Modernism, Postcolonial Nation States Art Criticism
Modernism, Postcolonial Nation States Art Criticism

Modernism, Postcolonial Nation States Art Criticism
A Reflection on the Work of Hanif Ramay and Sadequain

Author:  Dr. Rasheed Araeen
Originally published in NuktaArt, inaugural issue, May 2005
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Zubeida Agha, Karachi by Night, 1956


Let me begin with a question: what is art criticism and its function? This question is not as impertinent as it may appear, and the answer to it is not as obvious as most people assume. I will go even further and say that in most postcolonial nation states the discourse of art criticism does not exist. It is often confused with art writing, the writing which appears in daily newspapers, popular magazines, and even in so-called art magazines. The function of this writing is to inform and create an interest about art among the public, as well as to promote the career of the artist. This is a legitimate and justified activity, and it is not my aim to denigrate it. But its confusion with art criticism often wears a mask of ignorance, mediocrity and complacency, a mask that is a common hallmark of the intelligentsia of most Third World nation states today. What is actually hidden behind this mask is an intellectual underdevelopment and incompetence that have affected both the making of art and its mediation through the language of writing. As a result, we are unable to understand and evaluate the true significance of both what is recognised and what is not recognised as art by or within post-independent nation states. What is important here is not only art’s social conditions but also the relationship of artistic production to art history. However, national histories of art cannot be perceived, constructed and narrated independent of or separate from the mainstream modern art history, since the very formation of these nation states is based on their adoption of modernity and its developmental models. In other words, we cannot answer the question ‘what is art criticism?’ without and outside the historical context of modernity and what it has produced both within its mainstream and what is considered to be its margins.

Moreover, with modernity becoming a global phenomenon, penetrating every corner of the world and imposing its ideas of progress on all cultures, what it produces as a result cannot be understood outside this context. In other words, the scientific, technological, economic and social changes that have been taking place in the postcolonial global society, affecting everyday life, is fundamental to both the art production and the tools needed to measure and evaluate its significance.

Of course, what constitutes the basic tool must be an efficiency of writing skill. But, that is not enough as is commonly assumed. The significance of art lies in its many layers – formal, social, historical, and so on. A writing skill that is unaware of these layers, let alone its inability to penetrate them, cannot recognise or reveal the true content of art. Of course art criticism requires a writing skill, but it is more important to have a discourse or discipline informed and constituted by a body of ideas that can penetrate the various layers of art and bring out its true significance. Only then it can mediate between art and its audience, so that its true significance is revealed, but also in so doing it can situate art within the genealogy of both national and what constitutes humanity’s universal histories. As the true significance of art lies in its transgression from individual and national expressions, the art criticism that cannot deal with this aspect is basically deficient.


Let me now proceed to illustrate what I mean by all this, by looking at the work of two Pakistani artists: Hanif Ramay and Sadequan.  My attempt here is only within a national context, in order to avoid the difficulty of their being considered within the mainstream discourse and/or history of modernism. In order for them to enter this discourse and claim a place in it, they must proceed from the culture in which their work is produced and first understood. It seems that there has been no serious attempt to examine and analyse their works critically, not even in the context of a national space they occupy, so that their true significance to it is revealed. Both the artists are recognised and celebrated within the history of art in Pakistan, but their critical and historical importance is fogged by the mere fact of their being Pakistani. This is, in my view, not only not enough but obstructive. If we want to understand their importance, then we ought to subject their works to a critical scrutiny that goes beyond a petty and facile nationalism.

There is something common to both the artists, even when they approach their subject differently. Although both the artists are committed to what is considered to be a Pakistan’s own tradition — Islamic calligraphy – and they carry the baggage of this tradition on their shoulders, they use this tradition not merely to reinvent or rejuvenate it. Recognising this tradition as part of their being, and then encountering and experiencing inspiring modernity at the same time, they find themselves in a situation that demands a creative imagination which can deal with this complexity. They must find a way that would make sense of their being in the modern world. What they actually achieve in this respect is remarkable. The tradition that they carry with them is not only transformed in their works, but what as a result is produced are modernist works that are unique. However, it is not the tradition but the modernity of these works which is fundamental to their achievements.

