By MELIK KAYLAN
The overriding question you will likely take into the Asia Society’s show of Pakistani artists is, “What do they think of what’s happening to their country?” How do artists address the Islamist violence in their midst—and if they don’t address it, why not? How freely can they treat such issues without fear of reprisal? What kind of art flourishes in such surroundings? A show that so obliquely approaches these questions, as this one does, may score all manner of postmodern points by “subverting” your preconceptions, but it may not give you what you want.
But let’s first give credit where it is due. This is a groundbreaking exhibition that displays a very high overall level of craft and intellectual depth. “Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art From Pakistan,” featuring 54 artworks by 15 artists, is the first museum survey in the Western Hemisphere of exclusively Pakistani contemporary artists. Considering the modest size of the show, one concludes that the curator, Salima Hashmi, did a lot of selecting out, but there can be no doubt of her qualifications for the task. Daughter of a famous poet, herself a prominent thinker and writer, for 30 years Ms. Hashmi taught at the National College of Art in Lahore, the leading such institution in Pakistan. Most of the show’s artists either taught or studied there.
Entering the show, one’s eyes are drawn quickly to a gorgeously, no doubt ironically, lush dot-painting, by Lahore artist Faiza Butt, of two Taliban-like young men sporting feminine traces of mascara and lipstick. They stare out fixedly, surrounded by a quasifloral arrangement of oddly assorted artifacts ranging from handguns to cups of ice cream. It’s a cross between a funeral bouquet for martyrs and a fairly common hand-tinted studio photograph of the kind young Islamists often sit for in Pashtun areas. Here, then, is a commentary of sorts on Pakistan’s turbulent tribal subcultures. Perhaps the title, “Get Out of My Dreams II,” suggests that the painter would prefer such types not to forcibly disorder her imagination or merge their dreams with hers. Perhaps this is protest art. But, if so, it’s pretty muted considering the chaos and bloodshed such people have wrought in her country.
Nearby one views a series of charcoal black-on-white dot-paintings by a nationally revered artist, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, who was killed by a mentally deranged fan in 1999. Ghostly shapes loom but fail to emerge from the eerie, gloomy mental landscapes. This is powerful stuff that perhaps offers a kind of foreshadowing of the artist’s—or the country’s—fate. The pointillist technique used here and elsewhere in the show derives from Mughal miniatures. Literate Pakistanis regard the Mughals as their cultural forebears, and at Lahore the technique reaches a rare level of artistry.
Opposite hangs a painting—by Ali Raza, a Lahore-based artist who studied in the U.S.—of a wooden throne-like chair that doubles as a toilet. An earlier version of this painting, I am told by the curator, was understood to be a public insult against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who occupied the throne of power in Pakistan as a dictator until democratic elections forced him out. Next to it hangs another painting by the same artist of a double-headed man shouting in rage. The image derives from a small photo of a protester at a rally against Gen. Musharraf, says the curator. One wouldn’t know it otherwise. This is political art of a very attenuated kind. One can illustrate the point by citing a comparable work in a recent show of contemporary Iranian art at the Chelsea Art Museum: a new toilet bowl inscribed with unfulfilled political promises from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government by a Tehran artist who defiantly provides his own name and telephone number on the bowl.
And so it goes. Arguably the show’s centerpiece, a work said to have attained—at $500,000—the highest price by any living Pakistani artist, is an intricate carpetlike collage by Rashid Rana. Composed of innumerable tiny pictures of animals being slaughtered in an abattoir, “Red Carpet” was inspired by the sanguinary public assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Several people, including the curator, directed my attention to it as a particularly significant and admirable work. One gets the message: Bloodshed is woven inextricably into the texture of Pakistani life, as much a part of the culture as its carpets.
But why not openly point a finger at the perpetrators and their ilk? Where are the images of outrage directed against the manifest authors of Pakistan’s agony, the multifarious al Qaeda-linked terrorists? The show’s only other works that approach the topic—”Moderate Enlightenment,” a series of exquisitely rendered miniatures by Imran Qureshi, a celebrated artist in Pakistan, that depicts a devout young believer in beard and cap idyllically posed in natural surroundings—take a sympathetic view of the Islamist ethos. The catalog tells us that “the artist pokes fun at our assumptions—that a person with a beard, cap or turban is a “terrorist.” Why doesn’t the artist, one wants to ask, show some courage and poke fun at the terrorists instead? They’re real enough, not just a figment of our assumptions. Do artists willing to do so not exist in Pakistan?
I put my questions to Ms. Hashmi, whose answers didn’t convince me. It was a matter of time, she said; the artists were not producing such work, but no doubt would soon. What little there was lacked quality as yet, she noted.
I suspect the explanation lies elsewhere—perhaps in the show’s title. “Hanging Fire” is said by the press materials to “evoke the idea of delaying judgment, particularly based on assumptions or preconceived notions.” I left the show grateful I could see such beautifully made art, but wondering if “Hanging Fire” isn’t a monumental act of denial, one that goes to the heart of Pakistani culture.
—Mr. Kaylan, a columnist for Forbes, writes on culture and the arts for the Journal.