Shhhh… listen close, you’ll be able to sense the arousing sound of cultural consciousness. And what is this cultural consciousness? I’m aware as a Pakistani, my country accommodates one of the earliest civilizations known to mankind. From Mohenjo-daro to the grand Mughals, we’ve celebrated sophistication through our culture in its entirety.
In the age of globalization, following the series of events from 2001 till 2011 when Osama bin Laden was finally found in Abbottabad and killed, Pakistani culture has suffered a lot worldwide. During this Arabisation, the global spotlight was also seeking other societal issues, often the negative ones, negating the apparent fact that the country could also be associated with qualities like compassion, and bravery as displayed in the case of 15 year old Aitzaz Hasan.
The global perspective has been confined enough to be fixated upon vices like terrorism, corrupt administration, gender issues, fragile judicial system — the list goes on. As a result, certain stereotypes are established regarding the nation. This cultural consciousness that was mentioned earlier is directed to the reactionary sentiments of Pakistanis, which were displayed in a superb manner at the art show held at Islamabad Literture Festival from the 25th to 27th April. Lavinia Filippi curated the art show, sifting different aspects of Pakistani art. The art show, ‘I.D.,’ was constructed on very articulate issues with relevance to redefining the stereotypes and associations identifying the nation, Pakistan.
‘I.D.’ in all its totality was residing on intellectually appetizing subjects such as “The State and the State of the Art”, where Ilona Yusuf invited accomplished artists Jamal Shah, Risham Syed and Adeela Suleman to speak about how art has evolved despite the changing stance of the state regarding suppressing or promoting art. Jamal Shah initiated the conversation by defining art in all its forms as the celebration of life and having an essential role as the agent of changing human perspectives. Whatever the state’s stance may be, the shift in the environment provides an opportunity for the artist to comment reflect it through her work.
He also mentioned that decision making in the arts and culture department is happening with an insecure mindset, which has bred a sense of mediocrity in society. His optimistic approach of seeking Zia’s oppressive regime to be an opportunity for artists to channel their personal struggles in order to express themselves, therefore contributing to contemporary arts. He further added that art is a sensibility, not a commodity, which invites people in dialogue hence uniting the masses.
Art is created through evolving personal experiences, may it be academics, travelling, self-exploration or societal impact. Growing up in the Zia’s regime there was a burdensome impression on Adeela Suleman’s personality where she encountered activism and the effect that it had on the society. Witnessing violence fist hand not only repressed her curious mind but left it confused over time by the sudden shift in the society from Zia’s islamization to Musharraf’s liberalism, with this bipolar attitude of the state and witnessing erratic examples like the constant fluctuation in decision making regarding, whether the female anchors should conceal their heads with a dupatta or not on national television. Concerns like these made Adeela question the direction that the state has always inflicted on to the citizens, these accounts are reflected through her art. Today, as a teacher at IVS, she mentioned her students have developed an awareness where they negotiate their relationship with their city and the state every day.
Events like the literary festival where similar debates on culture are housed are vital for the refinement of our arts and culture. Risham Syed agreed that all the roles in this theatre of art and the state are performed by the artists. From activists, to curators, to educators, to event coordinators, it’s the artists who are keeping the cultural stage of Pakistan entertained. Ilona added that Faiz speaks of these very notions in his poetry about art setting the platform for the culture and the intellectual development of a nation to transgress.
The same idea was accentuated by Sameera Raja in conversation with former politician, art patron and board member of the Mohatta Palace Museum, Sherry Rehman. Sherry discussed the importance of silent patronage in the promotion of arts and culture. She stated that art, culture and politics intersect at the market place of ideas more than anything, and this is a rare concept that needs to be elaborated in detail in societies like that of Pakistan’s. Since we haven’t been an ideally open society and art flourishes best in those. Zia appropriated art and culture but there was a pathology of discontent that was speaking against the repression. Art become a disillusionment of democracy for the ones directly affected by it, as an act of political engagement. In the late 70s and 80s many creative flowers bloomed, theatre flourished, women groups emerged, cultural expression adapted a new language despite the heavy censorship of the state. These discussions made room to the more basic question of how can politicians play their role in the advancement or arts and culture in the society. Sherry responded to that concern very eloquently where she stressed upon the role of art patronage should to be that of a silent one, in contrary to what has already been happening. Patronage has not only been dictating artists what to create but enforcing upon the galleries what content to exhibit as well. Having stated that Samira Raja, owner of Canvas gallery at Karachi claimed that the solution to these problems can be seen in the way Mohatta palace is being managed. A strong coalition between the public and the private parties. Sherry also took liberty of introducing the exciting idea of having an art channel, reaching out to the large masses, since television is a much efficient form of media.
From discussing the role of patronage in Pakistan, we stepped on to cultural diplomacy and art. Cultural diplomacy as defined by the bright writer Bina Shah, is the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of nation among other cultures and their people encroaching the ability to foster mutual understanding. It is the attraction of cultures that bring people together, from disparity the attraction builds two way bridges of understanding and appreciation. Accompanying Bina on the panel was Marcel de Vink the Dutch ambassador and Aziz Sohail, the conversation was moderated by Wajahat S. Khan. This session proved to be intellectually stimulating, complemented by Khan’s comical manner of touching serious issues. The ambassador, diplomatically suggested that the nation of Pakistan should do some soul searching as to why we are we unable to poise ourselves with cultural diplomacy.
Adding to these scintillating sessions was the much awaited book launch of Pakistan’s most celebrated contemporary artist Rashid Rana, titled Labyrinth of Reflection. Rana spoke about his life’s work and the purpose behind the paradoxical flair in most of his pieces. Rana discussed his life works in detail and the how he creates a macro image with the use of many micro images in contradiction to the main content. Rana discussed pieces like “offshore accounts” where he describes the post 16th century voyages in the miniature images of garbage bags forming a sea scape. His witty play with optical illusions in the form of installations was brilliantly played.
Concluding the festival was the session between gallery curators, editors, museologists and art collectors. The panel was comprised of Rashid Butt, Shireen Ikramullah, Rumana Hussein and Asma Rashid. Shireen Ikramulla, a trained museologist, explained the importance of museums and national galleries, and described how the main metropolis cities of Pakistan, despite the recent mushroom of galleries, are still very alienated to the gallery/museum culture. It was discussed that independent small galleries are more responsive to the art world as compared to the National Gallery of Pakistan. Shireen shared her concern that as a society we are lagging behind in the promotion of Pakistani art and history because of the government’s incompetence. There are a few organizations or smaller galleries which are making an effort to conserve art, such as the Lok Virsa museum, which has really improved with the help of Norwegians. Celebrating festivals and indulging in different forms of visual arts and culture will ultimately tap in to the public sphere. The purpose of museums and galleries is to culturally enrich the minds of the public, which is not being accomplished in Pakistan, the issues are rooted to the academics practiced here in the art schools. There are no disciplines dedicated to the conservation or Curation of art, history, or culture to compensate for the overspill of art students.
Scrutinizing the different aspects of Pakistani art at the Islamabad Literary festival is a stepping stone towards a culturally aware society. It is no mystery that in events like these, we unite as a nation and contemplate the ambiguities which we need to overcome while weaving the fabric of Pakistani culture.
The Islamabad Literature Festival took place at the Hotel Margala from 25-27 April 2014.
Khaula Dar is an architecture graduate and works in a gallery