The “reluctant” Pakistanis

The Seven artists of “Celebrating Seven” currently showing at Rothas Gallery, Islamabad, are Alia Bilgrami, SalimaHashmi, NadyaHussain, Naiza Khan, Afshar Malik, QuddusMirza and Anwar Saeed.

Curator and owner of the Gallery, architect and artist himself, NaeemPasha,explains he initially wanted to invite more artists to inaugurate the “new Rothas”. But he soon realized that the added space was not enough and since “Celebrating Seven sounds better than celebrating eight, I decided to take out my own works”, he says. The renovation, that enlarged the exhibition area by adding a room and creating a grand and separate entrance, is an improvement for the Gallery as it invites the visitors directly into the core of the show.

The seven artists here celebrated are in different phases of their careers and belong to various generations. Even though the curator says he didn’t work around a specific theme and simply asked the artists to propose any of their works, one can find threads that tie together every piece showcased; in particular the passing presence of humankind – fragile, ephemeral but yet cyclical and always reviving – together with the notion of displacement.

Alia Bilgramiis the youngest of this group. Born in Canada she studied in London, grew upin Karachi and now lives and works in Islamabad. “I have been moving a lot in my life, maybe this is why I am interested in the notion of displacement”. In some of her works she uses a flower to express thisconcept: “from age to age the tulip was perceived very differently in the East and the West. Long time ago it was a symbol of love in Persia and Turkey but in the 17th Century the tulip mania spread all over Europe and it turned into a symbol of Capitalism”.Inthe other exhibited works, Alia Bilgrami talks about the flux of life and temporal existence. Newspaper titles,such as the sadly unusual one, which tells abouta terroristic attack that“only” caused one victim, attracts her attention and makes her think about how many other lives this loss might have subverted.

NadyaHussain’s inks on paper, are pages from a journal of a pregnancy that never happened. Even though in her works the portrayed woman has no recognizable features, from the title of the series “What dreams may come”, one can see that it represents the artist and also a way to exorcise her own fears.

“The Scattering II” by Naiza Khanis part of the series “Restore the Boundaries: The Manora Project”which she realized in the historical Manora Island located south of the Port of Karachi toward the Arabian Sea. In particular, in this screen print the artist documents some abandoned building with pieces of school benches, chairs and other remains thrown together in a minimal composition to prove the bygone human presence.

The four other artistsare connectedto each other due to their academic experiencesand the central idea of human condition that emerge from all their works. In fact, SalimaHashmi was, together with ZahoorUl-Akhlaq, thatpassed away in 1999, QuddusMirza,Afshar Malik andAnwar Saeed’s teacher at NCA Lahore. Also Afshar Malik and Anwar Saeed are sharing a studio in Lahore, which make them aware of the direction both their research are going through.

QuddusMirza’s work is profound in the content and elaborated in the form. The title “Lost in Tradition” already implies the tormented dilemma that harasses the artist and that maybebothers most part of Pakistani contemporary art.“My work dealt with the current displacement of the individual, who is caught between nation and tradition on one side and global and developed spheres on the other, without knowing the solution and in this process, all kinds of acts and actions – from violence to extremism – have emerged in our surroundings”.

A common, controversial feeling congregates those Pakistani artists: being proud of their exceptionally rich cultural background and, at the same time, aware of the manycontradictions faced by their country.

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