The Karachi Biennale Trust held a two-day hybrid seminar on November 5t – 6th 2022. The theme for the seminar was ‘Ruptured Histories: Critical Exchanges on Issues of Decolonisation’. Scholars and artists were invited to share their insights on the complex strands of colonial history as interpreted through the lens of art, with a special focus on Pakistan and South Asia. The theme was taken from a proposal by AICA [International Association of Art Critics] which had envisioned it as a series of forums to be held across many countries. The seminar in Karachi was a collaboration between AICA Pakistan, AICA Germany and AICA Japan. By hosting the seminar, Karachi Biennale has fulfilled a promise which Niilofur Farrukh made to AICA International during the Covid pandemic that such a seminar would become a reality during the run of the Third Karachi Biennale.
‘Rupture’ is a multivalent term that necessitates contextualization with its usage. A break, a cessation, a destruction, an opportunity: these are some general meanings that present themselves with the idea of rupture. When used to examine the vast currents of decolonial discourse, ‘rupture’ acquires epistemological value. It becomes a gateway term to mark moments of significant change and alteration. These moments can be noticeable milestones, or they may be barely perceptible and gradual – their significance manifesting after the lapse of some time.
A useful explanation of rupture which is also relevant to the art historical discourse is given by Wolfgang Muller-Funk, “In a narratological definition “rupture” is any cessation of a narrative sequence, which contrary to narrative closure does not arise out of a story’s inherent causal logic. Narrative rupture is inherently dynamic: it is engendered by sequentiality and in turn triggers a new chain of events.”1
This description encapsulates the ambiguous quality of rupture, which simultaneously terminates and reconstructs from previous narratives. Like the multi-headed Hydra of Greek mythology, that sprouted two heads when one head was chopped, rupture as an investigative tool multiplies perspectives, interpretations and understandings of historical and current realities.
The twentieth century was a fecund period for multiple ruptures in the geo-political arena and in the arena of culture. Politics and art bore a complicated relationship to one another. Themes to emerge in the field of art exhibited assonance and dissonance with the explosive historical changes that occurred such as the retreat of colonial powers from their colonies and the birth of nation-states. Historical ruptures, while distinguished from ruptures in art, are intertwined by virtue of the prevailing zeitgeist.
The nexus of ruptures in art formed the basis of research presented by speakers during the seminar. This essay gives an overview of the ideas and methodologies that were presented.
Speakers at the seminar included Maliha Noorani, Natsumi Araki, Salman Asif, Kader Attia, Waheeda Baloch, Yaminay Chaudhri, Samina Iqbal, Zahra Malkani & Shahana Rajani, Maliha Noorani and RajaSinha Tammita-Delgoda. At the close of the two-day seminar, a panel discussion was held between speakers who were present in person, the CEO of the Karachi Biennale Niilofur Farrukh, and moderators Saira Danish Ahmed, Nusrat Khawaja and Nageen Shaikh.
The totalizing hegemony of colonial power ended with the emergence of independent nation-states in the twentieth century. This cataclysmic rupture in the fabric of hegemonic relations between rulers and the ruled may have come to a historical end, but the conditions that empowered the establishment of colonial rule lingered in the less sharply defined conditions of inequality under postcolonialism. In the cultural sphere, the dominant zeitgeist became identified under the umbrella term of Modernism.
Modernity impacted all spheres of society across the colonial/colonized divide. It changed the terms of discourse for thinkers and artists. Modernity formed the bedrock for imagining anew, the terms of engagement with creative content. In contrast to the structured methods of colonialism, modernity was fluid, self-referential and capable of self-criticism. It permitted a wide range of anticolonial responses that influenced the multiple trajectories of modern Indian and (after 1947) Pakistani art.
Anthologies of Western art history, particularly of the 20th century, are presented as a series of ‘isms’ such as Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, etc. South Asian art history of the twentieth century does not follow such a linear scheme; rather, it is best understood as parallel streams of art styles that gained ascendancy under the umbrella of Modernist exploration.
South Asian artists fought linearity; they fought the straight jacket of ideology that demanded a proclamation of an unadulterated identity. Like Mirza Ghalib who positioned himself between church and mosque, they looked to create a free space for new narratives to emerge spontaneously even as new worlds were emerging around them and demanding a new order from chaos. To decolonize was to liberate from tradition, without losing the option to return to elements of tradition if so desired.
Amidst the traumatic rupture of geography and history, Pakistani artists sought exhilaration in form and color. These artists were modern because they explored and took from the wider world of modern art without polarizing the world into East and West. In a profoundly polarized world, they negotiated artistic space free of polarity. One dare say that Modernism as represented by art in the nascent Pakistan, was a state of open-mindedness from divisive binaries and oppositionality.