When Hanif Ramay approaches his work through Islamic calligraphy, what is important for him is not merely the use of calligraphy to establish his identity but what he adopts in the construction of a modern painting. Unlike other artists who use Islamic calligraphy in their work, including Sadequain, Ramay does not always treat calligraphy as calligraphy. In fact, he does not do calligraphy at all in the work I am considering. He abandons the position of a calligrapher and becomes a painter – a modern painter. The first job of art criticism here should therefore be to recognise the distinction between calligraphy and painting as two different mediums; and only then we can proceed to deal with the content of Ramay’s work entitled Kalima. Even then not everything is resolved easily. When we approach the actual work and look at it, what is in fact there is a form of calligraphy. If Ramay is not actually doing or producing calligraphy here, as I suggest, why is then calligraphy there? This may be a puzzling question, but this puzzlement lies in one’s inability not to grasp the true nature of the tradition of calligraphy and its difference from the work under consideration.

What is fundamental to calligraphy is its spatial configuration: there is a background surface – paper or canvas – on which words are written calligraphically, so that the space is divided between the background surface and what is calligraphed on it. In the painting Kalima, this spatial division is totally changed so that there is no background or foreground. Instead, the space is divided across the plane of the surface into different colour areas, and this division is carried out by the linearity of the words used. In other words, words are used as dividers in order to produce a space that is different from the calligraphic space. The result is a pictorial – not calligraphic — space that alludes to its being within a modernistic space.  This is fundamental to the understanding of Ramay’s this work.

Ramay’s early work, to which this painting belongs to, was part of a modernism that emerged soon after the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It was not a peaceful separation, as we all know, but for which almost a million people gave their lives. When I look at this work and locate it in this historical context, its calligraphic lines remind me of the dividing lines that partitioned the subcontinent into separate spaces. This may be an illusion, unconnected with the work. But if we are confronted with a pictorial space that is the result of dividing lines of a religious nature, how else should we interpret it? Of course, there is no other indication that should allow us to look at the work in this way. There is no indication of any human tragedy; no signs of a lament or melancholy. Instead, the mode of the work is sensuously cheerful and celebratory, like that of colourful kites flying over Lahore during the spring festival of basant, perhaps indicating the kind of optimism that was then necessary for a new country.

My allusion to the partition of the subcontinent may be completely misplaced or unnecessary. We can of course interpret the work in some other way, but even then it would reveal a complexity beyond its being merely a calligraphic work. This is its significance. I am therefore tempted to go beyond its formal space and push the metaphor further. It may then suggest that although any division created on a religious basis shatters the unity of humanity, this unity cannot be achieved by reducing the world or humanity to a singular homogenous state, religious or secular. We must not only reconcile with its divisions and differences but also celebrate them. That may be the significance of this work of Ramay’s.

However, there is a serious difficulty in pursuing this line of analysis and establishing this significance. If we look at the whole body of Ramay’s work to which this single work belongs to, Kalima turns out to be an exception. He seemed not to have realised its significance, in the sense that the work had moved beyond the tradition of calligraphy and had created a pictorial space with its own modern significance. It is not unusual for a new artistic idea to emerge in one’s work, but to grasp its significance and take it further one needs a critical sensibility to isolate it from rest of the work. This did not seem to happen. So, the significance of the work remains hidden behind a veil of ignorance and complacency.

Sadequain of course became a highly celebrated artist after he won a prize at the Paris Biennale of 1962. But do we understand the real significance of the work that brought him so much fame and fortune? In Pakistan, there were two views at the time. Some believed he deserved the prize for an achievement, but others who were cynical about it thought he got the prize only for the title of the work. However, none of them were able to say anything about the work itself, let alone analyse it, as there was no critical tool to look at the work. In fact, after he attained the status of a celebrity in Pakistan, Sadequain was never subjected to a critical scrutiny. It was taken for granted that he was a ‘great’ Pakistani artist, and therefore every work he did was great.

Hanif Ramay
Hanif Ramay

I am of course referring to the work whose title The Last Supper puzzled and confused so many people. In my view this work was not only Sadequain’s highest achievement, but it was one of the greatest works produced in the subcontinent at the time. However, despite all this, the work could not escape a paradox. This work became, in terms of his further artistic development, his own last supper. But no one understood this including the artist himself, which resulted in his subsequent downfall.

