Looking Back, Moving Forward: connections of art and craft

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Looking Back, Moving Forward: connections of art and craft

This essay is excerpted from a longer essay on the relationship of art and craft, written ten years ago, when international markets saw a directional

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This essay is excerpted from a longer essay on the relationship of art and craft, written ten years ago, when international markets saw a directional change in the making and reading of art within the local contexts in the 1990s. This reading locates few concerns that emerged at the beginning of the decade, with discussion of some examples of craft-based work.


A version of this essay was printed in Jamini, Bangladesh, in 2009. By permission from Bengal Art.



There is an overlap between the aesthetics on the street and in the studio or gallery in urban Pakistan. Often, the museum object and age-old forms/aesthetics can be located in the lived experience. Handmade objects, such as toys in clay may still be crafted like the specimens found in Mehrgarh, in 7000 B.C. Henna designs have embellished brides’ hands for centuries are a living tradition, like many others.


The past and the present do not exactly form an embrace, yet they co-exist. A directional change, through residences, and exchanges addresses an international audience, in which case, craft/ local becomes a potential tool of ‘exploitation’ (as opposed to exploration); to serve market demands of the emerging markets. The narratives that cross social and ideological ideals, apart from boundaries of time and space are migratory, transient and in flux. Artists become strangers in their own land and the alignment to the new framework of global citizenry seeks further separation from the source. These points of separation also become indicators of departures, of returns and endless new possibilities.


Contemporary or Neo Miniature is one of the most visible examples of the link (or lack of) to a traditional method of art making. Initiated at the National College of Art (NCA), Lahore, a group of artists trained in traditional miniature making of the Pahari, Besholi, Mughal and other schools started to dismantle its traditional frame. With Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi and others, who were also heirs to the late Zahoor al Akhlaque’s legacy which sought to reinvent Miniature, a new process started to take root in the 90s. Sikander fused her training with a contemporary idiom. Unlike many of the practitioners who were simply copying the old method of painting and replacing imagery with current and modern images from the present, Sikander looked at the very structure of Miniature, translating it into her own. Her experimentation saw a continuous transformation of tradition into a hybrid space.


In Sikander’s video work SpiNN, 2003 gopis, the female devotees of the Hindu Lord Krishna, were placed around him instead of courtiers who would have surrounded the emperor in a traditional painting, As the animation progressed, the hairdos of the gopis become separated from their bodies, appearing as disparate forms. In Pursuit Curve, 2004, she returned to the two dimensional in the cut-out shapes of the courtiers’ turbans, only to pull further away from it. These shapes defied easy categorization, and animation, Shahzia said, ‘provides a way to disrupt tradition through the transformation of a new motif.’ (1)

In Imran Quresh’s miniature, the rainfall that was initially inspired from its depiction in the Bisholi School could not remain contained within the frames or haashias of the manuscript. It was reinvented as an assertion that defied the very tradition it referenced. In the recent show curated by Salima Hashmi, Hanging Fire, at Asia Society in NewYork, Imran’s patent rainfall or raindrops were painted around the waterpipes of the gallery space. At the inaugural show of the National Gallery in Islamabad, in 2007, the raindrops had already started to bleed out of the frame onto the gallery walls.


The discipline of miniature conventions is still passed on to students under the tutelage of the master tutor Ustad Basheer Ahmed at the NCA. Students learn meticulous techniques of brushwork, tea staining, preparation of the paper (wasli) and pigment from traditional materials such as squirrel hair brushes, mussel shell paint pots, with laborious copying from manuscripts in order to understand them in detail. In the final year, the students are given free rein to experiment and stretch their imagination.


Neo/Miniature provides reading into the direction of contemporary art in Pakistan, where there is a re-engagement with the past. Playing to the demands of an international market audience who are seduced by the skill and ‘exoticness’ of imagery and material, however, remains an underlying issue, one that can limit Neo Miniature into an endless tool of market aspirations. The circuit of galleries and auction houses promoting the work of young miniaturists outside Pakistan that are mushrooming rapidly are also changing the relationship of Pakistani art to its local context.


Historically, Abdur Rahman Chughtai also took inspiration from Mughal and Persian miniature. ‘He was an equally ardent participant in the awakening of an Indian art free of Western influence which the Bengal School espoused’, writes Dr Akbar Naqvi (2):


‘The style he (Chughtai) evolved, true to its origin, was not based on visual depth as in nature, which Abindranath uses time and again in his miniatures. Space in Chughtai’s paintings was either a design made of flat planes, or a combination of this with volumes derived from colour washes. The first he took from the best of Persian miniatures, while the wash technique he picked up from the Far East by proxy. The appearance of infallable depth of space on the surface comes from his washes.’ (3)


