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Ten Contemporary Pakistani Artists
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Ten Contemporary Pakistani Artists

Picture of Eleanor Cunningham
Updated: 13 October 2016
Evolving beyond its traditional mediums of miniaturists and calligraphers, the Pakistani contemporary art scene now boasts a multitude of established and upcoming artists whose fresh, innovative work has attracted a great deal of international interest. These ten Pakistani artists all express their experience of the country’s diverse social and cultural landscape in varied and fascinating ways.

Huma Mulji

Huma Mulji explores the border between reality and fiction; her works create surreal juxtapositions of absurd ‘things’ and question notions of ‘certainty’ and ‘truth’ through the use of digital imaging, reanimating objects through taxidermy, or creating clumsy, hybrid objects. Her recent (2011) show in Mumbai at Project 88, called Twilight is a mix of painting and sculpture. This includes the sculpture Ode to a lamppost that got accidentally destroyed in the enthusiastic widening of Canal Bank Road which pays homage to what no longer exists, nostalgically, but also as recognition of the brutality of time. Twilight depicts a world, suspended in a state between day and night, seemly balancing on the edge of reality, neither here nor quite there. This state between two things is continuously played out throughout Mulji’s work, which places itself somewhere between sculpture and painting, photography and installation. Mulji’s earlier suitcase works explore the idea of a ‘border’, something that is invisible until confronted. In the works But what is your country Madam? (2006) and Can you take off your shoes please (2005), Mulji was interested in tapping into the unspoken lives of migrant workers in Dubai, a large number of whom come from Pakistan. For her project 1001 Storeys, she interviewed people in Pakistan, wanting to go to Dubai for ‘a better life’, and in Dubai, interviewed people who wanted desperately to go back home. Both works speak of the ‘promised land’, the unattainable dream. Mulji’s work looks at the absurdities of a post-colonial society in transition, taking on board the visual and cultural overlaps of language, image and taste, which create the most fantastic collisions.

Rashid Rana

Rashid Rana, a Pakistani artist from Lahore, produces software-generated composite photomontages that either hang on the wall or digitally drape three-dimensional objects. Rana has been caught up in the recent South Asian art boom and has returned his focus to teaching, acting as the head of the fine-art department at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, and one of the founding faculty members of its School of Visual Arts and Design. Originally trained in traditional painting techniques, including the miniaturist techniques that dominate the Lahore region’s art scene, Rana started to experiment with digital media and photography in the mid-1990s. I Love Miniatures (2002), a Mughal emperor’s miniature portrait composed of tiny photographic images of advertising billboards in Lahore, became his breakout piece. Some of his best known works include Veil (2004), a series of giant images of women dressed in burkas entirely composed of tiny Internet-sourced shots of hardcore porn stars from the West. This was followed by the Red Carpet (2007), large photomosaic images of traditional Oriental carpets composed of tiny images of slaughterhouse carnage. These deliberately controversial works proved popular and Rana’s Red Carpet sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2008 for $623,000, the highest price ever paid for a Pakistani work of art. Rana’s extraordinary work appears on one level to represent a notion of ideal beauty, but is in fact based on a more troubling examination of the increasing troubles of modern society.

Abdullah Syed

An artist, freelance designer, and independent curator, Abdullah M. I. Syed is known for his exploration in political instability, religious and secular tensions, Orientalism, Post-Colonialism, Capitalism, diasporic issues and the tragedy of 9/11 as powerful factors in the construction of contemporary Muslim male identities. His memorable works that resemble drones are constructed from dollar bills folded into the shape of planes and stapled together in circular patterns resemble those of an oriental carpet. Called the Flying Rug, the paper fleet casts an ominous shadow on a nearby wall and navigate between the West and Pakistan. Though in the West the drones are often seen as an questionable element in the fight against terrorism, in Pakistan they are considered imperial interference by the United States. Syed notes that according to one estimate, drones have killed more than 1,000 Pakistani civilians since 2004. Many more civilians have fled the tribal areas and settled in Karachi to escape the attacks, an influx that has sharpened the city’s political tensions. The artist’s hands-on play involved in his art making, framing, lighting or installing combined with particular concerns and limitation of resources always changes the work, as if it had a will of its own. It is his way of negotiating the anxieties of bringing order to the chaos generated by everyday existence. Syed is presently working and living both in Karachi and Sydney, and has recently had his first major US solo exhibition Brut-Nama: The Chronicles of Brut. The exhibition explored the very essence of the dichotomy of the word Brut(e) through chance, experimentation, collaboration and real and imagined narratives while drawing on an obsession with the effects of history and geography on questions of performed identity and the construction of multiple contrasting ‘Others’.

Naiza H. Khan

Naiza Khan’s work is an archaeological exploration on how objects connect with human experience; it examines landscapes that contain ruins of the past and creates narratives that indicate the continuing hold of history on the present. Khan’s work primarily relates to her roots in Pakistan, particularly Manora, as she captures a sense of uncertainty that is broadly felt across the world. Her series on Manora, Restore The Boundaries (2009), marks a major departure from Khan’s earlier work related to the female body, in which she uses images of lingerie and straight-jackets and creates ‘armored’ skirts of galvanized steel. Khan’s preoccupation with the female body began in the late 1980s at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, where she studied printmaking. At the time, Khan was influenced by early 20th-century European expressionists, such as Max Beckmann and Odilon Redon, but she was also involved in political issues through the Middle Eastern Society at Oxford. Influenced by Urdu poetry, she first used hair in an artist’s book entitled Hair Falls as Night (1996), a response to two women who immolated themselves in the Pakistani city of Hyderabad in September 1996 to protest the execution of nine men in their family over a land dispute. Khan made her initial studies for the work by photocopying her model’s hair. ‘The male clerks in the copy shop asked me what I wanted to copy. I nodded at my model and replied, ‘Her hair.’ Terrified of touching her hair, they backed up against the walls of the shop, avoiding us like the plague! An unexpected public art performance’. Based in Pakistan, Khan has been founder and co-coordinator for the Vasl Artists Collective and part of the Fine Arts Faculty of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi.

