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No Exit from Pakistan

In May 2013, The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi, opened on The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This large-scale, open-air, site-specific installation was painted directly onto the floor surface of the roof-top and covered an area of nearly 8000 square feet, inviting visitors to walk on it while they viewed it [ii]. As Claire Sabel writes in Art Asia Pacific:

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to invite Pakistani painter Imran Qureshi to splatter blood-red acrylic paint across its elegant rooftop patio was a deliberately jarring aberration from tradition. Past projects have built up and extended out from the patio, creating temporary environments for surprise encounters and social interaction. Offered some of the most coveted, elevated real estate in New York City, recipients of the museum’s summer commission project typically respond with playful celebration. Qureshi’s piece […] is participatory in the sense that visitors walk across it, but the bloody floor painting is also provocative, despite, or perhaps because of, how easy it is to ignore.” [iii]

Though, living in Pakistan at the time, I could not be there to witness the work, the many articles and photographs available online explicate the work in quite detail [iv]. The floor of the Met Roof Garden is covered with layers of luscious deep red paint that has been splashed upon the surface. The stains have been worked on with images of petals or leaves that were omnipresent in Qureshi’s earlier (and recent) small-scale works on wasli [v] as well. In earlier works, however, these stains and leaves were mostly painted in blue. Talking about this shift in palette, Qureshi says that “In 2009 and 2010, Lahore, where I live, was a main target for Al-Qaeda. There were bomb attacks almost twice a week. They destroyed the city. There was a blast near my house. I had very nostalgic connection to one place I used to go with my wife, Aisha, a market that had been full of life. After this blast it was transformed into a bloody landscape. That was when I switched to using a blood-red tone” [vi].

This transition is also manifest in the artist’s choice of titles for his works. The artist’s title for the Met Roof Garden project And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean is from a poem by the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), and underlines the deeply plaintive mood animating his piece”[vii]. These words connected very directly with the imagery: stains of Perylene Maroon acrylic Winsor and Newton paint[viii], splattered across the roof-top floor, resembling dried blood, invoking images of terrorist attacks, crime scenes or of ritual slaughter[ix]. It is then no matter of dissention that most of the writings found online about this work focus on this aspect of the artist’s oeuvre; Qureshi intends this to be the focus of his work, or of at least this body of work(s). These not very subtle nuances are even more poignant to non-western viewers, who have in the recent past, and continue to, be confronted with scenes of violence and inane loss of human life as part of the everyday. Qureshi then fills these stains of red with motifs of leaves ubiquitous in Mughal, Persian and particularly in the Pehari, traditions of miniature painting in the Sub-Continent[x]. The foliage is worked in using tones of red, and highlighted with white strokes, reminiscent, according to the artist, of Arabic calligraphy[xi].

These patterns within the stains are symbolic of and “’stem from the effects of violence… They are mingled with the color of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts’… It’s an obvious metaphor. From death grows life; from horror comes transcendence; hope emerges from despair…”[xii].

This hope or transcendence is, however, lost on visitors or virtual viewers for whom such violence has never meant anything more than ‘news’, and has not been experienced or witnessed with any degree of immediacy. This lack of mediation by the artwork under consideration may be illustrated in the anecdote as the artist reminisces about his other similar work[xiii] at the Sharjah Biennale in 2011:  “It was amazing,” he said. “People were crying — and, at first, I thought maybe I had done something wrong!”[xiv]

According to Ken Johnson, this may have been because the visitors in the UAE belonged to the same or similar context as the work; that their lives had been intricately intertwined with and affected by such scenes of horror and seeing an artwork evoke and illustrate that experience so tangibly was emotionally wrought.[xv]Johnson continues and recounts an incident that made apparent the significance of this context. According to him, the average viewer in the United States may not feel the full import of the tragi/trans-cendental message of the work due to lack of proximity with such happenings. I would, however, argue that it might even be difficult for the rooted audience, gallery- or museum-goer in Pakistan to be moved by the oft-discoursed poignancy of the work due to the mere instance of reification that the said pain-hope dichotomy goes through when mutated into a work of art, intended solely for display in a gallery or museum framework[xvi].

The similarity of the surfaces of Qureshi’s works, their imagery and their titles, repeat the same themes time and again, in the various venues they are exhibited in. Some of these works, installations in particular, claim to be ‘site-specific’. However, I agree with Ken Johnson who challenges this claim of site-specificity. The works are almost the same regardless of the very obvious changes in the physical, geographical, cultural, historical and socio-political contexts to which they are transplanted.

