How the West was Won: Pakistani Artists Take On Western Art

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How the West was Won: Pakistani Artists Take On Western Art

Some artists working now in Pakistan challenge the global art world. Theirs is a critique of the power relations that exist between the East and West

On the Need for a Public Art Collection
Hamra Abbas
Craft & Beyond

Some artists working now in Pakistan challenge the global art world. Theirs is a critique of the power relations that exist between the East and West and offers insights into the complex dynamics of the networks in which artistic influences traverse. They take on Western art to suit their needs, including offering multifaceted and nuanced views of the effects of larger social and political processes such as colonialism and globalization. In Hasnat Mehmood’s Made in Pakistan, the artist presents the portrait that has captivated so many. He renders Mona Lisa in pencil in a convincing manner—viewers might believe it is a preliminary sketch by Da Vinci himself.
For many, Mona Lisa is the artwork that defines great art and serves as the source of inspiration for young artistic minds even, and perhaps especially, in Pakistan. By copying it, Mehmood positions himself next to possibly the greatest artist ever. On closer inspection of the drawing, forms disintegrate and circular lines become visible. It is a technique that is meant to evoke the process used in making paintings in court ateliers during the reign of the Mughal emperors in the Indian subcontinent (1527-1856).
Mehmood’s training in Mughal miniature painting is an important aspect of his practice because he often addresses the method in how he makes his work, though in unexpected ways. In this particular work, he experiments with miniature painting by utilizing the latest available technology. His act comes with a whole history of baggage, from the Pakistani claim of Mughal art as its heritage to the desire of postcolonial artists to utilize something local to formulate their artworks. It stems from an urge to sever ties to the West that began during the time of colonialism, when colonizing nations encouraged a structure of dependency.
Indeed, the inclusion of such a commercial moniker—made in Pakistan—seems to suggest that the work is not as important as the Mona Lisa that hangs in Paris. This declaration is similar to the tags found on clothes, toys, and a variety of other products that are mass-produced cheaply in the East and sold in the West. And it seems to state that the drawing in question is similarly produced—a secondary version of the original work. It is a playful self-effacing act that simultaneously places the artist in the role of Da Vinci or, more likely, Marcel Duchamp (who famously mustached a copy of the painting), but also questions such a bold appointment. Made in Pakistan does not dare to say that its maker is just as good as Da Vinci or Duchamp, or any Western artist. Instead, it is a much more complex statement that shifts the importance of Western art and civilization by inserting a number of questions and concerns into the scenario.
The answer is not to suddenly place all artists around the world on equal positions, but to consider the impact of colonialism and other phenomena that have encouraged inequality. In another work, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the artist copies an important work of Mughal art that is now resides in a British collection—one such casualty of colonialism. The effects of colonialism are also addressed in Made in Pakistan through tagging it as “Made in Pakistan.” The phrase refers to the business of transnational corporations that utilize cheaper labor force in parts of the world like Pakistan. Some argue that this economic system maintains the kind of reliance that bound together the colonizer and the colonized during the time of colonialism and continues under the guise of globalization.
Amber Hammad problematizes this strained relationship between the East and the West by using Western concepts and images in her work to address her life and needs in Pakistan. She has incorporated Western art into her pictures, but, it has always been in such a way as to implicate or assert herself in the act of interpreting Western culture. American mass culture, for example, is not manipulating her in an unwitting manner. Instead, it is about choice and selection—she actively adopts certain behavior and products, but disregards others.
One such appropriation is the fairytales told to children. Prolific writers such as Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm wrote these stories in the West. The fantasy worlds portrayed in such anecdotes were based on life in Europe, but grounded in universal ideas of good and bad. In Pakistan today, these are the same stories told to children, albeit through an Urdu translation. Rather than tell local tales, the preference is for the timeless legends emerging out of the West. Hammad adopts the story of Little Red Riding Hood in a work from 2002, by dressing herself up in the role of the fairytale girl. In this work, the artist is interested in the various personae that people take on in an attempt to heed traditional values expounded in fairytales that continue to remain important.