The freedom from oppositionality was exemplified in the practices of the Lahore Art Circle (1952-1958). This small group of Pakistani Modernist painters were the focus of Dr Samina Iqbal’s presentation titled ‘Sense and Sensibility of Lahore Art Circle’. Her research queried how to “understand, interpret, and define decolonization in the context of the modern art of Pakistan?” Dr Iqbal placed the development of early Modernism in Pakistan in the context of modernizing developments in Indian art under the colonial dispensation. The critical building blocks highlighted by her included work by A R Chughtai, Amrita Sher Gil, Jamini Roy, Zainul Abedin and Zubeida Agha.
The LAC, which included artists Shakir Ali, Moyenne Najmi, Ali Imam, Sheikh Safdar Ali, and Anwar Jalal Shemza at the core, were experimentalists. Their experimental efforts contributed towards the creation of the “third space” (as expounded upon by cultural theorist Homi Bhabha)2 which was an interstitial space enabling freedom for a mingling of art styles in the work of the early Modernists. Thus, a mixture of genres including Cubism, Abstraction, Landscape, etc. were in evidence in the work of the LAC. For this exploratory cohort of artists, Dr Iqbal has coined the term “heuristic modernism”, to describe “the continuous shift between still life, figurative and landscape painting.”3
The coinage of critical terminology by scholars such as Samina Iqbal, who reference their own history, may be construed as a powerful act of decolonization.
The fluid expressions of the LAC deserve remark against the background of ongoing political flux. Pakistan had emerged as a new country when India became independent in August 1947. Trauma and confusion accompanied huge migrations of population. One may ask whether the hybrid art styles of the LAC were an escape from trauma, or conversely, a refuge where hope could reside of a calmer future. Their art did not mirror trauma although a precedent for engagement with social reality existed in the work of the Bengali artist Zainul Abedin who drew the pathos of the Bengal Famine of 1943.
Shifting from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, Dr SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda presented his talk on the foremost Sri Lankan Modernist artist, George Keyt. Dr Tammita-Delgoda’s talk, titled Modernism, Decolonization and Reinvention; The Life and Work of George Keyt (1901-1993), followed the extraordinary arc of George Keyt’s transformation from his privileged Burgher background to his thorough immersion, by self-driven discovery, in the rustic mode of Sri Lankan village life. His arc bears parallel to the life of Paul Gauguin who had also abandoned his bourgeois family life by eventually moving to Tahiti.
Keyt, while abandoning his own Eurasian roots, sought expression in his unique synthesis of the Cubist and Primitivist styles. The long shadow of European Modernism was instrumental in giving Keyt a sense of freedom, as Dr Tammita-Delgoda stated: “Modernism appealed to Keyt’s temperament, liberating him as a man and an artist…”
Modernism with its liberating and experimental tendencies marked the early art trajectory of Pakistan and South Asia. In the 1990s a radical revival of an older art form with a new conceptual premise emerged in Lahore, Pakistan. It would not be an exaggeration to say that contemporary or neo-miniature painting has dominated art production and related discourse hugely.
Maliha Noorani took a long view of the miniature art form tracing its development in the Indo-Muslim sphere from the Mughal period to current times. From its glory days an atelier-based, communal art under imperial patronage, she followed its attenuation in the last years of Mughal rule to its tentative revival under British rule as a “craft” form. It subsisted in this attenuated form at the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore. The school heralded a change in its colonial status by changing its name to The National College of Arts (NCA). Here, the art of the miniature with Mughal themes was kept alive as a niche form of practice until the emergence of its contemporary form.
Noorani explained the revival as “Historical ownership” and “recovery from rupture.” The neo-miniaturists looked to pre-colonial times. They mastered the techniques of miniature painting, such as the use of wasli paper, ground pigments, squirrel-hair brushes, etc. However, the content of the neo-miniature differed radically from its origins. Contemporary dilemmas such as the rise of religious fundamentalism and gender inequality figured as subject matter as did the subjective self. This was art empowered by roots in history and observation of current reality coupled with self-awareness and comfort with subjective viewpoints.
The work of eminent artist Meher Afroz, who originates from Lucknow and lives in Karachi, emanates from the intersections of self and society, image and aniconism, line and text. Cultural critic Salman Asif presented on her work in his talk titled Art Practices as a Site of Cultural Resistance – Meher Afroz. He put language, specifically Urdu, Meher’s mother tongue, at the heart of resistance by addressing her use of it as an “artistic legacy…. a riot of disparate traditions being engaged in a breathlessly cerebral banquet of our human longing.”