The works do not consider these contingent shifts, and are maybe not even required to do by the patron institutions of display, or by the consuming public. It is as if it were expected of the artist to propound his views on the violent turmoil on-going in the country (and religion) of origin[xvii] – by the various institutions, audiences, and collectors. This fascination and persistence with presenting itself as the ‘other’[xviii] in Pakistani art within the contemporary context of the globalized art world/market is expressed as follows by Gemma Sharpe who, quoting Quddus Mirza, writes:

“As critic Quddus Mirza points out, the geo-political posture of the country inflicts onto art production just as in much as its reception; in fact, public reception and artists’ intentions are caught in a rather malicious circle from the start:

“There may be multiple reasons for this sudden hype around the contemporary art of Pakistan, but it is most likely based on the world’s curiosity and attention to a land that has contributed substantially in shaping the twenty-first century – not with its wealth of invention or intellectualism, but through its alleged link with terrorist activities around the globe….The theme of terror has become a favourite topic for several Pakistani artists. Thus the images of violence and destruction – missiles and rifles, weapons and war – are repeatedly rendered in contemporary miniature paintings and in the contemporary art of Pakistan…. It suggests the immediate availability of a subject that is pertinently and politically potent, and is most suitable for foreign consumption, since the Muslim community in general and Pakistani society in particular are perceived as the producers of fundamentalists and potential terrorists”.[xix]

It is as if escaping from this situation were an impossibly paradoxical conundrum, literally as well as artistically or intellectually. The artist is, of course, complicit[xx].

Referencing Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit), first staged in Nazi-occupied Paris in the final days of the Second World War, Markey writes:

“Sartre’s drama featured three sinners, all dead to the world, who learn to their surprise that hell is not a land of fire, brimstone, and devils, but an oddly furnished living room where they are subjected to eternal torment by each other. The more they interact, the more the sinners come to appreciate that they are perfectly suited to the task, each vulnerable to precisely the psychological torture meted out by the others, and each capable of inflicting similarly devastating punishment in return.

In a moment of epiphany, one of Sartre’s characters exclaims, “Hell is other people!” And yet, when the living room door swings open and the three have a chance to make a run for it, they cannot. The moment the escape option is presented, the sinners recognize it as an illusion. The only possible path to salvation is through struggle against their special tormentors. And that means there is truly no exit; they are stuck “for ever, and ever, and ever.”[xxi]

Though Markey posits the above to make a point about the peculiar political relationship between the United States and Pakistan, the analogy may also be well suited to the increasing interest in and discourse available to Pakistani art in the American and international art circuits. The door to escape for the Pakistani artist from the exoticisation and auto-exoticisation in the global call to participation and inclusion, may very well be an illusion, if open at all.

Moreover, like Sartre’s sinners, one may not even want to escape. After all, it is much easier to be understood when one says what the global art market wants to hear. Regardless of how tormenting and uncomfortable this ‘oddly furnished living room’ may be, it has by now become familiar terrain. The door may lead to yet stranger spaces that will necessitate further negotiations, which may be even more tortuous and demanding than those already dealt with.

This tendency is even more apparent in the artist’s small-scale work(s) on wasli[xxii] that in several cases, are either derived from these installations or are the sources for them, and which, according to Johnson “evoke(s) a whole world’s history of art, religion and violence. It comes, that is, with its own fully realized context and thereby has an intense specificity that the Met’s public piece lacks.” This specificity of context situates Qureshi’s work on paper firmly in its place and culture of origin, as well as its tradition, and this seems to somehow validate his practice.

The works on wasli or other portable and collectible surfaces are executed exquisitely and, more often than not, also refer to the traditions of the land in content and/or form. Although being both self-referential and referring to the tradition of miniature painting as well as of local contemporary events, these works do not inquire critically into the nature of art or the medium of miniature. Initially made as manuscript illustration under royal patronage, miniature in contemporary Pakistan though having shifted to the wall, retains its original appeal of the hand-made and beautifully crafted, and this, combined with the same-ness of the imagery (no matter how violent or ‘issue’-specific) can cause it to verge on the decorative, and thus be very conveniently viewed as a form of commodity neatly fulfilling the purposes of the culture industry[xxiii].

