The Art of Dissent
The Art of Dissent

A. R. Nagori once proclaimed that he had “earned the distinction of being the first painter in the Subcontinent to be censored.”1 He certainly wasn’t the last. How a state attempts to censor and censure artists ultimately reveals not only a desire to control a perceived narrative but also exposes the extent to which the state fears the impact works of art can have on the masses. Hence, paradoxically, the number of barriers the establishment erects to deny spaces for certain artistic themes only serves to highlight how deeply and fearfully aware those in power are, of the influence of a singular work of art to spark the fuse for certain ‘unwanted’ conversations. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the often-fraught history of Pakistan is littered with numerous instances of artists jostling to raise a voice in support of issues which those in the corridors of power, and perhaps even several segments of the citizenry, would rather sweep away under the rug of ‘national propriety’.

But contrary to what Nagori might have claimed, the precedent for artistic suppression had been set in the Subcontinent by the British decades ago — a precedent which did not leave these shores when the colonisers departed. Famously, the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944, which was largely a result of Winston Churchill’s wartime policies2, prompted the Bengali painter Zainul Abedin to produce a series of pen and brush sketches which depicted the horrors that had been unleashed on a hapless populace. These “Famine Sketches” were initially presented in a book titled “Darkening Days,”— published by individuals in the Subcontinent who aligned themselves with communist ideologies and sought to expose the devastating ramifications of colonial rule — which was subsequently banned by the British. Ultimately, this did little to deter the unbridled voice of Abedin, who would later go on to call out the Pakistani state for neglecting East Pakistan. Following the destruction caused by the 1970 Bhola cyclone, a series of artworks arose which were accompanied by Abedin’s “pithy comments, such as ‘we Bengalis unite only in death’”.3

Untitled, Zainul Abedin, Chinese ink on paper, 42.5 × 52.2 cm.1943. Photo: Milan Soremski

Evidently the censoring of artwork is by no means a recent phenomenon in our swathe of the world. Over the course of history, it would routinely be justified by the Pakistani state, presenting it under the garb of religiosity and political adherence. As Atteqa Ali, Professor of Art History at Zayed University in Dubai, notes, “When the restrictive military government of Ziaul Haq began its eleven-year rule in 1977, many artists stopped making figurative images for a number of reasons ranging from protest to security. Several took up Islamic calligraphy and apolitcial landscape painting. Although the government did not force them to make these types of works, artists censored themselves and began to produce images in ‘safer’ genres”. 4 The rise of a regime which through its mere existence could dissuade Pakistani artists from treading upon any particularly sensitive toes resulted in not just a clamp down on those who dared stray from the stipulated path but also meant that many had no choice but to redact and tailor their own work in order to not incur the wrath of the state (a phenomenon which still holds sway today). Consequently, following the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, any artwork which referred to the incident was deemed to be questionable and hence considered not fit to be displayed. 5

Despite a growing sense of artistic reticence founded upon the pillars of fear, many artists during this time remained unperturbed and undeterred despite having to pay a heavy personal cost, as exemplified by Ijazul Hassan. According to Quddus Mirza, perhaps one of the earliest attempts to censor a work of art in Pakistan occurred when during Yahya Khan’s military dictatorship Hassan’s painting “My Lai”, which explored the atrocities of the Vietnam War, was not allowed to be shown at the national exhibition held in 1971 out of fear of upsetting American sensibilities. 6 As someone who does not believe in art which “says nothing, hears nothing, and even sees nothing,” Hassan’s political activism manifested itself in various forms, ranging from union protests to forays into politics. 7 However, it was his poster artwork, aimed at inspiring “a resistance movement against the military dictatorship” of Ziaul Haq which led to his work being censored and removed from gallery spaces. 8 As a result, in 1977, Hassan was held captive in solitary confinement at the Lahore Fort, while his captors informed him that the day of his impending execution was drawing nearer and nearer. That day never came and, after enduring four weeks of captivity, Hassan was set free — his endurance serving as a testament to his own words: “Art and poetry can express a form of not surrendering.” 9

