In our art world, Salima Hashmi has moved from being a person to a phenomenon. Art educator, artist, writer and curator are just a few aspects of her personality, which includes other dimensions such as the human rights activist, television actor and supporter of young talent.
Despite all these dimensions, for most artists the first encounter or introduction of Salima Hashmi was through their foundation course at the National College of Arts, where she was one of the most important figures in the Fine Arts Department, before she became the Principal of the institution. Salima Hashmi taught drawing to generations of artists at NCA, besides being personally involved in establishing their careers and supporting new voices in our art. During her foundation year drawing course Prof Hashmi introduced multiple ways of looking at reality, and inspired her students to ‘see’ their surroundings and transcribe these on different surfaces with a range of materials and mediums.
Anyone who studied drawing with her shared the experience of exploring the pleasure of medium as a vital element, rather than a mechanical means, in the creative process. The use of various options such as pencil, pen and ink, crow-quill pen, charcoal, reed pen, crayon and collage in her drawing classes remained an unforgettable adventure, along with her interesting, exciting and insightful analysis on students’ works. Thus in her classes, students were for the first time attentive to the sensitivity of the medium and how it could establish a dialogue between work and its maker, as well as able to comprehend their creative out puts on a mature level.
What she guided in her courses on drawing can be glimpsed in her art as well. The sensitivity of mark is a distinct aspect of her paintings and drawings. Whether executed on canvas or paper (which she preferred for many years) it is the artist’s touch that creates the content, or at least shapes one part of the content. This human touch, manifested in sensitive surfaces and tactile quality – transcribed through medium and material is one part of Hashmi’s interest in the human. Not only as the form to gaze, experiment or stylize, but to investigate human issues, may those be political, gender-based or class-related. Thus in her work, which always contains a political content (but not too explicitly or in a direct manner), the human body is represented as a sign to resist the atrocities of state, society and the forces of bigotry.
Although her work has many layers and phases, but the female figure repeatedly appears in her art. Here the woman’s body emerges not as a pictorial subject, but has a symbolic presence. Particularly in the works from 1977 to 1988, the depiction of the female body became a comment upon the Islamic military dictatorship’s dogma on reducing women to being lesser citizen and invisible entities. Under Zia’s regime, women were subjugated through draconian laws and were barred from appearing on (state owned) electronic media without fully, excessively – and unnecessarily (in some cases) covering themselves. This emphasis on turning half of the population into examples of morality in the name of faith was strongly opposed during General Zia’s reign. And in some of Salima’s works from that period, the female body became a gesture defying the decrees of the state; and in its various forms and postures turned into a statement/affirmation on its presence and importance. The significance of women as an integral part of the society, without compromising on their physicality is one of the subject Salima refers to again and again.
In a similar manner, her book on the female artist, Unveiling the Visible, a seminal work on the subject, is an attempt to remind how women artists have been significant architects in shaping the art of this country. In her eloquent prose she brings together information, interviews and analysis of artists’ works, relevant not only for gender but for their contributions to the country’s art. Along with this, Salima Hashmi co-authored Memory, Metaphor, Mutations with Yashodhra Dalmia, that consists of Pakistani and Indian artists, and 50 Years of Visual Arts in Pakistan with Quddus Mirza. She has also edited Travels Mundane and Surreal, a monograph on Esther Rahim, the forgotten artist from our surroundings.
Salima Hashmi contributed innumerable number of catalogue essays, newspaper and magazines articles on Pakistani art, all part of her efforts to promote art of this country, locally and on international level. In continuation of promoting Pakistani art, she has curated a number of exhibitions, the most notable was Hanging Fire, held from September 10, 2009 to January 3, 2010 at the Asia Society Museum in New York. Through this, a representative show of Pakistani artists, she tried to introduce a different face/phase of Pakistan, that is creative, contemporary and at par with other nations. The huge response to this exhibition was a great success to Pakistani art in general and the recognition of her curatorial genius in particular.
The extension of her curatorial insight is manifested in the form of Rohtas 2, a gallery that is situated at her residence, but is known for housing works of an avant-garde nature. Experimental. challenging and often non commercial art by young artists, which other galleries are not in keen on exhibiting, is showcased in this space. The gallery, in that sense, is a huge support to new choices, voices and views in Pakistani art.
But more than anything else, it is Hashmi’s contribution as an art teacher that made it possible to have many young and important names in our art today. A good teacher does not just teach, but inspires his or her students to become professionals, and in Salima’s class students were keen on producing works which were pivotal in forming their visual vocabulary at a later stage, and these include Anwar Saeed, Afshar Malik, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander, Imran Qureshi, Risham Syed, Bani Abidi, Masooma Syed, Faiza Butt, Talha Rathore, Aisha Khalid, Nusra Latif Qureshi and many more.
At present Salima Hashmi is the Dean of School of Visual and Communication Department at the Beaconhouse National University, where she is trying to infuse a sense of professionalism and a level of excellence in her students. Undoubtedly her role as a teacher dominates her life (and one can argue that writing and curating are just extensions of her passion for art teaching!), which is visible in her students form across the world who recognize her presence in shaping their artistic lives/careers. But being a selfless educator, it hardly matters to her whether she is talking to a student who is going to make big or will disappear in the mist of oblivion. For Prof Hashmi teaching is a duty – like rain, which is not selective of her recipients – hence she offers guidance and expertise to everyone regardless of class, experience or background. Which reminds of an incident in which during her period at NCA, two boys from a far off town came and wanted to show their works to her, as they were planning to apply for admission at the NCA. Looking at their drawings, anyone could have guessed that they would not ever pass the test, but Salima Hashmi welcomed them, saw their sketches and gave them a detailed critical analysis about their works along with some practical suggestions and positive advice.
Witnessing all this, some of her junior faculty (and former students) inquired that how come she had time from her unending commitments and high work load to spend an hour or more with those boys, who would not get in to NCA and never become artists, in spite of their enthusiasm. Salima Hashmi replied that it is a practice that she picked from her father Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who used to attend everyone coming to his house from his village for any matter to discuss, despite the fact that he might be engaged in some serious and important task – like writing poetry. But Faiz Sahib used to see his visitors, and listen to them as long as they wish to converse. Salima said that she acquired this trait from her father, and what a good gift from a great father to her great daughter, since that made Salima Hashmi one of the most loving, respected and revered personalities of Pakistani art today.