The discussion in this essay, though based in and around Imran Qureshi’s project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden last year, should by no means be considered as being exclusive to it. In my view, aspects of this discussion are – in varying degrees – symptomatic of many other contemporary art practices in and from Pakistan, be it contemporary miniature or otherwise. Trying to illustrate such parallels in this short essay would however reduce the argument to further generalizations, which I wish to avoid here. Nonetheless, these matters of aestheticizing politics or politicizing aesthetics remain for me a problematic that is still slightly unrepresentable[xxiv]. ♦

Saira Sheikh is a visual artist and art educator. She holds degrees from National College of Arts, Lahore, and Columbia University. She is currently part of the permanent faculty at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, where she is also developing the curriculum for a graduate program.


Notes:

[i]The title of the essay is borrowed from No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, Daniel S. Markey, A Council on Foreign Relations Book, Cambridge University Press, 2013

[ii]http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2013/imran-qureshi

[iii]http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/85/ImranQureshi

[iv]http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=0

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-03/murderous-mob-inspires-pakistani-artist-s-red-met-rooftop.html

http://www.dawn.com/news/1014145

http://newsweekpakistan.com/at-the-met-pakistani-artists-rooftop-installation/

http://www.artnews.com/2013/05/16/imran-qureshi-on-metropolitan-museum-roof/

http://inhabitat.com/nyc/imran-qureshis-blood-splattered-exhibit-paints-the-mets-rooftop-garden-red/

http://www.dawn.com/news/1027152/pakistani-artist-imrans-blood-on-the-rooftop

http://www.dawn.com/news/1027152/pakistani-artist-imrans-blood-on-the-rooftop

http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

http://hifructose.com/2013/07/11/on-view-imran-qureshis-rooftop-installation-at-the-metropolitan-museum/

[v]hand made or hand treated paper, layered to form the thick surface used to paint miniatures on

[vi]http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

[vii]http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=0

[viii]The artist, speaking about his process of painting: “I use just one color, Perylene Maroon, which is the exact tone of blood. I paint the first coat on the floor, and when it dries I fill everything with foliage, then I apply other layers of paint, which are also like blood. Then I bring out the highlights with white. It’s about four layers of acrylic Winston and Newton paint.

http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

[ix] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[x]Claire Sabel, Imran Qureshi, The Roof Garden Commission. “The floral motif comes from the miniature painting traditions of the Mughal and Persian courts, techniques that Qureshi studied, and now teaches, at the National College of Arts in Lahore.”

http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/85/ImranQureshi

[xi]The artist, speaking about his process of painting: “The foliage in the work comes from traditional Kangra Hill miniature painting. The strokes used are similar to Arabic calligraphy”

http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

[xii]http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xiii]Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of my Love, 2011

http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2012/imran_qureshi/01

[xiv]Two years ago, in the courtyard of a modern building in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Qureshi madea similar piece for the2011 Sharjah Biennial. In an interview in a small book that accompanies the Met’s rooftop exhibition, he recalls the personal and intense response: “It was amazing,” he said. “People were crying — and, at first, I thought maybe I had done something wrong!”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xv]“Mr. Qureshi’s work depends heavily on context for its emotional impact… Translated to the United States, however, something about the work is lost. A curious, illustrative thing happened on the day of my visit to the Met. Across the terrace I saw a large man lying face down on the stained floor pretending to be a bombing victim as his wife and several children laughed and took pictures. Then the kids piled on top of him in a heap of chortling bodies… terrorist acts are far less common in the United States than they are in the Middle East and parts of South Asia, including Mr. Qureshi’s hometown, Lahore. And I suppose that, given how our awareness of war and terrorism comes mostly from the mass media, we have become relatively desensitized to the sufferings of usually distant others.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xvi]“…in the liminal space of the museum, everything – and sometimes anything – may become art, including fire extinguishers, thermostats, and humidity gauges, which, when isolated on a wall and looked at through the aesthetizing lens of museum space, can appear, if only for a mistaken moment, every bit as interesting as some of the intended as- art works on display, which, in any case, do not always look very different.”

