Ernst Fischer in his book “The Necessity of Art” writes that the function of art “is always to move the whole man, to enable the “I” to identify itself with another’s life, to make its own what it is not and yet is capable of being.” (Fischer, 1971)
Jamal Shah’s life and career reads like an embodiment of these ideals; over the years he has continued to reinvent himself successfully each time donning multiple roles as artist, educator, actor, script writer, director and activist. Yet Shah has always maintained that art should be acknowledged as an agent for social change for it has the capacity to recognize the hidden potential of each individual. Transcending boundaries and difference is one of the key functions of art according to Jamal Shah. In one of his interviews he acknowledged this by saying that “only art has the ability to engage people intimately with their surroundings. It helps human beings evolve into productive individuals who are duly trained and sensitized to modern ideas of diversity and democratic principles which provides for the foundation of a tolerant society, a society that encourages positive dialogue” (Azad, 2019)
These beliefs became manifest very early in his career where he emerged as a trailblazer of sorts setting several precedents that can be read as a series of firsts: he became the first founding father for the establishment of the Fine arts Department (1984) at the University of Balochistan. (“Jamal Shah By Painters of Pakistan”, n.d.) Jamal Shah was also the first Pakistani artist whose work was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Credit for the first Pakistani television drama on AIDS, “Kal” can also be attributed to Shah who wrote, directed and acted in the production and set a milestone in the early 2000s. (Omar, n.d.)
The most recent feather in his cap though that will continue to be hailed in the years to come as another certain first is his role in helping Pakistan make its debut at the “Art Olympics” of the art world, the prestigious Venice Biennale currently being held this year. This is the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale which opened in May 2019. As Director General Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) Jamal Shah has been made commissioner from Pakistan for the Pavilion by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Internationally acclaimed artist Naiza Khan is representing Pakistan while the collection has been curated by Zahra Khan who heads Foundation Art Divvy. (Daily Pakistan, 2019)
The Venice Biennale – held biennially (in odd-numbered years), is an art organisation based in Venice. As alternatives to museums, Biennales have, over the years, emerged as institutions that have labels of prestige and acknowledgment of international recognition attached to them. According to academic, educator and writer Samina Iqbal Pakistan had begun participating in Biennales immediately after Partition citing the Sao Paulo Biennale of 1955 as one example with participation continuing as late as 1975 (Iqbal, 2018). The Sao Paulo Biennale is the second oldest Biennale in the world and emulates the Venice Biennale which, as the Financial Times informally but aptly puts it, really is the “the grand-daddy of all artfests” (Adams, 2009) for the term itself, “Biennale” was first popularized in Italy by the Venice Biennale, an arts organization based in Venice established in 1895. So in essence its historical foundation and prestigious lineage offers participants instant validation and recognition on a global scale. (“Venice Biennale: History and Impact”, n.d.)
For Jamal Shah, as Director General of PNCA, should this be an opportunity to use the platform to engage with an international audience and challenge its preconceived notions of the country’s image and representation? Apparently so because Jamal Shah has affirmed this by stating in an interview that “This is not only an opportunity to display Pakistani art on such a big platform of international level, but it is also an attempt to project a soft image of the country across the world”.(Tribune, 2019) It was on the basis of a specific agenda that Pakistani artists were once sponsored and supported by the Culture Ministry of Pakistan in the past as well (Iqbal, 2018) so Jamal Shah’s statement seems to be in line with pursuing art diplomacy on behalf of the country yet the nature of production and circulation of art has, since then, changed over the years with artists turning to alternatives other than government support and establishing themselves nationally and internationally. For example, Naiza Khan has won acclaim as an artist both nationally and internationally for her work exhibited at the Pavilion which is titled “Manora Field Notes”. This indicates that thematic concerns are of paramount importance rather than just simplistic national representation at Biennales.
As an artist who has been witness to a turbulent political past himself the current theme of the Biennale this year “May You Live in Interesting Times” should also strike a chord with some of Shah’s own conceptual concerns and visual motifs in his paintings that critique censorship, dictatorship and oppression. The Chinese curse is a colonial construct and was quoted by British MP, Sir Austen Chamberlain who learnt it from a diplomat posted in Asia. The theme of the Biennale is fitting for a world still reeling from “alternative facts” and “fake news”. (Rugoff, 2019) Discourse on everything from environmental awareness to the uncertainty of times has made its presence felt at the Biennale this year. In line with the theme, Naiza Khan examines the archive of material collected from Manora, off the port of Karachi and its conflicting narratives. In doing so she highlights the complexity of history and her landscape. As an art activist and representative of the country it is hoped that Jamal Shah will carpe diem and use this platform as effectively to set another milestone.
Biennales that have followed and were held in other parts of the world have, over the years, sought to challenge and decenter the Eurocentric hegemony of art; after all it wasn’t until 1954 that the Venice Biennale even attempted to show interest in other non-western countries and allowed them to participate. (Iqbal, 2018) therefore Naiza Khan’s presence at the Venice Biennale this year marks a pivotal moment. Her subject matter engages with the nuances and textures of a fractured historical past and its present; it encompasses themes of migration, displacement and belonging. Her content quietly attempts to sidestep the prevalent essentializing stereotypes that have so far, provided a skewed and myopic lens for understanding the region. This body of work has potential for offering an alternative perspective that may pave the way for generating a more meaningful critical dialogue in the future that will in turn allow access to a wider swathe of audience. Many Pakistani artists have and continue to earn international fame and recognition by selling art at art fairs and in gallery shows. Ergo in this era of a globalized economy the mood and expectation in the wake of this news is aspirational- Pakistan is attempting to assert itself as a worthy competitor in the global arena of art and it is hoped that Jamal Shah will help tip the scales in Pakistan’s favour.
Fischer, E. (1971). The Necessity of Art A Marxist Approach [Ebook] (p. 14). Great Britain: Penguin Books. Retrieved from artforwhat.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/fischer-ernst-the-necessity-of-art-with-notes.pdf
Azad, Z. (2017). ‘Only art can counter the current wave of radicalisation in Pakistan’. Retrieved from dailytimes.com.pk/160429/art-can-counter-current-wave-radicalisation-pakistan/
Jamal Shah By Painters of Pakistan. Retrieved from paintersofpakistan.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/jamal-shah/
Omar, Z. Jamal Shah, A Man of Many Dimensions. Retrieved from www.artnowpakistan.com/jamal-shah-a-man-of-many-dimensions/
Iqbal, S. (2018). The Matrix of Biennales and Pakistan. Retrieved from www.artnowpakistan.com/the-matrix-of-biennales-and-pakistan/
Adams, G. (2009). Trading Places. Retrieved from www.ft.com/content/63f20e8a-50a4-11de-9530-00144feabdc0
Venice Biennale: History and Impact. Retrieved from www.australiacouncil.gov.au/workspace/uploads/files/venice-biennale-history-and-im-59b08f2396dab.pdf
In a first, Pakistani artist to participate in Venice Biennale. (2019). Retrieved from tribune.com.pk/story/1914044/1-first-pakistani-artist-participate-venice-biennale-2019/
Rugoff, R. (2019). 58th Venice Biennale 2019 May You Live in Interesting Times. https://universes.art/en/venice-biennale/2019/may-you-live-in-interesting-times/