The word diaspora derives from the Greek words for “disperse” and “scatter” and it may refer to people who are settled or living away for their homelands. Migration, immigration, assimilation are words that crop up in relation to diaspora and are making headlines today in an ever-changing world where experiences and narratives of displacement are gaining worldwide attention. Whatever the context, this dispersion and living away though ultimately means reconciling oneself with taking on hyphenated identities whilst learning to adjust to the realities of a new environment.
This has been equally true for artists who have settled in other countries and continued to work under a new set of challenging circumstances. Language, text, cultural symbols became markers of difference employed by some artists that highlighted a consciousness of identity and multicultural roots that had hitherto been missing in their works. First and foremost though for many early Pakistani artists moving to another country was not just about experiencing a profound shift in their art making but also enduring a rather demoralizing sense of cultural and social dislocation.
Anwar Jalal Shemza was first exposed to these dilemmas when he was enrolled as a student in Slade School of Art between 1956-1960. In 1961 he had moved to the UK permanently. In a statement written in 1963 he mourns how he was an “established” painter in Pakistan with Solo exhibitions to his credit and whose work was housed in both private and Government collections yet within a few months he had failed his drawing test and had his work rejected by the Annual Young Contemporaries Exhibition. (Dadi, 2009). Conversely this time period also proved to be the most productive for him. Ultimately Shemza channeled his conflicts, musings and reflections into his work which resulted in his signature style; one that Iftikhar Dadi describes as “acknowledging its specific historical legacy but speaking to transnational modernism as an equal.” (Dadi, 2009)
Shemza’s geometric style was certainly a homage to modernism, he was influenced by Paul Klee, yet at the same time it was his visits to museums in Britain that featured Islamic exhibits containing ornamented textiles, carpets and calligraphies that sparked his imagination. From Roman alphabet as well as to Arabic script which was reduced to a formalist vocabulary of sinuous circles and lines, Shemza drew from these forms aesthetically. In the “Roots” series one could identify geometric plant forms that were sometimes combined with non- legible Arabic script. (Dadi, 2009).The hybrid nature of his images transcended culture, history and language giving voice to the realization and complexity of identity and his roots.
Being slotted into the category of a diaspora artist also sometimes meant confronting Eurocentric structures and institutionalized racism in the Western art world that either denied the complexity of identity or subsumed it under fossilized categories and stereotypes raising concerns pertaining to representation. Very few though from Pakistan have been as passionate and vocal about this politics of identity as Rashid Araeen. His fame as an artist rests on Minimalist sculpture but some of his work in the 60s and 70s asked important questions about the Self, identity and art in Europe that chose to “other” him. Araeen was a multifaceted figure who became a trailblazer in the 60s when he challenged these notions with art that highlighted the social and political conditions of its time faced by immigrants in UK also emphasizing that Modernism was not just a western but global phenomenon. In addition, he wrote manifestos and essays about the current predicament of the Eurocentric art market in a postcolonial world where people of colour and their contribution were reduced to the margins. This culminated in the founding and publication of the journal Third Text in 1987 which highlighted the role and importance of artists from non- Western countries who had often been the subject of reductive definitions by the Western art world. (Dadi, 2010)
Araeen’s response to the dilemma of being a diaspora artist during the economic and racial turmoil that shook Britain in the 70s became the basis for his 4-panel monochromatic “Ethnic Drawings” series made in 1982 that was executed on cardboard. A portrait of Araeen based on a photograph was reproduced in 4 panels in ink but featured four different variations executed in line. (Dadi, 2010)
Each panel has Urdu and English lettering and text arranged or scrawled on it albeit with different arrangements and compositions. The viewer struggles with its partial legibility and nonsensical nature but in some parts it articulated significant themes that critiqued postcolonial identity as well as the conflicts plaguing diaspora in a hostile and politically charged time in Britain. For example in one portrait features of Araeen’s face have been supplanted by text from the poem “Baa Baa Black Sheep” scrawled in and phrases like “Yes sir” and “one bag” in Roman script written across it. The entire image is interspersed with a mix of Urdu and English, testifying to the everyday spoken use of both languages while the reference to black sheep could be inferred as a reference to Araeen’s own place as an outcast or an outsider in the social and cultural milieu of his current home. (Dadi, 2010)
Other artists of Pakistani origin who continued to produce work in Britain but unlike Araeen, steered clear of such content included Masood Kohari, Tassaduq Sohail and Iqbal Geoffrey. Amongst the more recent crop of artists that can be classified as diaspora artists and stand out are Shazia Sikander, Tazeen Qayyum, Abdullah M. I. Syed , Iftikhar Dadi, Faiza Butt, Nusra Latif, Ruby Chishtee, Saira Waseem, Salman Toor and Khadim Ali.