Carole Duncan, Civilizing Rituals, 1995, p. 20

[xvii]Most of the articles about Qureshi (cited in the above paragraphs) invariably make note of his being from Pakistan, or, a Pakistani, and many mention his religious identity, i.e. being a Muslim. Moreover, most of these also trace the roots of his practice to the courtly traditions of Persian and Mughal miniature painting. Thereby ensuring that the artistic practice stays within the neat geographical/historical niche created for it. This, in my view, stands in contrast with writings on Western artists, descriptions of whose oeuvre never (if ever at all) contains sentences such as: The Church was obviously an influential patron for the Christian artist Michelangelo, from the town of… etc.

[xviii]‘Within the international circuit, Gerardo Mosquera points out that there is an obvious taste for the ‘other’, which ‘has introduced a new thirst for exoticism… which, instead of universalising its paradigms, conditions certain cultural productions from the periphery according to paradigms that are expected of it for consumption by the centres.’ Gerado Mosquera, ‘The Marco Polo Syndrome’, The Third Text Reader. Continuum: London and New York, 2002. p. 269, as quoted by Gemma Sharpe, Il-liberal Cosmopolitanism, 2010

[xix]Quddus Mirza, ‘Exile at Home: Pakistani Art in the Global Age’, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, p.68, as quoted by Gemma Sharpe, Il-liberal Cosmopolitanism, 2010

[xx] Sharpe, however, disagrees with this notion in her conclusion, which I quote here so as not to askew the writer’s opinion within the context of my essay:

“…the risk of an assertion like Mirza’s which articulates the grounds of a particular style or trend within art practice by accusing it of cynical auto-othering strategies for commercial, spectacular or careerist ends. Though it is true that trends surface within contemporary art practice and its global exchange, resistance to claiming these trends as obvious, catch-all or even secure, is also a resistance a flaccid kind of stereotyping that Mirza and the BBC World in the aforementioned instances committed to. To begin a process of counter-hegemony and plural judgment within a global art world, one needs to allow for the fact that some artists from Pakistan, for example, might well be interested in the iconography of terrorism without recourse to an external taste for its snappy ease of recognition, and without criticism of the (otherwise globally feared) object of their gaze: the terrorist. Further, that they might be representing a particular scenario crucially rather than indexically. Some artists, on the other hand, might be entirely cynical, in which case, one has a cause to look beyond this, towards the context for such cynicism and its respective effects – to always bring judgment to bear accordingly and reflexively, rather than generally”. Gemma Sharpe, Il-liberal Cosmopolitanism, 2010

[xxi]Daniel S. Markey, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, A Council on Foreign Relations Book, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 1

[xxii]“… a different way of working that Mr. Qureshi is known for: small, finely detailed paintings in the style of 16th- and 17th-century Indian miniatures, a genre that flourished under Islamic rulers of the Mughal Empire. Mr. Qureshi, a Muslim, was trained in this technically demanding genre at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where he is now an assistant professor. With their exquisitely executed images of fauna, flora and people, his creations look a lot like those by his artistic ancestors, but they often include modern updates.”

Ken Johnson, Art Review, Savagery, Mulled in Airy Precincts: ‘The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi,’ at the Met

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xxiii]Coined by Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), culture industry signifies the integration of ‘culture’ and ‘industry’ (i.e. the integration of economic-instrumental rationality and creative-social activity). Culture does not emerge from the free creative expression of social agents, but is constructed in commodity form by an alliance of the state and private corporations. It signals the complete rationalization of the emancipatory powers of creativity, where creativity is converted into standardized mass-produced products and reduced to basic formulaic patterns of taste. This commercialized culture engenders intellectual passivity and docility, which themselves are the conditions needed for authoritarian politics to reign (cf. kitsch).

Glossary of Key Terms, Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Edited by Diarmuid Costello and Jonathan Vickery, First published in 2007 by Berg, Oxford, UK and New York, USA

[xxiv]“In order to assert an unrepresentability in art that is commensurate with an unthinkability of the event, the latter must itself have been rendered entirely thinkable, entirely necessary according to thought. The logic of the unrepresentable can only be sustained by a hyperbole that ends up destroying it.”

