Despite its many troubles, or perhaps because they call for sustained reflection in the realm of culture, Pakistan today produces art, music, and literature of remarkable originality. Although art is the most rarefied of these cultural fields, being accessible to the smallest number of buyers and audiences, it has arguably become the most factionalized of them all.
In my last piece for Newsweek I wrote about this conflicted world, describing how a few artist-critics were creating a canon for Pakistani art on the basis of censorship, exclusion, and a nationalism that is constantly disavowed. These were the very characteristics, I pointed out, which had defined the country’s long experience of dictatorship, whose culture therefore lives on in the work of those who profess to decry it.
That piece aroused some debate in the art world. Two of the art historians I had criticized complained, on this newsmagazine’s website, of “outrageous” and “unbalanced attacks” against them. The professional nous of these artist-critics to select and evaluate art help them determine its aesthetic and market value for museums, galleries, and collectors globally. But their links with particular artists and institutions make it difficult to distinguish the art historian from the agent.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with art historians preferring and even promoting some artists over others. What raises eyebrows, though, is the seemingly careful framing of Pakistan’s art history in such a way as to foreground friends and to marginalize, if not quite eliminate, rivals. Because artist-critics like Iftikhar Dadi and Virginia Whiles have produced the founding script of Pakistan’s art history, all subsequent interventions will have to take their narrative into account. This is why it must be contested.
Dadi, who teaches art history at Cornell, responded to my article by arguing that his Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia was neither a “broad, bland survey” nor devoted to contemporary art, but was a selective study of modernism in 20th-century South Asia. This is not true. Instead of being about “Muslim South Asia,” itself a meaningless aesthetic category, his book is devoted in nationalist fashion to Pakistan, treated as if it were the political telos of all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Unfortunately, the title ends up marginalizing non-Muslim South Asian greats, such as Pakistan’s Colin David.
Pakistani art is promoted as a form of Third World development.
Justifying the inclusion of his own work as part of the “Karachi Pop” movement in one of the book’s two sections on contemporary art, Dadi asks if I am “seriously suggesting that I should have omitted even this brief mention, and provide no context whatsoever for Karachi during the 1990s?” But as Ardy Cowasjee, owner of Karachi’s Ziggurat Gallery, points out in another comment to my earlier piece, it was Unver Shafi and Amin Gulgee who dominated the city’s art scene in that decade, so Dadi’s claim to be providing a “context” for it is somewhat disingenuous—especially since he ignores these artists.
Pakistani art is promoted for a global audience as if it were a form of Third World development, with its role in the empowerment of women, for instance, lauded in award statements. No Western artist, of course, would be described in this way, which throws light on the problematic entanglements, essentially with the marketing of a country’s misery, in which its Pakistani practitioners as much as critics are bound. But Dadi denies relying upon patriarchal genealogies by mentioning his work on female artists like Zubeida Agha. It was not the presence or absence of women in his narrative to which I objected, but rather the use of genealogy as itself a patriarchal form.
Dadi also takes umbrage at my suggestion that he’s unaware of the historical context in which the artists he studies work. Of this I gave two small examples, the first being Risham Syed’s use of the number 5. Similarly he doesn’t notice that Saira Waseem’s painting Round Table Conference might invoke the Round Table Conferences of the 1930s that decided Pakistan’s future. The futility of the original Round Table Conferences is mirrored in the meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to which Waseem’s painting refers. But Dadi justifies these absences by stating that he is only responsible for the references his artists mention. To be sure, the art historian should trace the social resonance of symbols and terms beyond artistic intentionality.
Whiles, who teaches at the Chelsea College of Arts, had a walk-on role in my article; I dedicated one sentence to her Art and Polemic in Pakistan: Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature Painting. Her response to my piece is unscholarly, and relies on personal and ad hominem arguments. Whiles can’t understand why someone not connected to the art world and its system of favors should risk writing, as I did, for no apparent cause or benefit. She describes my piece as “a foul text full of anger and subjective spite.” Having toyed with my being a “frustrated groupie” as a possible cause for the article, Whiles finally decides that I must have a “psychoanalytic” motive.
It is no accident that those who accuse others of psychoanalytic motivations should display them so clearly in their own writing. Thus Whiles imagines the late Zahoor ul Akhlaq launching a physical attack on me. Since I had acknowledged his role in the development of the new miniature, it is not clear why she thinks Akhlaq would engage me in “fisticuffs.” But given the fact that he had been murdered in exactly such an attack, this image is in rather poor taste.
Whiles also claims to be “speaking truth to power,” which I wouldn’t have thought possible for a London-based academic whose work involves marketing high-end art to elite buyers. But maybe she is part of the same vanguard as Edward Snowden, and we just didn’t know it. If not honesty, can we at least expect some humility from Whiles about the profession she and I both share?
From our March 22, 2014, issue.