Cultures of Consumption – Contemporary Perspectives of Art and Consumerism
Cultures of Consumption – Contemporary Perspectives of Art and Consumerism

In lieu of the growing and expansive culture of product (and profit)-making, it can be argued that the postmodern experience of consumerism for the average individual is increasingly becoming a manufactured necessity. Consumers are inevitably confronted with mass-produced goods that act as cityscape adornments in the form of posters, billboards, and banners. This further manages to manifest even in the virtual realm, with a variety of brands forcing their way into the subconscious of every consumer with an internet connection. The commercialization of culture is evident in the fetishistic nature in which everything becomes a commodity. The criticality needed to question and challenge the conventions of consumerism is what gave rise to the Pop Art movement in the 1950’s, but is somehow not as prevalent today in the visual arts when consumerism has reached levels that could not have been anticipated before. Pop Art, with its use of popular consumer motifs, majorly incorporated irony and mechanical reproduction in post-industrial United Kingdom and United States.1 In the case of Pakistan, Pop Art has found different manifestations that were not necessarily borne out of a movement, but are as equally relevant when discussing the larger framework of material culture.

A contestable aspect of material culture is how different cultural products manage to infiltrate societal perception on a global scale. American artist Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans may have been relevant to the American public, but possibly did not translate with the same assertion in different cultures. In comparison, when looking at a brand like Coca-Cola, the cursive font and iconic red colour become easily cosmopolitan and universal.

The Coca-Cola brand’s presence in the cultural consciousness of the average Pakistani consumer is transparent. Television, print-media and advertising aside, the existence of Coca-Cola in expansive avenues across Pakistan’s culture is evident in its place with music (Coke Studio), charity (‘Eidi for Edhi’), personalised bottles (‘Share a Coke’), and even festivals (Coke Fest).2 Most major cities are bombarded with massive Coca-Cola banners and sprawling posters all across their streets and infrastructure.

With that context in mind, it becomes easy to understand how brands like Coca-Cola have managed to manifest in various forms of advertising, consumerism, and materialism. Exploring this idea of a world conquered by material culture, Karachi-based artist Danish Ahmed attempts to understand and navigate the eradication of natural forms of existence as consumerist products overtake the cultural landscape.

Ahmed’s interest in the natural and spiritual has been an ongoing exploration throughout his practice. His work has sought to juxtapose natural forms with geometric abstraction, using the motif of trees and clouds in tandem with architectural shapes. This can be witnessed in his Cuboid series, in which he explored ‘the subjugation of nature and spiritual dimensions of existence from experiences of our daily lives’. Furthermore, in the group show titled Reliquary at Chawkandi Art Gallery in 2020, he emphasised on the idea of ‘meaningless products and experiences’ when speaking about materialism.

In his attempt to do so, he applies the same formula as the Pop Art of the West and introduces a new branch of irony and deception in his oeuvre. With more direct references to consumer culture, his primary motif for this body of work becomes the icon of the Coca-Cola bottle.

Ice Cold Sunshine VI (series) diptych, Danish Ahmed, UV digital print, charcoal and ink on archival claybord, 14 x 18 inches each, 2022

Working with flat, two-dimensional shapes and images of clouds and trees simultaneously, Ahmed looks to visualise the dichotomy of the natural, physical, material, and spiritual. According to the artist, an ‘overwhelming experience’ of consumerism leads to what he called a ‘cultural paralysis’, enslaving and hypnotising the human race by the ‘curse of consumerism’. Also looking towards Islamic philosophy, he draws on the concept of the temporary nature of the physical, finding pathways to detach from material aspects of the world to relocate his spiritual origin.

While Ahmed’s past work has looked to depict a clash between the natural and manmade, his current critique of consumerism looks at manipulating pop art aesthetics to reiterate the sentiments of pop artists from the 1950s, but this time from a contemporary Pakistani perspective. His use of the Coca-Cola bottle looks at the ‘deceptive’ nature of advertising, and the manipulation of consumers into ‘shallow’ spiritual experiences.

At Chawkandi Art gallery in Karachi, he exhibited his recent body of work titled The C-Word. A collection of paintings, prints, drawings, and video work, the exhibition is a mixture of the manmade with the mechanical. A stark contrast can be witnessed between softer strokes of the human hand in paint and charcoal, in juxtaposition with the repetitive, sharp outlines of printed motifs. Wordplay and double-meanings are at the core of most of the works, playing deeply into the idea of ‘deception’.