Jaques Rancire, The Future of the Image, Are Some Things Unrepresentable, 2007, Verso, UK and USA, p. 138

– See more at: http://www.artnowpakistan.com/articles.php?article=No-Exit-from-Pakistan-#sthash.fJnOQncz.dpuf

In May 2013, The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi, opened on The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This large-scale, open-air, site-specific installation was painted directly onto the floor surface of the roof-top and covered an area of nearly 8000 square feet, inviting visitors to walk on it while they viewed it [ii]. As Claire Sabel writes in Art Asia Pacific:

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to invite Pakistani painter Imran Qureshi to splatter blood-red acrylic paint across its elegant rooftop patio was a deliberately jarring aberration from tradition. Past projects have built up and extended out from the patio, creating temporary environments for surprise encounters and social interaction. Offered some of the most coveted, elevated real estate in New York City, recipients of the museum’s summer commission project typically respond with playful celebration. Qureshi’s piece […] is participatory in the sense that visitors walk across it, but the bloody floor painting is also provocative, despite, or perhaps because of, how easy it is to ignore.” [iii]

Though, living in Pakistan at the time, I could not be there to witness the work, the many articles and photographs available online explicate the work in quite detail [iv]. The floor of the Met Roof Garden is covered with layers of luscious deep red paint that has been splashed upon the surface. The stains have been worked on with images of petals or leaves that were omnipresent in Qureshi’s earlier (and recent) small-scale works on wasli [v] as well. In earlier works, however, these stains and leaves were mostly painted in blue. Talking about this shift in palette, Qureshi says that “In 2009 and 2010, Lahore, where I live, was a main target for Al-Qaeda. There were bomb attacks almost twice a week. They destroyed the city. There was a blast near my house. I had very nostalgic connection to one place I used to go with my wife, Aisha, a market that had been full of life. After this blast it was transformed into a bloody landscape. That was when I switched to using a blood-red tone” [vi].

This transition is also manifest in the artist’s choice of titles for his works. The artist’s title for the Met Roof Garden project And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean is from a poem by the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984), and underlines the deeply plaintive mood animating his piece”[vii]. These words connected very directly with the imagery: stains of Perylene Maroon acrylic Winsor and Newton paint[viii], splattered across the roof-top floor, resembling dried blood, invoking images of terrorist attacks, crime scenes or of ritual slaughter[ix]. It is then no matter of dissention that most of the writings found online about this work focus on this aspect of the artist’s oeuvre; Qureshi intends this to be the focus of his work, or of at least this body of work(s). These not very subtle nuances are even more poignant to non-western viewers, who have in the recent past, and continue to, be confronted with scenes of violence and inane loss of human life as part of the everyday. Qureshi then fills these stains of red with motifs of leaves ubiquitous in Mughal, Persian and particularly in the Pehari, traditions of miniature painting in the Sub-Continent[x]. The foliage is worked in using tones of red, and highlighted with white strokes, reminiscent, according to the artist, of Arabic calligraphy[xi].

These patterns within the stains are symbolic of and “’stem from the effects of violence… They are mingled with the color of blood, but, at the same time, this is where a dialogue with life, with new beginnings and fresh hope starts’… It’s an obvious metaphor. From death grows life; from horror comes transcendence; hope emerges from despair…”[xii].

This hope or transcendence is, however, lost on visitors or virtual viewers for whom such violence has never meant anything more than ‘news’, and has not been experienced or witnessed with any degree of immediacy. This lack of mediation by the artwork under consideration may be illustrated in the anecdote as the artist reminisces about his other similar work[xiii] at the Sharjah Biennale in 2011:  “It was amazing,” he said. “People were crying — and, at first, I thought maybe I had done something wrong!”[xiv]

According to Ken Johnson, this may have been because the visitors in the UAE belonged to the same or similar context as the work; that their lives had been intricately intertwined with and affected by such scenes of horror and seeing an artwork evoke and illustrate that experience so tangibly was emotionally wrought.[xv]Johnson continues and recounts an incident that made apparent the significance of this context. According to him, the average viewer in the United States may not feel the full import of the tragi/trans-cendental message of the work due to lack of proximity with such happenings. I would, however, argue that it might even be difficult for the rooted audience, gallery- or museum-goer in Pakistan to be moved by the oft-discoursed poignancy of the work due to the mere instance of reification that the said pain-hope dichotomy goes through when mutated into a work of art, intended solely for display in a gallery or museum framework[xvi].

The similarity of the surfaces of Qureshi’s works, their imagery and their titles, repeat the same themes time and again, in the various venues they are exhibited in. Some of these works, installations in particular, claim to be ‘site-specific’. However, I agree with Ken Johnson who challenges this claim of site-specificity. The works are almost the same regardless of the very obvious changes in the physical, geographical, cultural, historical and socio-political contexts to which they are transplanted.

