Play: Subversive Contemporary Art in
Pakistan and the Diaspora

Acts and Omissions

By Nirdosh | January 2023

Despite being one the most hackneyed words used in everyday vernacular, the term ‘art’ seems to be quite a catachrestic expression antithetical to its real definition. Ostensibly an intellectual property only of the privileged few, the question that what real art is all about, on the face of it, has purposefully been left unanswered for the common people to keep art intact from the ravages of their bland sensibilities and to reduce the realm of art within the chilly confines of the elite, highbrow and cerebral connoisseurs to suit them down to the ground.

The book ‘Play: Subversive Contemporary Art in Pakistan and the Diaspora’ by Ateqa Ali, a US-based curator and art historian, is not an art tutorial, nor is it aimed at decoding the mystery that shrouds the world of art. Though there is no such thing as Pakistani art known for its distinctive existence or ingenious prominence, however, the author, who is a Pakistani expatriate now based in Connecticut, flew back to her homeland in her fancied search of anything that could be described as contemporary Pakistani art.

From first principles, she was more interested in ferreting out ‘edgy’ and ‘provocative’ Pakistani art addressing the country’s political and social issues. During her visit to leading art institutions of the country, she amassed some bittersweet revelations to share with readers, hence this book.

In the name of Pakistani artists, the country revels in producing every year a crop of art practitioners, who are either dissipated disciples of British art, inherited from their colonial masters or are mindless minions of the Western art philosophy, leaving behind not a vestige of a chance to create any art that could be labelled as Pakistani. From the centuries-old miniature art imitated and propagated by the likes of Bashir Ahmed and Shazia Sikander, life drawings by Lala Rukh, the illustrations of a woman being flogged in public by Ayesha Jatoi to the unremitting impressions of stampeding horses painted by Mashkoor Raza, Pakistan, as a whole, is seen nowhere in the picture.

However, the author had hoped to chance upon artistic works attempting the notion of being Pakistani and supporting the belief that an inherent Pakistani identity does exist with its pronounced manifestation. She was particularly interested in finding subversive artworks that questioned the Establishment, the government, academia, or a social institution.

The book admits the fact that artists in Pakistan have not always felt compelled to examine the country’s social and political concerns. Instead, they have openly opposed this approach. The scope of the book is limited as it assesses the work of a few Pakistani artists who are more experimental in their approach than others. In so doing, the author selected artworks of those who currently live in Pakistan or are settled abroad.

More along the lines of secular interpretations, the book offers quite a garbled view of religion as an antithesis to artistic expressions, as though the art is above and beyond any sense of morality. In place of offering a thorough survey of contemporary Pakistani art, according to the author, the book investigates works of art that defy societal structures, challenge institutional authority, and brave contemporary standards of art techniques at the turn of the 21st century. Though the book focuses on the social and political consciousness of Pakistani art, it fails to highlight the mainstream art produced in the country during the period as it was the writer’s selection that she thinks represents Pakistani art.

The book brings into light those artists who address such burning issues as women’s sufferings, gender politics, terrorism, and prevailing law and order concerns. A case of literary acts and omissions, it is silent on the Pakistani artists’ insensitivity to the decades of violence and bloodshed which engulfed Karachi. In a similar vein, the book passes over the sheer lack of concern shown by native artists over the blood-stained dismemberment of erstwhile East Pakistan, the most painful event of the country’s history hitherto.