More recently, for her MFA degree show, the artist dressed up again for photographs. This time she focused on the way clothing and identity are linked. She argues that they are subject to cultural conditions and affected by the globalized world. In her series of digital collages, she appropriates well-known images from Western art history and does what she did previously: insert herself into the stories and ideas of the West. She becomes the main characters in Manet’s Olympia, Wood’s American Gothic, and Warhol’s Elvis, among others. In doing so, she shifts the entire meanings of the original works, even as she maintains close ties to them.
Hammad does not disguise herself in the semblance of Westerners. Rather, she manipulates Western concepts and goods to suit her lifestyle. She comes from an upper middle class family in urban Pakistan, and her imagery reflects the kinds of changes that this economic group has undergone. According to her, the clothing designs that are shown in Pakistani media mirror the shifts in ideas related to gender in the youth of this economic class. The artist observes that women’s fashion offers a more globalized look. Her digital collages present these outfits, most clearly in a work in which she appears multiple times dressed in a variety of clothes that range from more Western to more Eastern in appearance and everything in between.
Perhaps the subtlest reference to the changing Pakistani lifestyle is The God of Small Things, a work based on the easily recognizable painting by Andrew Wyeth entitled Christina’s World. She substitutes Christina for herself and the rural homes in the background for an urban shopping mall. Wyeth had made a portrait of his neighbor who had polio; even though she is crippled, there is dignity and strength in her character. In Hammad’s depiction, the woman seems to be debilitated because of her desperate need to get to the shopping mall where she can purchase heaps of clothes in the so-called globalized look. Her dress in the image mimics the one that Christina wears; however, the Pakistani woman domesticates her dress by adding trousers and a dupatta (fabric used to cover the head and chest).
Several Pakistani artists have a fascination with Western art. In fact, Pakistani artists in the years after independence utilized a style that they termed as cubism. Many of these works do not appear to heed the doctrines of this style, perhaps because a lot of the artists who claimed to make cubist works did not see these paintings in person. Often they looked in books and catalogues to view art that was located elsewhere. Ayaz Jokhio (b. 1978) addressed this phenomenon in paintings that he first made as a student. He depicted pages from art history textbooks showing images of great Western art because this was the way he was able to interact with it. This approach is utilized after his student days in Experiencing van Gogh that includes a reproduction of the Dutch artist’s famous self-portrait with a bandaged ear. Jokhio’s painted copy is reproduced out of a book, a la Sherrie Levine who took photographs of images of artworks in catalogues. But it is different from Levine’s work because it reveals the context of this copy. Viewers see the opened book on a desk with surrounding clutter.
Experiencing van Gogh is aliteral title of how the artist has interacted with van Gogh. What the artist noticed when he looked through books is that a painting that has the dimensions of one by one foot could appear to be same as a work that measures ten by ten feet. So instead of copying the works according to the size reproduced in textbooks, he painted them their actual sizes. By doing this, the artist draws attention to the manner that art is usually viewed in postcolonial nations: through secondary means. Until recently, very few artists had or availed opportunities to go abroad where they could visit galleries and museums to see the actual works of art. They got to know about art outside of Pakistan through books and photographs brought back by those who did get to travel or study abroad. On some levels, especially for younger artists, the same situation persists as they turn to the Internet to view the latest works. Extended further, the necessity to look at Western art places importance on this art, and consequentially gives less significance to the local culture. Jokhio’s painting speaks of his specific experience on the fringes of the art world.
Viewing art in Pakistan has other peculiarities that Jokhio explores in similarly formatted paintings. Naked Maja/Clothed Maja reproduces Goya’s paintings as they appear in a manuscript on his work. Viewers see the image with its details beside it and portions of the text written about the painting. Jokhio added a new feature that would not be found on Goya’s Naked Maja, but would be seen in a book sold in the secondhand markets of Pakistan: underwear rendered in black marker to cover exposed body parts. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, public displays of nudity can get you into serious trouble. Booksellers ‘dress up’ and thereby damage books in order to avoid problems.
Like Naked Maja/Clothed Maja, all of the works discussed in the essay share the trait of being about life in Pakistan, even as they appropriate works of Western art. Part of the reason they take on Western art is to address the kind of historical conditions that the region has faced because of European occupation and American dominance that continue to effect the social and cultural environment in the South Asian nation.

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