When we look at this work what do we see, a cluster of vertical forms arranged symmetrically? Although, for me, its symmetry is extremely important, it may be incidental as Sadequain himself did not pursue it in his subsequent works. The question that really emerges from the work is about its form. How did the artist arrive at this form and what is its significance? In fact, when we look at Sadequain’s work of the previous eight years, what we begin to see in this work is what seems to be what in Urdu is called nichore; a nichore or synthesis of all earlier works. The significance of nichore or synthesis is recognised both philosophically and historically. Historically, art arrives at its various syntheses – such as Cubism, Neo-plasticism, Abstract Expressionism, etc. – through a process in which things from earlier periods enter the artist’s intense awareness of his or her own time and are transformed into something new. This process is both physical and intellectual. While the physical process – i.e., artistic skill – deals with things materially, the intellect helps the artist’s sensibility to grasp its significance within the historical time the work is being produced. In other words, this sense of history allows the artist to move from one stage to another until he or she finds something new – often a synthesis.

Sadequain began his artistic career in the early fifties by looking into a mirror. What he saw in the mirror was not only his body but also what this body was carrying with it as a tradition now located within the consciousness of a new place and time. He then saw his body being transformed into kufi calligraphy, and other times into a cactus. Sometimes later, he enters Picasso’s studio riding a bull, as if to smash whatever was there. It is difficult to say what exactly he gained from this gate-crashing, except that his work subsequently does take a new direction resulting in what we see in The Last Supper.

Sadequain began his artistic pursuit with three preoccupations. First, it was his own body with what it had inherited as a tradition, and with what the body could identify. It was then that the cactus, both its physicality and its harsh conditions of existence and survival, which became a metaphor for Sadequain’s own existence and survival – and perhaps for his society as a whole. While contemplating all these three things for eight years, he arrives at a table of the last supper, placing himself at the centre. This last supper does not depict Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, or is its modern version. It is Sadequain’s own last supper. He arranges this supper himself for himself in which he is both the host and the chief guest. It is at its table, surrounded by others, that Sadequain transforms himself into something different from his own body. There is now no cactus or calligraphy either. They all have been merged together and transformed into something different and new, a synthesis whose full comprehension perhaps even escaped Sadequain’s own Self.

What is the significance of this transformation for Sadequain himself, for the society in which he finds himself and with which he identifies, and for art history? It is not possible to answer this question here, because it would involve an analysis of his whole career, as well as of the society that celebrates him but never tries to understand his work, both critically and historically.

I may be wrong in my approach to both of these artists’ work, but that should not be the point. The point here is not about being right or wrong but a critical methodology to interpret a work who’s FORM comprises many layers – personal, social, traditional, modern and historical. This FORM may be a veil to hide what the artist does not want to speak about. Whatever may be the case, the significance of the work lies within the inter-relationships of its layers. There may emerge many and contradictory meanings, but that is what makes a work complex. In fact, the purpose of rigorous critical scrutiny, or art criticism, is to explore this complexity without reducing the artwork to a single meaning. An artwork that is reduced to fit a particular meaning or national celebration loses its significance. In fact, in the absence of a methodological critical approach we are still without any profound understanding of both Ramay’s and Sadequain’s achievements. All we instead do is to merely celebrate them in the same way we celebrate complacently, the vulgarity of the heroes of popular media as part of the intellectual emptiness of national spectacle.


In fact, without a methodology that questions, interrogates and radically shakes the established assumptions, it is not possible to develop a discourse of art criticism. But such a rigorous questioning or critical interrogation cannot take place in a society in which there are no institutions that guarantee the basic rights of all its citizens, and provide them at least some facilities to acquire knowledge so that they can think and reflect themselves. However, human nature cannot be always trapped in whatever difficulties there are. An individual can transcend the barriers and produce miracles, so long as one has a faith in oneself and in one’s creative imagination and uses this imagination with courage and determination. People who are instead dependent on others’ creativity, and look towards others to provide them a way to follow cannot use their own imagination or realise their full creative potentials. Unfortunately, most people of the former colonies are still suffering from this dependency syndrome. It is this syndrome which has prevented the development of self-critical faculties in most Third World countries. When we cannot achieve anything ourselves we turn to our former masters and blame them for everything, demanding that the West should open the doors of its institutions to receive and recognise whatever good or bad we produce as art.