Naqvi, in his essay on Chughtai, remarks on the revolutionary nature of Chughtai’s imagery, and comments that his art was ‘one discourse among other discourses on colonialism and independence’ and that his painting was ‘a radical departure from the Indian and Persian miniature tradition of the past, but still within its history’ (4). Chughtai’s work was about a Muslim revival in the face of Hindu nationalism. Thus, he art envisioned a Muslim identity represented by Muslim heritage, such as by incorporating elements of Mughal architecture and a stylised depiction of the past glory of the Muslims, inspired also from the poets of Urdu and Persian (like Saadi, Hafiz, Khayyam and Iqbal). It was related to the magic realism of Pahari miniature and spiritual (Sufi) design of the Persian. Chughtai’s own writings such as Muqalaat-e-Chughtai, Muraqqa, the Naqsh, Chughtai’s Hindu paintings, Amal e Chughtai (on Iqbal’s verses) and Kar-e-Chughtai, provided commentary on his aesthetics and response to colonialism. He writes:


‘Cultural values and capabilities are recognised only through shape and form. I have therefore, at every stage …tried to highlight our cultural values and traditions, so that my work may establish its Oriental authenticity. Only the ones with attachments to their past can ensure complete stability and permeance for their future…copying western styles and schools of thought based on vanity is nothing to be proud of. Copying and imitating are frauds perpetuated on society, because they are devoid of revolutionary forces. Innovation, originality and courage cannot be achieved by imitating and copying. Because truthfulness is the outcome of being realistic; it cannot be accessed by blindly following the Western thought and style’. (5)


In the same essay, Chughtai talks about ‘promoting cultural ties and traditions’ through his art, and speaks about being both an individual and nation. Akbar Naqvi traces his art as belonging to the material world, but also to the world of the soul, a world of ‘unquestioning faith’.


Mian Salahuddin and Sheherezade Alam, also from the NCA, function within the nexus of the contemporary and the traditional, infusing the language of clay with knowledge of local material, its aesthetics and philosophy. The tradition of the clay vessel simply by virtue of its material and link to the earth of the land from where it is borne. For Scheherazade, ‘clay has been a source of spiritual strength since Sufijee, the village potter who worked with her, made her aware of its indigenous link to Sufic teaching. Sufijee(‘s) ritual of lighting a dia or oil lamp never failed to pay homage to the Creator before he began his work. Potters for centuries have worked with the Kulalnama, a book of prayers which they recite before firing their kiln. These Sufi potters who are linked to the Naqshbandi silsila of artisans believe that the pursuit of perfection in their craft is akin to prayer’. (6)


Sheherezade engaged by the communal degh (cooking pot) tradition as well as the bareness and simplicity of Finnish design aesthetics. She does not sign any of her creations which must be part of a larger system, in which the collective is more important than the individual. The artist (or artisan) becomes one with nature. She worked with modern kilns, and experimented with the traditional local firing techniques. It was, the ‘kumbhar, her (Sheherezade’s) craft ancestor, who continued to inspire the studio potter in Sherhezade, with his lineage that can be traced back to the 7th millennium BC.’ She also found affinity with the concerns of Hamada and Leach, who had carried out a revival movement of traditional craft pottery in Japan and England. (7)


In 2009, she conducted a ceramics workshop at a local art school in which students were introduced to the clay forms from the Indus Valley by the Master potter or Kumbhar Ustad Nawaz. The Ustad specialises in the replication of Harappan pottery. Entitled, Clay, The Teacher, a workshop such as this, no matter how limited the outreach, will acquaint aspiring young art students of the flawless hand building and throwing techniques of the craft traditions. ‘To Alam, history and clay cannot be separated and to articulate that she introduced clay forms from a past civilisation to present the stories embedded in a range of clay vessels, toys, bracelets, necklaces excavated at Mohenjodaro and Harappa’.   (8)


Naazish Attaullah writes about Mian Salahuddin’s ‘large cylindrical forms hav(ing) a monolithic and timeless presence.’ (9) Mian received early exposure to clay toys in his childhood in Kasur. ‘His decades long experiment with the four-legged animal forms (the gugoo goras as they are called) echoes the rugged strength of the beast of burden through gritty textures and hybrid shapes’. (10) These ghoras or horses became his signature form, whose lineage can be traced to the craft traditions of rural Sindh and Punjab.


Riffat Alvi, studio artist, one of the very early graduates of the Karachi School of Art, director of the VM Art Gallery has incorporated clay and local spices into her paintings. Trained as a painter, she has expanded her vocabulary by interventions that have taken her to the Alta Mira caves in Spain, and in Pakistan to Mehergarh and Mohenjordaro Her Mohenjodaro Series (1990) references the seals and the undeciphered language of the past. (11)The motif of the Chawkandi tombs, Bhambhore, Mehargarh entered her work for the first time and this exploration developed into a sustained dialogue with clay. Alvi used words from the Urdu alphabet in site specific installations, in which alphabets made in clay were displayed with the rahal. The work could be read on many levels, but it most prominently addressed the art (or craft) of khattati (calligraphy). Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan surfaced and was promoted by the state during the Martial law regime of general Zia ul Haq in the 80s in favour of figurative work. Riffat, however took her own path that was closer to nature, explored the different earth colours and textures, incorporating them in her paintings on canvas, and later on board. Her affinity with the local kumbhar and craft-based work was absorbed into a contemporary idiom, that eventually also became three dimensional. Alvi’s installation of clay alphabets and her experiments with clay birds were part of the exhibition, Tale of the Tile (2006), held at the Mohatta Palace museum. Her clay birds perched against charred wooden structures were symbols of hope in violence ridden Karachi of the 90s. In 2009, they are embellished with intricate henna designs. The surface decorations were similar to the bharat or pattern used by craftswomen in rural Pakistan to embellish clay ware. Traditionally, the women are assigned this job, so that when they get married, they do not carry the other secrets of the clay process into their new families. These are oral traditions passed on from father to son. Alvi’s Forgotten Cities (1991, Zimbabwe) and Lost Civilisation series (1993, Commonwealth institute, UK) and other work became a meeting point for the old and the new, the archaic and the modern as it also initiates a debate on beauty and kitsch, blurring the boundaries between art and craft.


