Celebrating Another Spring: Compositions on Resilience & Regeneration
Celebrating Another Spring: Compositions on Resilience & Regeneration

It is hard to review a retrospective of an artist who has taught you the very ABCs of art and has mentored almost everyone you know of in the contemporary art world of Pakistan. What’s even harder is writing about the versatile career of an interdisciplinary artist, a compassionate human being and a considerate feminist. Salima Hashmi is such an artist. Born in Delhi, a couple of years before the partition of India, Hashmi shares her adolescence with Pakistan -the country her learned and politically active parents chose as their homeland. Her artistic and academic career spans over sixty years now which provides a live commentary on Pakistan’s social, political and cultural milieu. It is indeed, culturally sensitive and politically responsive. This essay traces the development of Hashmi’s artistic career as it is influenced by important social happenings of her times. It also maps how her art activism and responsive pedagogical approach have modeled contemporary Pakistan.

Salima Hashmi’s exhibition And Then Came Spring, a collaborative project of the Lahore Literary Festival, National College of Arts and Rohtas 2 Gallery, does not fully conform to a typical retrospective show. As anticipated it is not a show of the work the artist has done in her life so far, rather it provides a glimpse into the life of a young, enlightened Pakistani girl— her experiences and her perception of the world as she matures into the most inspirational woman of the Global South. Hashmi borrows the title of the show, as often, from her father’s poetry. She has looked at Faiz’s poems in a socioeconomic and political context which highlights the poet’s message of worldwide compassion for humanism, peace, justice, and harmony. In such a context, Spring is not just a romantic season when lovers seek intimacy amid blossoming flowers, fragrances and love songs but it idealizes the change from harsh winters to the gentle warmth of the sun nurturing new buds and leaves. It celebrates resilience and regeneration. It is all about hope. It is about starting fresh on the ruins of the past and it is about freedom, justice and harmony within the society. This is exactly where Hashmi’s artistic and academic endeavors are positioned. She is anxious but not desperate. She is alarmed but vigilant at the same time. She is ‘alive in her  time’1 ready to bounce back, speaking about the atrocities and challenging the powerful. She is loud at times and soft on others but she is persistent.

Drawing 7, Graphite & acrylic on paper, 1962-65
Drawing 8, Graphite & acrylic on paper, 1962-65

The show opens with drawing studies done during her studentship at Bath Academy of Art, UK in the ‘60s. The introduction to graphite as a medium, and paper as a surface, to study forms and their relationship within the space is a fascinating experience for any art student in their early training. While most students will move to more permanent oil colors, Hashmi developed a long-lasting relationship with her paper and pencil. This remains her favored medium of expression even today. She enjoys creating tonal variations, employing different intensity graphite, making marks, crafting textures and adding acrylic colors and paper collages to make compositions that are laden with deep meaning and messages. Social awareness and early exposure to politics made Hashmi develop visual idioms as metaphors of resistance and activism. The deep crimson splatters, sharp and solid marks of graphite, text and images borrowed from newspapers and overlapping parchments of paper often infusing or straining the grey clouds are some of the important elements in her works. Another idiom that recurs occasionally in her paintings is the symbolic ‘mudra’. As South Asians, we understand these mudras or hand gestures as sacred iconography that may carry spiritual and instructional values (Bunce, 2009). They are also meditative in nature. These mysterious healing gestures can calm the stress, aggravations and frustrations of everyday life (Carroll, 2012). Here, in Hashmi’s work the hand gestures generate curiosity, enrich the visual vocabulary and lend a kind of movement within the compositions.

Two Loves, Mixed media on paper, 2007

Parallel to Hashmi’s dedication to the cause of human rights in general, and her devotion to raising the state and status of Pakistani women are the emblem of female figure in her work. Using the veiled, featureless faces or the nude female figures that blur in the background and avert the tag of being obscene, Hashmi corresponds to the feminist cause. During the ‘80s she played an elementary role in amassing women artists of Pakistan highlighting the suspension of freedom of speech and other basic societal rights of ‘all men, women and children’. Women artists were called upon to sign a manifesto promising to take their place in the vanguard of Pakistani women’s struggle. The aim was,

….to retain their pristine image and their rightful place in society so that they may replace in the lives of the people despair with hope, brutality with compassion, darkness with light, and anarchy with culture and leave the world a happier, more beautiful and more peaceful place than we found it as (Hashmi 194).

Not only did Hashmi dare highlight the need for freedom of expression, but she exposed the newly introduced Shariah Laws— public lashing, stoning and imprisonment under the Hudood and Zina Ordinance of 19792. She became the voice for oppressed women and minor rape victims who experienced the consequences of the “draconian law”. The drawings in the series Alive in My Times remind one of ‘the proposed status’ for women in the ‘Islamic’ society devised under the slogan of ‘chader and char dewari’— a kind of house arrest for all Pakistani women. While other artists too responded to the absurd idea of keeping women out of the mainstream societal engagements and confining them within the four walls of their houses, Naazish Ata Ullah’s Chader series of aquatint prints is one example, Hashmi’s drawings predict the consequences of such a concept. She foretells the fate of these deprived women who shall lose their identity and become nothing but a pile of cloth. The abstract nature of these crooked line drawings, stretching across the picture space haunts the viewer and alarms the society. They illustrate a barren, arid zone where there is no hint of life and no indication of Spring.