Upon entering the gallery, the first work we are confronted with is a printed panel of an obscure, geometrical ‘C’ in black and red. The large ‘C’ is formulated out of smaller batches of individual words that also start with ‘C’. Like a thesaurus, the viewer pans the large C from top to bottom to read a variety of words like ‘capitalism’, ‘consumerism’, ‘commodity’, ‘corrupt’, ‘conspiracy’, in the middle of other varying interrelated terms.

So what is the ‘C-word’ exactly? And what were the artist’s intentions behind it?

From the variety of ‘C’ words appearing in print, an obvious word that seems to be missing is the brand name Coca-Cola. Visual associations would suggest to the viewer that the ‘C’ word in question is in fact Coke, since that is the motif most visibly apparent in the works. However, the name is nowhere to be seen. According to the artist, cuss words starting with the letter C are familiar to both the English and Urdu vernacular, and can be seen repeatedly in the print. In an attempt to not be direct and blunt, the cuss words find themselves hooded in the other C words that make more sense, making one question why they are there at all. In that instance, the C-word becomes a mockery and deliberate ‘humiliation’ of the problematic notions of materialism that the artist is trying to convey. Ahmed claims that deception is at the centre of this body of work. Coded understanding of the works requires one to be attuned to the basic ideas behind advertising, consumerism, capitalism, and popular culture.

For his process, Ahmed starts by playing around with different placements of each object, selectively deciding what would then be recreated by hand. His Coke bottles find their angular placements based on the need of the composition, the purpose behind it remaining ambiguous. As a call-back to his Cuboid series, Ahmed brings back the iconography of smoky dark clouds and barren trees he has been working with for some time, looking once again at ‘spiritual extinction’ through the eradication of nature that he also highlights in his previous work. Retracting from three-dimensionality this time, the cuboids are opened up to embody a more virtual presence. In trying to create something synthetic-looking, these ‘open cuboids’ are meant to look architectural and two-dimensional, in turn, more artificial.

Ahmed also invokes ideas of ‘spiritual satisfaction’, claiming that the human race’s hyperfixation on acquiring mass-produced goods on a regular basis is merely a way to fill a certain void that was originally meant to be gratified through ‘unity with God’, which according to the artist is every human being’s origin. Through this, he makes connections between consumerism and religion, and the negative implications of the two becoming integrated.

Coke Jaali, Danish Ahmed, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, 2022

A reference to Islamic iconography is apparent in the Coke bottles he morphed into ornamental Islamic architectural designs. Titled Coke Jaali, the Urdu wordplay comes into the forefront of the work to have a two-fold meaning— first, the literal one of jaali, the geometrical latticed screen made out of Coke bottle contours; the other jaali meaning a counterfeit, cheap reproduction, or phoney representation. The deliberate use of Islamic architectural design in congruence with Coke is an attempt to equate consumerism to religion, symbolising the valorisation of brand identities being worshipped to religious extremes.

Playing further into religious symbolism, in Eden I, two cherubim in charcoal and graphite flank the monochrome Coke bottle in the centre. Juxtaposing celestial motifs with a commercial one, this triptych depicts the cherubim consuming Coca-Cola through strings almost reminiscent of an umbilical cord. The Biblical title of ‘Eden’ further adds some form of religious connotation, if not necessarily a Christian one. Using familiar imagery of the winged, Angelic creatures, the fetishism of consumer goods reaching religious magnitudes is what is meant to be represented once more. Similar ideas are reiterated in Eden II, this time with a larger work of acrylic and oil on canvas. Instead of the Coke bottle, however, the cherubim seem to be consuming a red substance in a polyhedron through straws. A less literal rendition of the concept, colour association with the red pigment, when looked at in context with the recognisable motif of straws, draws the viewer to a conclusion where they automatically make connections to Coca-Cola, even without the bottle present. This instant recognition of brand identity manages to circumvent the ambiguity of the work.

