rendered calligraphy is seen next to superbly painted faces or animals, while the colourful wings of drones add geometrical balance to the works. Against a pure white background of reversed, unintelligible, embroidered calligraphy, the rich works stand out even more.
Perhaps the collective meaning of the works is best described in the statement, which states that, “Underlying concerns such as demonizing the political foe, the embodiment of good and evil by the superior and inferior, respectively, has been a common thread throughout history and across cultures and societies. The forces and groups representing ‘the superior/good’ have used every available means and opportunities to suppress ‘the inferior/evil’, without being accountable to any stakeholders. Words like ‘bugsplat’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘targeted killing’ has been used to dehumanize drone victims and create an emotional detachment between the drone operator and his/her enemy while the government discreetly conducts these missions. They have also defined and re-defined the terms of any social, cultural, economic and political relations between themselves and ‘the other’, as they have manipulated the religious and historical narrations to maintain the status quo.”
The fact that we only see small parts of each artist’s work, and not the whole, reminds one of how situations are manipulated by the media, where the viewer gets to see just a little, or distorted part of the entire picture. Perhaps these artists are asking us to piece the facts together to form our own understanding of the truth.
‘Crossfire: Show of Collaborative Works by Khadim Ali, Sher Ali, and Mahvish Chisty’ is on view from 6 August to 10 September 2015, at Gandhara-Art, Karachi. Images courtesy Gandhara-Art.
Shanzay Subzwari is an artist and art writer based in Karachi. She tweets @shanzaysubzwari.