Sadequain, Judgment in Purity (detail), 1963, 30in x 48in, oil on canvas
Sadequain, Judgment in Purity (detail), 1963, 30in x 48in, oil on canvas

I hope I have made it obvious that the discourse of art criticism is fundamental to the understanding of art and its place in society as well as in human history. While it takes a place in the history of a nation state, it must also signify its universality. However, it is important here to emphasise again the difference between art writing and art criticism. While the former is useful in publicising an artist’s work, it is only the analytic tool of the latter that brings out the true meaning and understanding of art. Although the writing about art is now universal, as almost all countries of the world have a print media, not all societies have yet developed the language and discipline of art criticism, with their own theoretical or philosophical positions that determine their independent place in the world. Consequently, the world is divided into two camps. While the Western world has all the resources and facilities that underpin not only the formal institutions of research and learning but also those organisations which are open to public participation and appreciation, there is a total lack of these basic things in rest of the world.  Even those countries that do possess some infrastructure in this respect do not seem to possess a kind of independence that would produce independent minds and thinking. The reason for this is simple. The world is still living in the shadow of an Imperial power whose own self-interest predetermines everything, even when it treats the world benevolently. The discourse of art criticism is in fact predetermined by this reality. In most of the world, it is the legacies of colonialism that not only continue to maintain the underdevelopment of material resources but also trap people’s mental abilities and intellectual pursuits. The first prerequisite for the development of art criticism, therefore, is to get rid of the syndrome of dependency, by developing independent institutions not only of higher learning but also those which can encourage and promote non-instrumental thinking and pursuit of knowledge. However, it would be naïve to think, given the socio-economic conditions of most Third World countries, that their governments would prioritize such a development or spend enough money in support of art and its institutions. The only alternative, at the moment, seems to be with rich but enlightened individuals. But can someone tell me where to find them?

Sadequain, oil on canvas, c1970
Sadequain, oil on canvas, c1970

Mapping the Change:Art Critics Global Discourse

by Rumana Husain

AICA Pakistan, the national chapter of the Paris-based International Art Critics Association (AICA), organized the first ever international seminar on art criticism in Karachi, in November 2004. The theme, Mapping the Change, brought together scholars from ten countries, including Henry Meyric-Hughes, President of AICA International, and the local art community representing Karachi, Quetta, Hyderabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Muzaffarabad.

Four major themes of the seminar were:

  • Art Criticism and Nation – addressed how art criticism has embraced social issues like feminism, human rights and political activism as well as the role of criticism, in developing an identity and social cohesion in young democracies.
  • Strategies in Art Criticism – underlined the formal aspects, such as the role of pedagogy in art criticism, and the relationship between the art critic and the viewer.
  • Urban Energies – investigated the role of the public space in the popularization of art and the subversion of elitist icons.
  • Globalization of Art- inclusive or exclusive? – highlighted the gap between theory and practice of pluralism.

The Keynote Address, presented by the UK-based Dr. Rasheed Araeen, prominent artist, art critic, and founding editor of the Third Text, provided a strong context to the approach of art criticism in Pakistan.

Dr. Gulzar Haider, Emeritus Professor of Architecture at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, presented his paper on the Globalization of Art, calling it: For the Crossed Eyes of the Beholder, Some Critical Care, distinguishing dimensions among art history, art theory, art pedagogy, art politics, art valuation, art collection, marketing and enterprise. He also demonstrated the value of a multidimensional formulation of art criticism, arguing, “such a formulation will characteristically enhance intellectual fidelity and resonant amplification in criticism of arts (fine, performing and design) in an economically globalized, informatically internetted, yet culturally diverse and increasingly identity conscious humanity.”

Lahore-based architect, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, took up the theme of Urban Energies in his paper, Impact of Social, Political and Cultural Change on Art and Art Writings. His paper, read in Urdu, discussed issues of tradition and modernity. He stressed the “physical and philosophical moorings of art and art writing, demonstrating that Art and art writing are a part of the Euro-centric modernity project.”

Angelica Bäumer, the Austrian art critic who is also Treasurer, AICA International, spoke on Globalization: sense or non-sense, discussing how “after decades of indiscriminately following the US, Europe has returned to its own roots, and – in the course of the discussion about a possible EU integration of Turkey, a country with an Islamic majority – has discovered, that all Europe has not descended from the West but from the East.”