The only work that utilizes an alternate medium is the video titled I am a Coke Fan. The 3D animation starts as a rhythmic, circular form that eventually halts to a clear image of five glass Coca-Cola bottles. The bottles in this instance are instantly recognizable for Pakistani consumers, with the brand name being visible in both the English and Urdu logos. Easing in a little too literally with the wordplay, the animation is deliberately made to look like a fan, with the bottles appearing as fan blades both when spinning and unmoving, while also using the term ‘fan’ for admiration.

What is perhaps the most clever take on the brand and the idea of consumerism it embodies, the artist goes through an archive of Coca-Cola advertising campaigns and extracts specific slogans from over the years to be used as titles of his own work. At first glance, the purpose behind the titles eludes the viewer, with most of the titles making no reference to the beverage at all. The Ice Cold Sunshine series for example is a Coca-Cola slogan from 1932. 3 Similarly, the title It Had to Be Good to Get Where It Is goes back even further to 1926.4 Using ambiguous titles that do not reference the brand name, and then specifically choosing slogans from nearly a century ago, Ahmed creates a secret inside joke where his subtle references go unnoticed, turning the titles’ connection to Coca-Cola into a moment of hilarious realisation.

The I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke series of charcoal and pastel silhouettes plays further into wordplay and ambiguity. Nine figures in black silhouettes are depicted drinking a bottle of Coke. While some silhouettes are instantly recognizable – like Uncle Sam and the Queen of England – some are left anonymous. The figures’ headdresses hint at some form of political authority, with one figuring adorning a King’s crown, while another dons the cap of a military official. At the same time, other figures, like a woman in a hijab and other unidentifiable male figures, are placed there purely for the purpose of creating confusion. One begins to question that if two out of the nine are instantly recognizable, does that mean the other figures are meant to be persons of relevance as well?

I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke (series), Danish Ahmed, charcoal and pastels on paper, 8.3 x 11.7 inches each, 2022

Andy Warhol has famously been known for saying: “A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.”5 In a way, Ahmed’s ambiguous figures play into this sentiment as well. Whether it is the Queen of England or an average person with no rank or title, their experience of a Coca-Cola bottle would be equal. Hence, all nine figures, regardless of rank or status, are placed together in a grid.

With reference to Ahmed’s body of work, writer Nimra Khan also recalls Warhol, saying: “Visually, this manifests as elements reminiscent of American Pop Art of the 60s, with the form of the coke bottle isolated and repeated in a pattern of red echoing Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans.”

Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans, though being one of his most iconic works, is perhaps not the most adequate example to be given in this instance, seeing as how Warhol also incorporated the motif of the Coke bottle as early as 1962.6 Out rightly being a commercial artist, Warhol, however, strategically used this irony to critically look at the constant barrage of consumerist culture around him. His repetition of the green Coca-Cola bottles purposely mocked the methods of mass production in the growing consumerist societies at the time, which still holds significant relevance today, as witnessed in Ahmed’s work. A mixture of woodblock stamping and silkscreen printing, Warhol’s green Coca-Cola bottles are meant to represent something ‘simultaneously handmade and individualised, streamlined and mass-produced’.7

Green Coca-Cola Bottles, Andy Warhol, Acrylic, screen-print, and graphite pencil on canvas, 82.75 × 57.1 inches, 1962, Image Courtesy: Whitney Museum of American Art

However, unlike Warhol’s choice of using the colour green, Ahmed sticks to using the iconic red that is most identifiable for the brand. A comparison between Warhol and Ahmed was inevitable when looking at their specific choice of iconography. Warhol’s Coca-Cola bottles were meant to represent not only consumer culture, but also the mass production of goods through mechanical reproduction in his art. Ahmed also incorporates a similar practice, merging his hand-drawn clouds and trees with printed repetitions of the Coke bottle.

Ahmed, however, states that his own use of the Coke bottle was different from that of Warhol’s. He believed Warhol’s use of the Coke bottle was a glorification, when in fact, the repetitive and mechanical reproduction of the motif by Warhol was designed to do the opposite— to strip the object of its glory and turn it into something banal.

Critic Paul Bergin gives an interesting summation of Warhol’s work, saying: “It is art stripped of personality and emotion and concerned only with the image, the obvious. It is art of the machine, not about it.”8

In juxtaposition, how much of Ahmed’s work is of Coca-Cola, and not about it? Just like Ahmed’s assumption that Warhol was ‘glorifying’ the Coca-Cola brand, he himself may easily fall victim to the same assumption, where the average viewer could possibly confuse his repetitive use of the Coke bottle motif as the artist’s obsession, and not a criticism as he originally intended.