The works do not consider these contingent shifts, and are maybe not even required to do by the patron institutions of display, or by the consuming public. It is as if it were expected of the artist to propound his views on the violent turmoil on-going in the country (and religion) of origin[xvii] – by the various institutions, audiences, and collectors. This fascination and persistence with presenting itself as the ‘other’[xviii] in Pakistani art within the contemporary context of the globalized art world/market is expressed as follows by Gemma Sharpe who, quoting Quddus Mirza, writes:

“As critic Quddus Mirza points out, the geo-political posture of the country inflicts onto art production just as in much as its reception; in fact, public reception and artists’ intentions are caught in a rather malicious circle from the start:

“There may be multiple reasons for this sudden hype around the contemporary art of Pakistan, but it is most likely based on the world’s curiosity and attention to a land that has contributed substantially in shaping the twenty-first century – not with its wealth of invention or intellectualism, but through its alleged link with terrorist activities around the globe….The theme of terror has become a favourite topic for several Pakistani artists. Thus the images of violence and destruction – missiles and rifles, weapons and war – are repeatedly rendered in contemporary miniature paintings and in the contemporary art of Pakistan…. It suggests the immediate availability of a subject that is pertinently and politically potent, and is most suitable for foreign consumption, since the Muslim community in general and Pakistani society in particular are perceived as the producers of fundamentalists and potential terrorists”.[xix]

It is as if escaping from this situation were an impossibly paradoxical conundrum, literally as well as artistically or intellectually. The artist is, of course, complicit[xx].

Referencing Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit), first staged in Nazi-occupied Paris in the final days of the Second World War, Markey writes:

“Sartre’s drama featured three sinners, all dead to the world, who learn to their surprise that hell is not a land of fire, brimstone, and devils, but an oddly furnished living room where they are subjected to eternal torment by each other. The more they interact, the more the sinners come to appreciate that they are perfectly suited to the task, each vulnerable to precisely the psychological torture meted out by the others, and each capable of inflicting similarly devastating punishment in return.

In a moment of epiphany, one of Sartre’s characters exclaims, “Hell is other people!” And yet, when the living room door swings open and the three have a chance to make a run for it, they cannot. The moment the escape option is presented, the sinners recognize it as an illusion. The only possible path to salvation is through struggle against their special tormentors. And that means there is truly no exit; they are stuck “for ever, and ever, and ever.”[xxi]

Though Markey posits the above to make a point about the peculiar political relationship between the United States and Pakistan, the analogy may also be well suited to the increasing interest in and discourse available to Pakistani art in the American and international art circuits. The door to escape for the Pakistani artist from the exoticisation and auto-exoticisation in the global call to participation and inclusion, may very well be an illusion, if open at all.

Moreover, like Sartre’s sinners, one may not even want to escape. After all, it is much easier to be understood when one says what the global art market wants to hear. Regardless of how tormenting and uncomfortable this ‘oddly furnished living room’ may be, it has by now become familiar terrain. The door may lead to yet stranger spaces that will necessitate further negotiations, which may be even more tortuous and demanding than those already dealt with.

This tendency is even more apparent in the artist’s small-scale work(s) on wasli[xxii] that in several cases, are either derived from these installations or are the sources for them, and which, according to Johnson “evoke(s) a whole world’s history of art, religion and violence. It comes, that is, with its own fully realized context and thereby has an intense specificity that the Met’s public piece lacks.” This specificity of context situates Qureshi’s work on paper firmly in its place and culture of origin, as well as its tradition, and this seems to somehow validate his practice.

The works on wasli or other portable and collectible surfaces are executed exquisitely and, more often than not, also refer to the traditions of the land in content and/or form. Although being both self-referential and referring to the tradition of miniature painting as well as of local contemporary events, these works do not inquire critically into the nature of art or the medium of miniature. Initially made as manuscript illustration under royal patronage, miniature in contemporary Pakistan though having shifted to the wall, retains its original appeal of the hand-made and beautifully crafted, and this, combined with the same-ness of the imagery (no matter how violent or ‘issue’-specific) can cause it to verge on the decorative, and thus be very conveniently viewed as a form of commodity neatly fulfilling the purposes of the culture industry[xxiii].