Akram Dost Baloch has been working quietly for decades in his hometown of Quetta. Akram’s oeuvre signifies the deep connection of carpet weaving and design aesthetics local to the Balochi culture. He is known for his carving on diyaar wood. He carves out the shapes that signify the harsh terrain of Baluchistan. The female is represented as a strong anchor, one who emits endurance and is surrounded by animals, like dogs that protect her. Interweaved are the patterns that Dost encountered as a child, taking part in communal crafts. The complexity of his vision and iconography needs to be understood in greater depth, but it is important to understand that marginalised voices such as his persist despite the directional change within the mainstream. It is an affirmation that craft and “art” are interlinked, if not inseparable.


Initiatives such as Funkor, headed by Fauzia Minallah (in Islamabad) has been engaging with the craft tradition of Chitarkari or slate carving. The rural craftspeople are being encouraged to continue the engraving of slate with intricate designs by being provided consumer markets in urban Islamabad. ‘For centuries, in the small villages of the Ganger Mountains and the Hazara district of the Frontier in Pakistan, slate engravings were used exclusively to decorate tombstones. The slate would be excavated from quarries in these mountains and sold to craftsmen in the villages. The slate engravers would painstakingly engrave the smoother slabs with different symbols and geometric patterns. With the introduction of harder material such as cement and marble in the 60s, which are easier to chisel, the use of slate started dying out. Soon these artisans turned to masonry and carpentry. Fauzia, along with the master craftsmen like Said Rahman, Aziz ur Rahman and Mohammad Ilyas are reviving this ancient art. ‘(12). Today, there is a revival to make furniture like table tops and screens from slate by the same artisans. In Karachi, Noorjehan Bilgrami has shown the original slate carvings at Koel gallery. She has worked extensively on the revival of the Ajrak cloth, indigenous to Sindh.


Urban iconography of Truck Art was used in the early 90s by Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth, to bridge the gap between the art in the gallery and the art on the street. Street colors and imagery was seen for the first time in the context of the ‘mainstream’. Collaborations with local truck art painters, cinema billboard painters, sign painters, embroiderers of clothing, darzis (tailors) and electricians and the studio artist were the beginning of a new dialogue that brought the local /popular into the international arena. Much of this work was shown at the Fukoka Museum. Later explorations into the local can be seen in works of artists such as Adeela Suleman, who started off using the popular as sculpture, moved on to carve her own vocabulary with the found object from the local. In her early work, stainless steel strainers used in bathrooms became sculptural form, giving a new meaning to the ‘readymade’ as art. Here too there was a marriage of craft, urban or machine made. To this, the artists provided ownership and legitimacy as art.




Today, with many more opportunities for artists in workshops, collectives, biennales, residencies, google, social media, talks and walks, than were ten years ago, art in Pakistan continues to coexist in the past, the present and the future. The meaning of local is a matter of perspective, but separations that exist today are far more disparate than they were in recent past.


Artists borrow imagery or ideas from the plethora of information available on the internet and travel, to create an ‘instant’ art. Everything and anything goes, and so art moves in circles, referencing itself to no end, and one wonders, ‘So, what?’




  1. NuktaArt, New Media Art in Pakistan: New tools of social intervention, Amra Ali, pg 52-53, vol 4, #1, 2009.
  2. Dr Akbar Naqvi (Image and Identity, Oxford University Press, 1998, pg 51).
  3. Image and Identity, pages 52-53
  4. Ibid,. page 57.
  5. Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Tasweerain Meri Apni Nazar main, from Maqalaat-e-Chughtai, volume one. Essay compiled by Sheema Majeed, published by the Department of Culture, Pakistan, 1987. Translated in English by Inayat Husain, NuktaArt, vol 2, # 2, 2007)
  6. Niilofur Farrukh, Column: The clay as teacher, November, 2008, www.dawn.com)
  7. Niilofur Farrukh, Pioneering Perspectives, Ferozesons, Pakistan, 1998, page 72.
  8. page 74.
  9. Naazish AtaAllah, The Forging of Form, Born of Fire: Mian Salahuddin, Noorjehan Bilgrami, IVSAA, 2007, page 73.  
  10. Niilofur Farrukh, Where have all the Ghggoo Ghoras Gone? Critical Space, dawn.com, 2008.
  11. Amra Ali, Dialogue with Riffar Alvi, The News on Sunday, Encore, November, 2009.
  12. funkor.com



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