Mai Lai, Ijazul Hassan, Oil on board, 36 × 50 cm. 1974. Photo:

Nagori lived by the same principles. The stronger Ziaul Haq’s grip on power became, the greater became the ferocity of Nagori’s artistic fixation on the socio-political injustices of the time. In 1982, his work titled “The Oppressed People of Sindh” was censored for its overtly critical depiction of military rule, which in turn only added to his perceived ‘notoriety’. 10 But his most infamous exhibition remains one which defied the odds in order to see the light of day. In 1985, his “Series of Symbolic Alphabets” collection was not allowed to be showcased in Islamabad. Nagori had refashioned, and re-imagined, the English alphabets in order to make them better represent those characteristics of the nation which were becoming alarmingly pervasive. 11 He said, “We used to teach our children, ‘A is for apple, B is for boy,’ but our society has become an evil place. Our masses are illiterate, and they are living in fear. (Now) A is for army, C is for crime, H is for heroin and K is for Kalashnikov.” 12 Today, given the subject material, it perhaps isn’t difficult for us to imagine why this work of his was not put on display in Islamabad. Yet, miraculously, Ali Imam’s Indus Gallery in Karachi did exhibit this collection, “where it was viewed and reviewed without intimidation”. 13 However, Nagori’s own thoughts on the hurdles he had to encounter in order to present to the public both his art and socio-political critiques over the years reveal a man who was fairly non-pulsed by his growing reputation as a ‘provocateur’, stating, “Nobody cares if I am a persona non grata for the establishment”. 14

E (from the alphabet series), A.R. Nagori, Oil on board, 35 x 27 cm. 1988. Photo:

This sense of cavalier bravado in the face of extraordinary pressure typifies many of the artists during this time who refused to concede ground to a state whose reach was growing worrisomely wider. When Iqbal Hussain’s paintings depicting prostitutes were not allowed to be shown at the Alhamra Art Centre in Lahore in 1984, due to their failure to comply with the ‘moral standards’ of the time, the artist put his paintings on display on the curb outside the Alhamra instead of simply admitting defeat and changing his subject matter. 15

This does, however, bring us onto the larger issue at play of a collective — almost national— policing of art and morality at a societal level. Narratives espoused and inculcated by the state are always susceptible to change as successive regimes and political parties rise and fall in the political arena. Hence, oftentimes it is not the government or the establishment which feels compelled to draw a line in the sand with regards to what is permissible and what is not. Instead, it is the masses who readily assume this mantle out of a warped sense of righteousness. Colin David, who was renowned for his paintings depicting nude female figures, found himself to be on the receiving end of this misguided notion of moral vigilantism. Given the artistic limitations which had been placed during Ziaul Haq’s rule, David had been unable to publicly display his artwork. He would instead hold private showings at his residence and would only invite a select audience to come view his work. However, as Marjorie Husain writes, “In 1990, a group of students (allegedly affiliated with a religiously inclined political party) forced their way into David’s home at the opening of a display and, in the process, damaged his furniture and his paintings.” 16 While the intruders took issue with the artwork on moral grounds, they apparently had no qualms about running off with certain household items and also made sure to take the visitor’s handbags stationed at the entrance.

Untitled, Colin David, Oil on board, 92 x 92cm. Date unspecified. Photo:

Similarly, a couple of years ago I was reminded by the Karachi-based architect Marvi Mazhar about the time when a painting on display at the Karachi Arts Council caused a furore and led to allegations of “political blasphemy” being hurled about. In 2009, at the Shanakht Festival, armed men allegedly belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) “opened fire and threatened to kill the organisers” in an attempt to have a particular painting removed from the festival. 17

The painting in question depicted the former leader of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto, seated in the lap of Ziaul Haq. Given the threat, the organisers of the event capitulated, apologised for giving space to the artwork and agreed to have it removed. Evidently, in such instances the sheer force of public pressure can lead to both overt and covert censorship.