The discussion in this essay, though based in and around Imran Qureshi’s project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden last year, should by no means be considered as being exclusive to it. In my view, aspects of this discussion are – in varying degrees – symptomatic of many other contemporary art practices in and from Pakistan, be it contemporary miniature or otherwise. Trying to illustrate such parallels in this short essay would however reduce the argument to further generalizations, which I wish to avoid here. Nonetheless, these matters of aestheticizing politics or politicizing aesthetics remain for me a problematic that is still slightly unrepresentable[xxiv]. ♦

Saira Sheikh is a visual artist and art educator. She holds degrees from National College of Arts, Lahore, and Columbia University. She is currently part of the permanent faculty at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, where she is also developing the curriculum for a graduate program.


Notes:

[i]The title of the essay is borrowed from No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, Daniel S. Markey, A Council on Foreign Relations Book, Cambridge University Press, 2013

[ii]http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2013/imran-qureshi

[iii]http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/85/ImranQureshi

[iv]http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=0

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-03/murderous-mob-inspires-pakistani-artist-s-red-met-rooftop.html

http://www.dawn.com/news/1014145

http://newsweekpakistan.com/at-the-met-pakistani-artists-rooftop-installation/

http://www.artnews.com/2013/05/16/imran-qureshi-on-metropolitan-museum-roof/

http://inhabitat.com/nyc/imran-qureshis-blood-splattered-exhibit-paints-the-mets-rooftop-garden-red/

http://www.dawn.com/news/1027152/pakistani-artist-imrans-blood-on-the-rooftop

http://www.dawn.com/news/1027152/pakistani-artist-imrans-blood-on-the-rooftop

http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

http://hifructose.com/2013/07/11/on-view-imran-qureshis-rooftop-installation-at-the-metropolitan-museum/

[v]hand made or hand treated paper, layered to form the thick surface used to paint miniatures on

[vi]http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

[vii]http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=0

[viii]The artist, speaking about his process of painting: “I use just one color, Perylene Maroon, which is the exact tone of blood. I paint the first coat on the floor, and when it dries I fill everything with foliage, then I apply other layers of paint, which are also like blood. Then I bring out the highlights with white. It’s about four layers of acrylic Winston and Newton paint.

http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

[ix] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[x]Claire Sabel, Imran Qureshi, The Roof Garden Commission. “The floral motif comes from the miniature painting traditions of the Mughal and Persian courts, techniques that Qureshi studied, and now teaches, at the National College of Arts in Lahore.”

http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/85/ImranQureshi

[xi]The artist, speaking about his process of painting: “The foliage in the work comes from traditional Kangra Hill miniature painting. The strokes used are similar to Arabic calligraphy”

http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/913549/neo-miniaturist-imran-qureshi-on-his-rooftop-painting-for-the

[xii]http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xiii]Imran Qureshi, Blessings Upon the Land of my Love, 2011

http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2012/imran_qureshi/01

[xiv]Two years ago, in the courtyard of a modern building in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Qureshi madea similar piece for the2011 Sharjah Biennial. In an interview in a small book that accompanies the Met’s rooftop exhibition, he recalls the personal and intense response: “It was amazing,” he said. “People were crying — and, at first, I thought maybe I had done something wrong!”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xv]“Mr. Qureshi’s work depends heavily on context for its emotional impact… Translated to the United States, however, something about the work is lost. A curious, illustrative thing happened on the day of my visit to the Met. Across the terrace I saw a large man lying face down on the stained floor pretending to be a bombing victim as his wife and several children laughed and took pictures. Then the kids piled on top of him in a heap of chortling bodies… terrorist acts are far less common in the United States than they are in the Middle East and parts of South Asia, including Mr. Qureshi’s hometown, Lahore. And I suppose that, given how our awareness of war and terrorism comes mostly from the mass media, we have become relatively desensitized to the sufferings of usually distant others.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xvi]“…in the liminal space of the museum, everything – and sometimes anything – may become art, including fire extinguishers, thermostats, and humidity gauges, which, when isolated on a wall and looked at through the aesthetizing lens of museum space, can appear, if only for a mistaken moment, every bit as interesting as some of the intended as- art works on display, which, in any case, do not always look very different.”