Since the 70s’ many diaspora artists have been attempting to alter perceptions and stereotypes within what is still a Eurocentric art establishment but this has been a road fraught with many obstacles. Tazeen Qayyum graduated from National College of Arts, Lahore in 1996 with a Major in Miniature Painting. Her multimedia art practice has questioned cultural misconceptions, stereotyping and identity and recently she has turned to experimentation with text and performance. As a diaspora artist based in Canada she elaborated upon the advantages and challenges of entering the mainstream art scene there while she was still in the early stage of her career; introducing the aesthetics of miniature painting whose tradition is grounded in the Subcontinent was no mean feat
“Back then I felt that if I was living and working in my country, appreciation of my work would have been greater. The basic vocabulary of seeing a miniature and interpreting it is already there. Whereas the Canadian art scene is fairly conservative compared to the American or the British art scene. There is very little awareness of miniature painting. That vocabulary is missing. In that way there were alot of hindrances for entering the mainstream art scene for us with our background. Their first reaction was that this is not contemporary or mainstream. It comes from a craft tradition.” (Qayyum, 2017)
This scenario has, of course changed as more South Asian artist began making inroads but Qayyum conceded that artists from South Asia are also now appreciated for the same reason
“Whether it is our oil painters or miniature painters, the element of art making or skill is still very strong which is vanishing in the West. There is a new trend in the West now to go back to the making of art which is appreciated in the West.” (Qayyum, 2017)
Qayyum also elaborated upon how the content of her work altered with the change in location
“Before I moved, I focused more on personal stories that involved women and social issues… after 9/11 and what happened after and you know our names would come up in random checks at airports etc., also my environment changed, I began to think of other approaches“(Qayyum, 2017)
Navigating through shifts in identity vis. a vis. events that have had global impacts as described by Qayyum has also meant that there are limits imposed on Pakistani artists such as the fact that they may be coerced into pursuing subject matter that is in the news headlines relating to terrorism, war or being a refugee. A case in point is Khadim Ali who is also a graduate of National College of Arts, Lahore with a Major in Miniature painting. He hails from Quetta and belongs to the Hazara community but owing to persecution by the Taliban sought refuge in and settled in Australia. His dramatic murals, carpets and meticulously painted narratives showcase consummate skill and a poetic sensibility that is a powerful sensory experience to behold yet the work cannot escape associations with the newsworthy labels of “refugee”, “exile” etc. Is this sensationalism? Do they limit appreciation or interpretations of work that may owe its understanding to a more complex, nuanced and wider discourse? This is a Catch-22 situation for simultaneously, the platforms that have pandered to the market have also afforded Ali with recognition and respect for his talent.
The global art market is, after all, like all capitalist pursuits, driven by money and as Rashid Araeen puts it when asked if the younger generation of Pakistani artists “has been able to escape multicultural cages, trapping artists within their cultures of origin” (Jackson, 2015) he says
“No they have to carry the Pakistani flag in order to interest the art market, otherwise the market won’t accept them…”
“…This is a global problem. The Chinese have to be Chinese the Japanese have to be Japanese…this is part of globalization. No one these days can just be artists”. (Jackson, 2015)
Other diaspora artists have tackled colonialism and postcolonial identity as subject matter which has allowed them to connect to and inform a broader swath of audience. Shazia Sikander has made a conscious effort to adhere to a research driven approach with mediums and practices that underscore a transnational lens to her art making. Her video animation “Parallax” for example explores histories of colonialism with respect to the East India Company, trade and structures of power in the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. The animations were created from hundreds of hand-drawn paintings.
Some have deliberately sidestepped such subject matter altogether and with success it seems. Rather than focusing on consciousness of cultural identity on the basis of difference, Salman Toor in “Are You Here?”, in a visually anecdotal style paints scenes of everyday life in Lahore and New York where he currently resides. Seemingly banal, everyday and even prosaic, they emphasize a kind of relatable interconnectedness and fluidity of identity that characterizes life in a globalized world.
For young Pakistani artists reflecting on our realities today, tackling origin and identity whilst residing in another country is a double- edged sword. While the ouvres and content of many artists indicate that there is more flexibility in experimentation now but it still requires tenacity and ingenuity from artists if they are to navigate their way through a money-spinning global art market that is prone to rigid stereotyping in many respects.
Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/diaspora
Dadi, I. (2009). Shemza and Calligraphic Abstraction [pdf],London: Green Cardamom.
Dadi, I. (2010). Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia [Ebook] (pp. 180-192). United States of America: The University of North Carolina Process
Lahore Biennale Foundation. (2017). In Lahore Biennale01 (p. 106,107). Lahore.
Lahore Biennale Foundation. (2017). In Lahore Biennale01 (p. 110,111). Lahore.
Jackson, N. (2015). Storming the Margins. Newsweek Pakistan, 34-35.
Qayyum, T. (2017). Interview [In person]. Lahore.
Nauwelaerts, T. (2017). Shahzia Sikander “Parallax” at Honolulu Museum of Art.[Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-V5Cs38H4tg