The Islamabad Literature Festival, like the Karachi Literature Festival, has been expanding over the last few years to include all forms of art, not just literature, and has become a space for vibrant and open discussion on social and cultural issues.
For this year’s ILF, ArtNow, in collaboration with My Art World, organized the festival’s first art section featuring talks and an exhibition curated by long time ArtNow contributor and art historian Lavinia Filippi. Called ID, the group show examined the rootedness yet international receptiveness of a younger generation of Pakistani artists.
In keeping with the festival’s exploration of the interconnectedness of politics, art and culture, ArtNow’s first talk, “The State and The State of Art”, with artists Jamal Shah, Risham Syed, Adeela Suleman and moderated by writer Ilona Yusuf, examined the ways the Pakistani government has actively hindered the growth of art. The regime of censorship Zia ul Haq instigated in the 1970s paradoxically generated a newfound political consciousness in artists. As Jamal Shah explained, his draconian rule made young artists aware of their role in society and turned them into more responsible individuals. Yet at the same time as artist suffered under brutality and indifference of the state, the lack of state funding was almost a hidden blessing, since artists were able to retain political and intellectual independence, pointed out Risham Syed.
The next day, Rashid Rana, whose work interrogates an aesthetics of abstraction and arises from a language of minimalism, discussed his oeuvre with Quddus Mirza. At a point in his career, he explained, he decided to consciously develop a strategy that engaged a wider audience, rather than speaking to only a select few. He brought up his most ambitious work to date, an installation at the Singapore Biennale, of an airport departure lounge. The work grapples with the cyclical nature of history and the feeling of entrappement one can sometimes feel in the face of larger forces. His other works also examine the limits of sight and insight, what is real and what is an illusion created by self-created visual and mental tricks.
Former ambassador and parliamentarian Sherry Rehman spoke on art, culture and power with Sameera Raja of Canvas Gallery. “We don’t have Medicis” – the political dynasty that fostered the Italian Renaissance – “but we have powerful patrons”, whose support is preferable to that of the state, which tends to come with strings attached. She also stressed the importance of supporting young artists and embracing new types of art, alien though they may seem at first. Touching on some of the same topics as Saturday’s panel discussion, she said that after Zia, “designer art” – art as ornament and interior decoration – came into vogue. Great art, in contrast, stands as a contested friend, at times troubling but always speaking with honesty.
Art is a sensibility, not an activity or a commodity, said Jamal Shah, one which engages people in a dialogue and an understanding and respect of one another; it creates a space and is an agent for social change. In that sense, public forums such as these literary festivals exist on the same spectrum as art. In a country where the space for open dialogue is shrinking every day, the need for more discussions was made clear by the enthusiastic engagement and intelligent participation of the audience.
ArtNow is proud to have launched the first art sections at both the Karachi and Islamabad festivals and we hope to expand our programming to bring art to an even wider audience, one that is more than receptive and craves intellectual and cultural stimulation. Our thanks go to our artists, writers and readers in for their constant support in this endeavour.
Bye for NOW.