Art of Contemporary Pakistan Comes to U.S.
Rarely do the headlines Americans read about Pakistan (political assassination, long-standing tension over nuclear arms, suspected terrorist training camps) highlight the rich cultural diversity at the heart of that complex nation. A new show at the Asia Society entitled ‘Hanging Fire’ — which refers to an idiom meaning “to delay decision” — is the first U.S. museum exhibit to focus on contemporary art in Pakistan, and an attempt to alter the American perception. The diversity of work from the 15 artists represented shows how these artists have absorbed Western influences while utilizing traditional practices and symbols in new and surprising ways.
The hope, explained “Hanging Fire” curator (and well-known artist and writer) Salima Hashmi, is that the show will explode the Pakistan stereotypes held by its American audience.
“Artists are addressing issues and concerns that the body politic is faced with. These range from issues to do with gender; issues to do with violence; issues to do with the environment; issues to do with ethnic tensions; but also issues to do with tradition which comes into clash with the new society,” Hashmi said.
[Listen to an interview with Salima Hashmi]
In an essay for the exhibit catalog, sociologist and Tufts University history professor Ayesha Jalal writes, “As the self-representations of the multitalented artists on display at Asia Society make plain, their battle is not only against the forces of religious insularity and bigotry. It is also against the perceived injustices and double standards of the outside world that, in glossing over the gaping silences in the official narrations of Pakistani history, deliberately misunderstand and misrepresent the myriad and complex realties of present-day Pakistan.”
Often seen as a conservative society governed by Islamic law (and sometimes by military rule), contemporary art in Pakistan demonstrates a full range of free expression, where women are fully engaged in the conversation.
The current exhibit includes the work of several of the country’s leading female artists. Hamra Abbas’ sculpture “Ride 2” is inspired by depictions of Buraq, the prophet Mohammad’s steed, painted on the backs of trucks. Faiza Butt uses tiny ink blots on polyester film to create murals that mix everyday objects with pop culture images, and even portraits of possible terrorists.
Butt now lives in London, but last year she returned to Pakistan for a solo show in Lahore just days after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. She says her work is somewhat autobiographical now that she is a mother because she wants to share the traditions of her homeland with her two children.
[Listen to an interview with Faiza Butt]
The range of media on hand is as diverse as the subject matter: there are new takes on traditional miniature paintings, video installations by Bani Abidi, as well as large-scale digital images by Rashid Rana. Trained as a painter, Rana is now making arresting, mural-sized collages. From a distance, one of his pieces looks like a traditional Pakistani carpet. But on closer inspection, the illusion is revealed to be a complex mosaic arrangement of digital pictures from local slaughterhouses. Interested in “broad visual culture,” Rana uses images from her surroundings as well as from advertising and the media.
“I am greatly interested in documenting contradictions and paradoxes in my work,” said Rana.
[Listen to an interview with Rashid Rana]
Rana’s work — where, on closer inspection the whole image, and the viewer’s perception of the piece, changes — is one of the many examples on display in “Hanging Fire” that demonstrates the way Pakistani artists are able to change and challenge what Americans know about their country.
Hanging Fire runs through Jan. 3 at the Asia Society in New York.