Poem for Zainab, Mixed media & collage on paper, 1995
Drawing 13 Alive in My Time, 1980 to 85, Marker on paper
Drawing 13 Alive in My Time, 1980 to 85, Marker on paper

Hashmi painted nude female figures too in response to these oppressive laws against women3. The female bodies in her paintings were “usually engulfed in an air of encountering the surroundings if not of sovereignty” (Kamran, 26). The pungent realities of social injustice and violence were visualized in terms of color schemes, unrefined brush strokes, tempestuous textures and rough surfaces. To meet the urgency of the situation, Hashmi opted for a more blatant medium of photography. Her black-and-white photographic series celebrates womanhood and documents the situations of women and children she was passionate to address. She travelled across Pakistan learning and experiencing the womenfolk. This experiential outlook is the key feature of feminist aesthetics according to which “feminist art blurs the distinctions between art and criticism, between art and politics and theory and practice” (Hein, 281-91). In Hashmi’s case, it enhances the scope of art as activism in Pakistan. The ‘80s politically charged society, suspension of basic human rights and restriction of free speech were in quest of a medium for vigorous campaigning to create awareness, highlight the atrocities of a non-democratic government and bring about political or social change. Art provided that niche for consciousness-raising.

No Man’s Land, Mixed media on paper, 2003

In light of the above-discussed streaks of feminist aesthetics, the selection of paintings in the retrospective that represent Hashmi’s work since 2000 seems most resolved theoretically. They allude to spaciousness for both politics and aesthetics. They also reflect the state of mind of a sated soldier and a contended custodian who has tended the garden well and is confident about its fruits, fragrances and songs. She has indeed trained the generations of artists who believe in the power of art as an agent of change in the society. She has led Pakistani women from upfront in taking the role of home-makers, nation-builders, activists, caregiverss, comrades, players and most of all useful members of the society.

Mapping the creative practices of Salima Hashmi requires a lifetime of investigation while analyzing and theorizing her works would need much more determination and commitment. She is a remarkable teacher, a true feminist and a motivational storyteller. It is this art of story-telling that collectively expounds in all of the roles that she has taken up be it of an artist, performer, teacher, curator or a conscientious member of society. Her art mostly recounts the socio-political agitation in Pakistan as it seeped through the brutal Martial Laws and depleting democracies. It comments on the implications of such politics on cultural horizon of the country. Her theatre provides a satirical commentary on prevailing societal norms which entertains the masses and challenges the authoritative alike. Her writings chronicle art movements in Pakistan as they gained momentum since partition. She is a griot when talking about the history and genealogy of South Asian Art. As an art critic, discussant and tutor, she would keenly and politely spin yarns, as per the capacity of her audience, to make her point through. The reality is that one doesn’t get enough of her stories. The incidents and anecdotes that she vividly recounts and often repeats would disclose a new idea and a fresh perspective each time satiating the current need of her students, associating with the flux mood of her colleagues or concerning the preponderant turmoil of legal, social or political nature.

The exhibition, curated by Asad Haye, was held from 23rd February to 23rd March 2024 at the Tollington Block, NCA Lahore.

Title image: Pursuing Radiance, Mixed media on paper, 2003

All images are courtesy Rohtas 2, Lahore


Bunce, W. Fredrick. Mudras in Buddhist and Hindu Practices: An Iconographic Consideration. UK: Printworld, 2009.

Carroll, Cain & Revital Carroll. Mudras of India: A Comprehensive Guide to the Hand Gestures of Yoga and Indian Dance. Philadelphia: Singing Dragon, 2012.

Hashmi, Salima. Unveiling the Visible Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan. Pakistan: Actionaid Pakistan, 2002.

Hein, Hilde. “The Role of Feminist Aesthetics in Feminist Theory”. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 48, no. 4, [Wiley, American Society for Aesthetics], 1990, 281–91, https://doi.org/10.2307/431566

Gertrud, Hirschi. Mudras: Yoga in Your Hands. UK: Weiser Books, 2016.

Jahangir, Asma and Jilani, Hina. The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction? Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2003.

Kamran, P, Sadia. Bano’s Companion to Feminist Art-Women, Art & Politics in Pakistan. Lahore: Le Topical, 2022.


  1. The phrase refers to the series of drawings and paintings done during the ‘80s aligned with the Women Action Forum artists’ manifesto.
  2. In addition to such punishments, in 1983, under the dictatorship of General Zia and his aberrant ideas about Shariah another law was introduced according to which a woman’s legal evidence was valued half as compared to the man’s testimony. Women demonstrated against it and were snubbed and repressed brutally. This remonstration was the first time that women artists had overtly identified their work with the political struggle for female emancipation. For details see Jahangir & Jilani 2003.
  3. Regretfully they are not part of the retrospective show. Reproduction can be seen in Sadia, P. Kamran. Bano’s Companion to Feminist Art-Women, Art & Politics in Pakistan. Lahore: Le Topical, 2022, 25.
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