Another critical discourse of postmodern culture is the commoditization of art. According to literary critic Frederic Jameson, such a culture enables and propagates ‘depthlessness’, that is, subjects appear only on a surface level without any depth.9 This missing form of depth and lack of uniqueness is what further leads to what Jameson refers to as ‘pastiche’, claiming that style itself becomes nothing more than an imitation or parody, and originality becomes lost.10

Pop Art relied on this notion of the pastiche, utilising copies of iconic symbols, photographs, and cultural products to create parodies of the consumerist boom. The imitations created were meant to highlight the glorification of material culture, while actually holding a mirror up to society’s hyper-dependence on it. Neo-Pop art styles seem to continue that tradition, where similar motifs are repeated and regurgitated to symbolise the problems that consumerist societies tend to overlook. However, the irony that pop artists applied to their work sometimes appears to be more of a dependency itself. A consequence of late capitalism, as Jameson argues, is that postmodern culture is without depth and originality.11 This may be argued upon with artists working with pop aesthetics as working with the irony of the pastiche, and falling victim to it at the same time.

Warhol once again becomes a prime example of this. He had an ongoing relationship with Coca-Cola for decades, creating works inspired by the beverage several times. He was even approached by Time Magazine to create cover art based on Coke’s new formula at the time, which ultimately found a home at the Coca-Cola headquarters where it is currently displayed. 12 What appears to have happened is that his criticism of consumer culture inadvertently then turned into a celebration. The irony that he once utilised with commodification became twofold, when his work became commoditized itself. A crucial example of this is when his Coca-Cola (3) sold for $57 million at a Christie’s auction. 13

Coca-Cola 3, Andy Warhol, Casein on canvas, 69.4 × 54 inches, 1962, Image Courtesy: Christies

What often becomes a discourse in postmodern art is seeing its position in the world as within the realms of, or separate from, commercialism. While this discourse often has a lot to do with the functionality of art changing over the years, it can also be said that sometimes artists themselves use art as a tool for commercialism. In the case of Pakistan, it becomes a rather difficult task to separate or distinguish what commercial art can be. The word ‘commercial’ itself attached to the word ‘art’ gives us the impression that it is concerned with matters of money and profit. Professor of philosophy Raphael Sassower draws a comparison between artworks from antiquity and the avant-garde, describing how ‘artists perform a useful task for their culture’ and ‘defy the authorities and pay dearly for their passion and vision’. 14 However, he talks about avant-garde artists in reference to contemporary culture, and mentions how they ‘are fully enmeshed in the overwhelming powers of the culture of capitalism’.15 What Sassower is talking about in this regard is that even though avant-garde artists supposedly make artworks that are purposefully different and unconventional from other art, they still feed on and are driven by the prospects of capital.

The commoditization of art and the practice of artists selling their artwork creates the discourse that art is ultimately commercially driven. In the case of Ahmed, his works were also up for sale, in due course turning them into a commodity, despite his criticism of consumerism. Perhaps not as mass-produced as a Coca-Cola, but one can argue that his art does not necessarily invoke ‘unity with God’ for the viewer that Ahmed himself is seeking through his practice.

Despite the Coke brand being the centremost motif of this body of work, Ahmed insists that the work is not aimed to be a criticism of Coca-Cola, but rather a reflection of the corporate culture of capitalism. In his own words, he believes that he is speaking through the symbol of a vastly recognisable brand to criticise the nature of profit-making as being ‘corrupt by default’.

To look at some examples of Coca-Cola’s recent advertising campaigns, the brand proudly used the slogan ‘Karachi Love Hai’ (Karachi is Love) in October 2020.16 This romanticised ode to Karachi attempted to bait consumers through sceneries of tea, cricket, street food, and the sea – all the usual tropes used to identify Karachi as a city in a visually aesthetic ad campaign. However, when the context of the cultural (and literal) climate of Karachi was to be taken into consideration at the time of this campaign, the city witnessed the following problematic and harrowing events: it was the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Karachi was fluctuating between lockdowns every other month and the number of transmission cases remained at an all-time high; the PIA plane crash near Jinnah International Airport that claimed the lives of 97 passengers travelling from Lahore to Karachi, when domestic travel had resumed for the first time since the pandemic began; and the devastating urban flooding that claimed lives, homes, and livelihoods of a vast majority of the city’s population, particularly in those who did not fall into the wealthy and privileged class.17