The art critic from Azerbaijan, Dr. Dilara Vagabova, introduced Features of Azerbaijanian Culture of the Post-Soviet Period: “During the 70 years while the Soviet Union existed, there was an unceasing process of unification and mutual assimilation between the national cultures in the Soviet republics.  This should lead to formation of the unified Soviet culture.  From the other side, the national traditions were outwardly supported. In the extent that would be enough to keep the national color and to stress the multinational character of the Soviet culture. As a whole the national identity was suppressed at all the levels of life, especially in the Muslim republics (Azerbaijan is a republic of Middle Asia).” She argued how the situation in Azerbaijan has changed with Perestroika, raising questions of identity and values but leading towards a somewhat mythological type of mentality, which became the most obvious in post-Soviet period.

UK-based Dr. Leon Roy Wainwright presented a paper on Art Criticism and Nation, called Canon: Futurology of Britain’s Diaspora Presence, and examined British artists of diasporic identities who did not realize that their  “access to national art spaces – of promotion, collection, display and criticism – would be so slow and so illusory.” He also looked briefly “at the style in which artists have imagined their affinities, prompted by concerns with exclusion in the meta-text of national cultural value, and community and heritage that shapes the country’s art history.”

Art Criticism and Nation was also discussed by Ludovico Pratesi from Italy in his Identity of Women in New Generations of Italian Art, with specific examples how in the last two decades, young women artists such as Vanessa Beecroft, Grazia Toderi, Eva Marisaldi, Paola Pivi and Luisa Lambri have played an important role in the international art scene.

Prof. Abul Mansur presented Works of Some Contemporary Women Artists: An Art Critical Appraisal of Women’s Condition in Bangladesh. He pointed out that art criticism has a role to play inside a ‘nation’ like ours. Artists of these countries often do address issues such as terrorism, class-exploitation, fundamentalism, and suppression of women, marginalization of religious and ethnic minorities, effects of globalization etc., which are pertinent to such societies. Thus, on the one hand it works inside the nation as a small constituent of its body, and on the other, overlooks upon it as one of the catalysts, which construct a nation.”

Dr. Alka Pande, author, curator and director of the Habitat Gallery from Delhi spoke on the theme of the city “as an organizational complex that is claimed by space that is both national and transnational.” She emphasized how Globalization is “bringing our world together in ways never before imagined. Nations and societies are no longer enclosed and self-reliant but is increasingly connected to and reliant upon each other in an intensifying cross-fertilization of culture through an interconnectedness of trade. Urban energies in India are buoyant, demanding, challenging, and of course   consumed by existentialist angst.”

Discussions and presentations by curators Pooja Sood from India, Sangeeta Thapa from Nepal and Alnoor Mitha from Shisha, UK focused on SAARC Art – A Shared Legacy, an exhibition held simultaneously in Lahore, tied in with papers read by Marjorie Hussain, Ivo Kanzfelder, Prof. Mohammad Ali Siddiqui, Raja Changez Sultan, Prof. Ijaz ul Hassan, Prof. Nagori, Quddus Mirza and Samina Shah from Pakistan, providing an overview of curatorial and artistic trends in the region.

A book bazaar during the seminar, Art in Print, brought together the present art documentation in the country. A workshop in collaboration with British Council Pakistan for O and A Level art – critical evaluation – was conducted by Dr. Wainwright.

Rasheed Araeen is a civil engineer, artist, writer and inventor.  In 1965, he pioneered minimalist sculpture-representing perhaps the only Minimalism in Britain. After having been active in various groups supporting liberation struggles, democracy and human rights, he began to write in 1975, and then started publishing his own journals: Black Phoenix (1978), Third Text (1987) and Third Text Asia (2008).  He has curated important exhibitions and published an autobiographical book, Making Myself Visible, comprising texts and visual images, Kala Press, 1984, and Art Beyond Art/ Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century, ThirdText Publications, London, September 2010.

He is currently involved in bringing different disciplines together by persuading artists, scientists, engineers, social scientists, philosophers, and so on, to work together in looking at and solving social and ecological problems resulting from climate change.

Rumana Husain is an author, artist and educator. She was one of the founding editors of NuktaArt magazine

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