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Like a Magician’s Act

Hasnat Mehmood talks to ArtNow about why he oscillates between various art forms and why he challenges ideas about traditions.

ArtNow: Like many other artists, you trained in traditional miniature painting, which you practiced for some time, but over the years you have moved in different directions, such as installations and conceptual art. How did this happen and how do you view this? Do you view it as a transition or a break, or do you feel there is a link between your work from the past and present?
Hasnat Mehmood: I don’t know if I was really trained in the traditional miniature painting style. I think in Pakistan we have invented a whole new genre/style/set of techniques known as the ‘traditional miniature painting,’ and it is still evolving and inspiring so many other fields of visual inquiries.
Learning this technique meant that I was looking at the works from our region and surroundings; however, this art was not discussed in so much detail in the art history classes at the National College of Arts in the late 1990s-early 2000s when I was a student. That absence had a negative impact because it gave the impression that miniature painting was not considered as a form of high art but rather just as craftwork.
My practice has definitely evolved to become what it is today, not in disconnection from what it was but with the continuity of practice. I don’t think that miniature painting, installation and conceptual art are mutually exclusive categories of art making. Today they intersect seamlessly in my work, as well as in the work of other artists in Pakistan.
AN: In your work, you deal with the ideas more than the formal or technical aspects, with the result that each new work looks different in appearance from previously shown pieces.
HM: I suppose art has to be new all the time, whether conceptually or formally. There should be some element of surprise, like in a magician’s act. The same tricks can only work if you bring in some new ones. Otherwise you would have to deal with rotten tomatoes.
AN: How do you see the present practice of miniature painting in Pakistan?
HM: I think the practice has gained momentum thanks to the steady market for the genre which is helping to shape it into a concrete form. The miniature practice has influenced quite a lot of work produced during past ten years in many aspects. But I think we need to be more critical of this phase, and that is where the role of the teacher/instructor/artist becomes more crucial and challenging.
AN: In your opinion, how did the shift from traditional to contemporary take place in miniature, and who were the main exponents of this change? Were there any other factors responsible for this transformation?
HM: I don’t know about the origin of this shift of traditional into contemporary or modern miniature, but I do know that the miniature format has always been changing to serve the needs of the times. In our region, miniature painting has been the heritage of art; and artists in other fields like painting and printmaking have had to deal with this history and have also been inspired by it. Oil painting was not popular here before the twentieth century; water-based pigments were the preferred paints. As such, the technique of miniature painting has actually changed the way that oil/acrylic painting is practiced here, as opposed to what it looked like in Europe and elsewhere. Somehow miniature painting has also opened up a dialogue of self-criticism and appreciation through the lens of history.
AN: When you make art, especially your present work, do you have your audience at the back of your mind, and if so, what kind of audience?
HM: Our first audience is always ourselves I suppose, when we see the complete work for the first time. After completion the work leaves our personal boundaries.
If you talk about my very recent works, then I am trying to reach everybody by painting outside in public spaces.
AN: Do you find any link between the art of the past, particularly from the Mughal period or earlier in this region, and today’s work?
HM: I think there is a big gap of practices between the past and present. I think if our region had retained and managed their past works, there could have been some connection. All of our art is in the biggest museums of the world, and we don’t have easy access to it.
Even the works from our recent past are in bad shape and the institutions that are supposed to be taking care of them are actually ruining or damaging them. Lahore Museum is an example of how our art works are deteriorating without proper supervision and management.
AN: In your view, how can an artist make use of tradition?
HM: All artists follow the traditions of making art, and of being an artist. Traditions actually exist in all levels of society and they shape our ideas of everything, including what it means to be an artist. Generally, people are comfortable with traditions, so in order to get their attention artists use accepted ideas as bait. But it is up to artists to both utilize and question these traditions, and that is what I try to do. I appreciate traditions, but I also wonder how and why they exist, and I challenge ideas about what traditions mean.
AN: Even though one cannot separate the two, for you as the maker of image, is the idea more important or its execution?
HM: Ideas are in the domain of non-tangible and they stay the same. They float everywhere and surround everyone. The execution of ideas becomes another idea or concept when we transform the ideas into paintings or poetry or a video. In visual arts, the image is especially important. Thus, the medium of expression becomes more important than the idea even though it only serves to present the idea.

AN: Looking at the art produced today and your own work too, do you believe that the artist’s touch in making his work is essential, if at all?
HM: I don’t mind a little help if needed. But I would like to tell you about an article I was reading by one of the assistants to Jeff Koons. He described the state-of-the-art machinery and talented individuals working for the famous artist. He had helped with a painting of an eggshell with cracks on it, and when the painting got damaged because of an accident in the studio and he was asked to paint it again, he got stressed out and left the job.
AN: How do you perceive and compare Pakistani art with international art? Do you think the acceptance of Pakistani art in the international community is a permanent feature or merely part of a temporary fashion?
HM: In Pakistan, we acquire a lot of our ideas about what is art or what is good art from the West, and we use the visual languages of the Western art world, so our practices are recognized internationally.
For continuing international acceptance of Pakistani art, we need more critical and in-depth interrogation of visual art practices here. We need to investigate the complexity of making art in Pakistan in order to develop it further.

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