Syeda Farida Batool

Syeda Farida Batool is both an artist and art historian. She writes on different aspects of fine arts for journals, and has participated in a number of solo and group shows and also makes short films on art and art-related subjects. Her main medium used in her art practice is lenticular printing which involves ‘interlacing’ photographs and then mounting them behind a lenticular lens to make it appear animated and three dimensional. Her works explore the effects of consumer culture, sectarianism, the relationships between the state and its citizens. One of Farida’s most popular images Nai Reesan Shehr Lahore Diyan (2006) is becoming iconic. The young woman in the image looks as if she captures or typifies some cross between the ordinary and the divine, ruin and ritual. She is skipping rope in front of a burnt-out building in Lahore. This piece partakes in Farida’s commitment to the vernacular and to a dialogue between the religious and the secular, between the personal and the city, thus showing a different side of Pakistan which is rarely seen.

Aamir Habib

Karachi based artist Aamir Habib references sources from popular culture alongside individual concerns in his works. Though interpreting the world as an oppressive place, where survival is possible only at the expense of others, the cycle of life, however brutal and inimical, is natural. In his featured work Vision is Scary, Habib uses a wolf’s carcass in his installation, completing this sequence, challenging viewers to review their part in the whole. The wolf looks ardently through a pair of binoculars at a picturesque scene of a utopian landscape — its iridescent colors, lucid waters and blossoming foliage create an idyllic aura. In literature, visual imagery and colloquial language, animals are often used to symbolize specific human characteristics or vice versa. These creatures are generally not able to willfully confirm or deny the characteristics we attribute to them, most of which have evolved from the way we observe and think we understand the behaviour of an animal. Sometimes, the attributes have developed through use in fiction, myth or rituals and have simply been passed down by tradition through language.

Aroosa Naz Rana

Using Dura Trans on Light Boxes, Aroosa Naz Rana creates clear and stark images from daily life, reflecting our highly modernized times, and the extent of technological advancement that this era has seen. The series of boxes contain a series of still and moving images, exhibiting a multitude of visual experiences that we interact with on a daily basis: cameras, television and computer monitors, iPads and laptops with built-in web cams. These simultaneous visual experiences make us live in a mirage of many co-existing realities, and Rana’s recent works are about her interest in documenting these realities. Since 2010 Rana has been a visiting faculty member in the Department of Fine Arts at the Beaconhouse National University. Her works are part of various collections in Pakistan, where she works and lives in Lahore.

Sajjad Ahmed

Living and working in Pakistan, Sajjad Ahmed graduated from Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, Pakistan in 2007, where he was awarded with the South Asia Foundation SAARC scholarship. In a short time of two years, his work became successful with international curators, institutions and art buyers. He primarily works with found images from the media and history and creates work that asserts his association with the decline of ideas and images in modern life. He argues that the importance or meaning of an image or a word is hardly noticed anymore, and a pleasure or longing for ‘breaking news’ has developed. The method of converting reality into consumer items for the sake of art is further investigated by Ahmed in a number of works. References to Mona Lisa’s aura and the auction of Mao’s portrait made by Andy Warhol — iconic works of art — suggests the latest custom of treating art like a utilitarian object, or a means of investment.

Muzzumil Ruheel

In this age of 24 hour news coverage and information saturation, Muzzumil Ruheel observes the images and traces of this overwhelming information and their effect on our lives. Ruheel sees it as an attempt to archive his own history by interpreting, questioning and responding to these moments in art vocabulary. Ruheel started his artistic career producing calligraphy-based works that amass Urdu text into multiple combined visuals. The texts that Ruheel laces onto his calligraphy-filled pages are taken from the happenings of current affairs through television, radio and everyday conversation. In his more recent projects his installation Yak Yak Yak consists of 21 television sets that were simultaneously tuned in to live news channels. Collectively assembled, the flashing televisions and their traffic-like sounds are chaotic and jarring.

Sarah Ahmed Mumtaz

Sarah Ahmed Mumtaz’s signature performance and double film projection techniques examine the pejorative view that society can cast upon an irregular body. Her conservative notions of beauty versus her own physical disability make up a compelling expression which reveals the traumas caused by discriminatory attitudes related to conventional opinions of beauty in today’s society. Born with cerebral palsy, Mumtaz learned to walk late and in her performance Sarah Learns to Walk she is seen in a white fairy-like dress stumbling towards a standing posture, before dancing with excitement at the new possibilities of her movement. The accent on feet through distorted perspectives draws attention to her disturbing predicament and the complexes that can arise if one is young and incapacitated. In the video work titled The Opposite of Beauty is Not Ugliness, It’s Indifference, she filmed her mouth as she vigorously brushes her teeth, rubbing red lipstick onto her teeth and gums. Eventually rinsing her face, she ends with a humorous though uneasy smile that mimics a toothpaste advert’s demonstration of apparent perfection.