Carole Duncan, Civilizing Rituals, 1995, p. 20

[xvii]Most of the articles about Qureshi (cited in the above paragraphs) invariably make note of his being from Pakistan, or, a Pakistani, and many mention his religious identity, i.e. being a Muslim. Moreover, most of these also trace the roots of his practice to the courtly traditions of Persian and Mughal miniature painting. Thereby ensuring that the artistic practice stays within the neat geographical/historical niche created for it. This, in my view, stands in contrast with writings on Western artists, descriptions of whose oeuvre never (if ever at all) contains sentences such as: The Church was obviously an influential patron for the Christian artist Michelangelo, from the town of… etc.

[xviii]‘Within the international circuit, Gerardo Mosquera points out that there is an obvious taste for the ‘other’, which ‘has introduced a new thirst for exoticism… which, instead of universalising its paradigms, conditions certain cultural productions from the periphery according to paradigms that are expected of it for consumption by the centres.’ Gerado Mosquera, ‘The Marco Polo Syndrome’, The Third Text Reader. Continuum: London and New York, 2002. p. 269, as quoted by Gemma Sharpe, Il-liberal Cosmopolitanism, 2010

[xix]Quddus Mirza, ‘Exile at Home: Pakistani Art in the Global Age’, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, p.68, as quoted by Gemma Sharpe, Il-liberal Cosmopolitanism, 2010

[xx] Sharpe, however, disagrees with this notion in her conclusion, which I quote here so as not to askew the writer’s opinion within the context of my essay:

“…the risk of an assertion like Mirza’s which articulates the grounds of a particular style or trend within art practice by accusing it of cynical auto-othering strategies for commercial, spectacular or careerist ends. Though it is true that trends surface within contemporary art practice and its global exchange, resistance to claiming these trends as obvious, catch-all or even secure, is also a resistance a flaccid kind of stereotyping that Mirza and the BBC World in the aforementioned instances committed to. To begin a process of counter-hegemony and plural judgment within a global art world, one needs to allow for the fact that some artists from Pakistan, for example, might well be interested in the iconography of terrorism without recourse to an external taste for its snappy ease of recognition, and without criticism of the (otherwise globally feared) object of their gaze: the terrorist. Further, that they might be representing a particular scenario crucially rather than indexically. Some artists, on the other hand, might be entirely cynical, in which case, one has a cause to look beyond this, towards the context for such cynicism and its respective effects – to always bring judgment to bear accordingly and reflexively, rather than generally”. Gemma Sharpe, Il-liberal Cosmopolitanism, 2010

[xxi]Daniel S. Markey, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, A Council on Foreign Relations Book, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 1

[xxii]“… a different way of working that Mr. Qureshi is known for: small, finely detailed paintings in the style of 16th- and 17th-century Indian miniatures, a genre that flourished under Islamic rulers of the Mughal Empire. Mr. Qureshi, a Muslim, was trained in this technically demanding genre at the National College of Arts in Lahore, where he is now an assistant professor. With their exquisitely executed images of fauna, flora and people, his creations look a lot like those by his artistic ancestors, but they often include modern updates.”

Ken Johnson, Art Review, Savagery, Mulled in Airy Precincts: ‘The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi,’ at the Met

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/17/arts/design/the-roof-garden-commission-imran-qureshi-at-the-met.html?_r=1&

[xxiii]Coined by Adorno and Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), culture industry signifies the integration of ‘culture’ and ‘industry’ (i.e. the integration of economic-instrumental rationality and creative-social activity). Culture does not emerge from the free creative expression of social agents, but is constructed in commodity form by an alliance of the state and private corporations. It signals the complete rationalization of the emancipatory powers of creativity, where creativity is converted into standardized mass-produced products and reduced to basic formulaic patterns of taste. This commercialized culture engenders intellectual passivity and docility, which themselves are the conditions needed for authoritarian politics to reign (cf. kitsch).

Glossary of Key Terms, Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers, Edited by Diarmuid Costello and Jonathan Vickery, First published in 2007 by Berg, Oxford, UK and New York, USA

[xxiv]“In order to assert an unrepresentability in art that is commensurate with an unthinkability of the event, the latter must itself have been rendered entirely thinkable, entirely necessary according to thought. The logic of the unrepresentable can only be sustained by a hyperbole that ends up destroying it.”

Jaques Rancire, The Future of the Image, Are Some Things Unrepresentable, 2007, Verso, UK and USA, p. 138.

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