The reason to reiterate some of these events, among others, was the blatant disregard and ignorance with which this Coca-Cola campaign was announced. At that specific point in time, Karachi as a city had only recently failed at adapting to disaster, with the negligence of the state at recognising and facilitating the struggles of the average resident of Karachi coming to the forefront in the face of these events. In summation, to release a romanticised ad campaign to ‘reclaim’ the love for the city of Karachi was mostly ill-conceived, and unabashedly complacent.

When looking at such examples of capitalist culture, one can begin to see the merit in Ahmed’s choice of using a brand as instantly recognisable as Coca-Cola to symbolise corporate greed and ignorance, while bringing to light the suffocating aftereffects of profit-making on the natural world at the same time. This does not necessarily need to be seen as an attack on the brand itself, but a reminder of how passive experiences of consumerism can add to larger cultural implications of late capitalism. According to Ahmed, ‘The value of nature around us and within us seems to be corrupted and distorted by the perpetual desire for excessive acquisition of consumer goods and services.’ The example of Coca-Cola’s ‘Karachi is Love’ campaign being launched when the city had not entirely recovered from the catastrophe of urban flooding becomes the embodiment of what Ahmed is talking about. In crises of nature with lives lost and livelihoods destroyed, we are reminded of the long-term calamities that may unfold due to the role that corporations play in global climate change. The eradication of nature is paralleled with the spiritual extinction Ahmed believes is happening, where the excess of mass-produced commodities and fetishization of consumerism is ultimately a depthless repercussion of late capitalism.

Eden II, Danish Ahmed, acrylic and oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, 2022

Ultimately, Ahmed’s body of work becomes an amalgamation of his past and current practice. His artistic pursuits of man vs. nature and contemporary discourses of consumerism meet at an intersection of handmade natural forms, and mechanical repetitions of popular products. With the bright Coca-Cola bottles representative of consumer culture, and the barren trees and dark clouds representative of the desolation of nature, this work becomes a conjunction of the material and the spiritual.

‘The C Word’ was exhibited at Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi, from January 27 – February 10, 2022.


  1. Bergin, Paul. ‘Andy Warhol: The Artist as Machine’. Art Journal, Summer, 1967, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer, 1967), pp. 359-363, JSTOR,
  2. Paracha, Nadeem F. ‘Cola wars: A social and political history’. Dawn. Published April 26, 2017,
  3. History of Coca-Cola Advertising Slogans, The Coca-Cola Company,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Horwitz, Richard P. ed. The American Studies Anthology (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).
  6. ‘Green Coca-Cola Bottles’, Whitney Museum of American Art,
  7. Ibid.
  8. Bergin. ‘Andy Warhol: The Artist as Machine’, JSTOR,
  9. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).
  10. Jameson, 1991.
  11. Ibid.
  12. ‘What’s the History Behind Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola Bottle Painting?’, The Coca-Cola Company,
  13. Moye, Jay. ‘Warhol Coca-Cola Painting Sells for $57.3 Million at Christie’s Auction’. The Coca-Cola Company, (published 21 November, 2013),
  14. Sassower, Raphael and Louis Cicotello, The Golden Avant-garde: Idolatry, Commercialism, and Art,

    (Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2000)

  15. Ibid.
  16. ‘Coca Cola’s latest campaign says Karachi Love Hai Jani. Here’s why we agree’, Dawn (published 18 November, 2020),
  17. Hasan, Arif. ‘Why Karachi Floods’, Dawn, (Published September 6, 2020),

Noor Butt is an artist and writer. Her ongoing research interests and creative practice include South Asian and 20th century art, with a focus on gender, nationalism, and image-making in the photographic age. Recipient of the Abu Shamim Areff Award for Best Research, the Sher Asfandyar Khan Award for Academic Excellence, and the Daniel Peltz Scholarship for postgraduate study, she has a BFA with distinction from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) and an MA in History of Art with Merit from the University of London, Birkbeck College. Noor currently teaches art history at IVS in the Liberal Arts programme.

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