The reason behind Mazhar recounting this incident to me in 2019 was the simple fact that I had come to view her work on display at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS) during the Karachi Biennale 2019 (KB19) — an event around which the entire discourse revolved, one name and one name only: Adeela Suleman. When I first saw Suleman’s work, “The Killing Fields of Karachi”, early in the morning at the Frere Hall I had become, unbeknownst to me, privy to an artistic display which would be shuttered a few hours later, and then partly demolished amidst a flurry of media frenzy. Suleman’s work at KB19 called into question the extrajudicial killings which have plagued Karachi for years, yet the very question itself elicited such a virulent response that it quickly became evident that the work had struck a raw nerve — one which is unused to being disturbed and prodded in the public spotlight. Yet, naturally, the irony with most attempts at censorship is that they tend to have the opposite impact to the one initially intended, and instead of silently dooming the art to obscurity those in the business of censoring invariably catapult the subject into the limelight.

The Killing Fields of Karachi, Adeela Suleman, Video installation. 2019. Photo: Mahnaz Nawab

It is however an undeniable reality that most artists in Pakistan are painfully cognisant of the political and social parameters within which their art is allowed to exist. The minute they step past this barrier, whether by accident or by design, they realise that they are confronted with a choice which can prove to be pivotal. I was given a rather painful reminder of this when I chose to assist an artist friend of mine with her exhibition recently. While thematically all her work dwelled upon the issues of religious persecution and terrorism in Pakistan, the majority of the work was presented in an abstruse enough manner so as to not ruffle too many feathers. There were however two pieces which were, without a shadow of a doubt, the two most arresting components of her exhibit but also the most ‘problematic’; they named names and asked for accountability regarding specific incidents and individuals. The gallery in-charge and the curator plainly stated that those two works could not be displayed since the repercussions of doing so could be severe. The artist in question tamely accepted the verdict which had been handed down to her and shelved those works of art which are now destined to continue gathering dust, and that is our collective loss.

While that may indeed be disheartening, if there is one lasting impression with which we should view the history of artistic censorship in Pakistan, and how we can reconcile it with our future, perhaps it is this — when Ijazul Hassan was not given permission to display his painting “My Lai” in the aforementioned anecdote, “all of the other artists scheduled to take part in the exhibition threatened to withdraw their own works, thus forcing the authorities to allow “ My Lai ” to be in the show”. 18

Title image: The Killing Fields of Karachi, Adeela Suleman, Metal and concrete. 2019. Photo: Adeela Suleman



  1. S. Amjad Ali, Painters of Pakistan (Karachi: National Book Foundation, 2000), 266
  2. The Guardian “Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study” (Mar. 29, 2019)
  3. Dawn “Portrait of an artist in divided South Asia” (Jan. 6, 2013)
  4. Artists’ Voices (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006), 11
  5. South Asia Citizens Web “Self-censorship in post-Zia Pakistan” (Sept. 26, 2009)
  7. Newsweek “Rebel Art” (Mar. 8, 2017)
  8. Independent “Ijaz ul Hassan: Pakistan’s protest artist” (Nov. 20, 2007)
  10. Dawn “”Exposing Dark Themes” (Sept. 15, 2001)
  11. Dawn “The loss of a free thinker: A.R.Nagori” (Jan. 17, 2011)
  13. Artists’ Voices, 16
  14. Nagori, Abdul Rahim. Interview by Aqsa Malik, Karachi, October 2010 as cited in
  16. Artists’ Voices, 17
  17. The News “PPP workers disrupt Shanakht festival” (Apr. 9, 2009)

Hasnain Nawab is a journalist based in Karachi whose writings have been published in DAWN, The Express Tribune, and ArtNow Pakistan. He was selected for the Vasl Writers Residency 2020 programme, and is a graduate of the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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  • Superb piece!
    Beautifully written!

    Nazli Javed Husain

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