From the presentations of the South Asian scholars, we confront significant analytic shifts in the gaze with which artist and image are recontextualized within local and global frameworks. Dr Samina Iqbal’s coinage of “heuristic modernism” is a good example of the emergence of new epistemes that record altered frameworks of knowledge.
As we applaud the expansion of critical histories that create an intellectual foundation for decolonial praxis, in the case of Pakistan, this expansion follows a very skimpy body of scholarship that has explored the country’s art history. Waheeda Baloch took a reflexive look at the earlier histories in her presentation. She examined key texts that are considered seminal to Pakistani art, namely works by Jalaluddin Ahmed (1954), Dr Akbar Naqvi (1998), and Marcella Neesom Sirhindi (2006). Baloch’s critical analysis sought to “decode” these works for the erasures they contain in either an incomplete contextual framework, erasure of the pre-Partition origins of Modernism which can be detected in Pakistani Modernism, and for value judgments that detract from scholarship, such as undermining the status of artists of East Pakistan that would declare independence as Bangladesh in 1971.
Natsumi Araki, independent curator and professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts, presented her talk ‘Revisiting History: How do artists portray the age of colonialism?’ She shared the ruptures she witnessed by visiting Documenta 15 and the Venice Biennale 2022. Documenta 15 had selected an Indonesian Art Collective called Ruangrupa as the Artistic Directors of this iteration. In another first, the French Pavilion in Venice featured work by Zineb Sedira, an artist of Algerian descent.
Araki also shared her investigation on the portrayal of colonialism by contemporary artists who had never lived through the experience of direct colonialism themselves. The modalities of their art offered a reinvention and rebuttal of colonial narratives. They included multi-media works by several artists including Japanese artist Hikaru Fujii and Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen. Their art investigated Japanese colonial history and Japan’s troubled relationship with Asian neighbors. Araki’s presentation underscored the reality that not all colonialisms were Western. Thus, she destabilized the East-West binary that is such a common trope of decolonial critique.
Erasures are not exclusive to history. The alarming erasure of space for citizens, and the erasure of the right of indigenous people to land are physical as well as political concerns. Yaminay Chaudhri and the duo Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani are artists and activists who look at erasure and appropriations of space by urban development. They combine field work as an intrinsic part of their practice.
Yaminay Chaudhri presented videos from her work under the production titles Tentative Collection and Karachi Beach Radio. She examined notions of individual and collective spaces with reference to outdoor sites and built structures.
Shahana Rajani and Zahra Malkani operate under the collective they founded called Karachi LaJamia which they describe as an “anti-institution”. Cartography, collaborative activism, open air pedagogy – all fall under the umbrella of their energetic portfolio. They look at oppressive state structures that disenfranchise the ordinary person’s right to space and security. The colonial practice of delineating boundaries continues at micro-levels through hegemonical state apparatuses. Documentation becomes a significant aspect of their way to challenge hegemony.
Kader Attia presented an overview of decolonization and methodologies for keeping the discourse relevant. He stated that “the concept of the decolonial has to be reinvented every day.” This comment went to the heart of the engagement of decolonial discourse and public opinion which he underscored exists in a state of continuous evolution. He addressed key aspects of art namely the physicality of artwork and its ability to arouse emotion. Attia claimed that the experience of art in real time and space “counters the regime of invisibility”. In addition to the experience of art, Attia highlighted art’s ability to invoke emotion. He attributed to emotions the restorative power to dream.
The themes surveyed in the two-day programme present an amalgam of pathways and epistemologies to address decolonization. The talks presented in Ruptured Histories: Critical Exchanges on Issues of Decolonization restored the centrality of history towards a contextualization of art production. It is widely recognized that ‘decolonization’ is a problematic term as it gives reductive cover to very complex problems. Arguably, the discourses held during the seminar countered reductive narratives, engendered new epistemes for academic and field engagement. They encoded the diversity of lived and inherited experience for artists and communities in countries that continue to contend with the long aftermath of colonialism.
- Müller-Funk, Wolfgang. “Broken Narratives: Modernism and the Tradition of Rupture”. Narrative(s) in Conflict, edited by Wolfgang Müller-Funk and Clemens Ruthner, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 9-22. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110556858-002
- Bhabha, Homi K., 1949-. The Location of Culture. London ; New York :Routledge, 2004.
- Iqbal, Samina. Whatsapp exchange with Nusrat Khawaja on 20th November 2022.
There are no comments