Hanging fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan at the Asia Society, New York


I recently met a Pakistani grad student on a Fulbright fellowship; he was distressed that Americans’ first thoughts about Pakistan tend to be negative, following the news,  and they don’t know anything of the culture, past or present. It pleased him that I was familiar with Mohenjo-daro (perhaps the world’s oldest city) and Gandharan sculpture (influenced by Greek art, in the wake of Alexander), but I admitted I knew nothing of contemporary art beyond the work of Shazia Sikander. Thanks to the Asia Society, that has changed!

Faiza Butt 'Get out of my dreams II' (2008) ink on polyester film
Faiza Butt ‘Get out of my dreams II’ (2008) ink on polyester film

Hanging fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan will be on view at the Asia Society, New York through January 3, 2010.  Curator Salima Hashm has gathered the work of fifteen artists, and a varied lot they are.  The work is entirely consistent with and equal to what’s being done internationally; most of the artists have studied abroad or with teachers who trained elsewhere.  The exhibition includes pointed social and political criticism to an unexpected degree. Ali Raza’s almost life sized Throne II (a painting with collage) represents a throne of power with a toilet pot hidden in the seat and growling lionsa s  finials on the arms; that sort of comment on the misuse of power transcends the specifics of culture or geography.

Two back-lit, exquisitely-drawn works on mylar (see above by ) Faiza Butt resemble shop signs but are drawn in a minutely-delicate style influenced by Mughal court painting.  Both show young, fundamentalist men turbaned in the style of the Taliban, surrounded by the spoils of consumerism: electric irons, hair dryers and razors, crumpled plastic bottles,  pistols, U.S. dollars, and knives slicing meat (that looked like ham to me, but that wouldn’t be hallal).  No doubt about the irony here. I’d have liked to see the imagery billboard sized; perhaps she could try large pigment prints.

Rashid Rana 'Red Carpet 1' (2007) C-print
Rashid Rana ‘Red Carpet 1’ (2007) C-print

The life-sized Red Carpet 1 of Rashid Rana is actually a collage of postage-sized photographs which one could discern at close viewing; but even then they were hard to read.  According to the label they were taken at various slaughterhouses (hence the red) and some criticism of Orientalism was intended.  That didn’t come through, but the virtuosity of a Persian carpet recreated with minute photographs was extremely impressive.

Imram Qureshi’s work takes off where Shazia Sikander began, with the traditional technique of Persian miniatures.  Unlike Sikander he retains the traditional size and format but uses it to depict modern figures. The blood-red, suede body brace by Naiza Kahn looks like bondage gear inspired by Frida Kahlo.  The notion of a woman bound and constricted in a garment the color of blood also has fairly universal resonance.

Adeela Suleman 'Feroza (Turquoise)' (2005) aluminum cooking utensil, spoons, burni, hand painted
Adeela Suleman ‘Feroza (Turquoise)’ (2005) aluminum cooking utensil, spoons, burni, hand painted

I particularly enjoyed Adeela Suliman’s wonderfully comic/critical helmets for women passengers on motorbikes who want to retain their feminine stylishness, shown both as sculptural objects and in photographs of them being worn.  Constructed from various bits of polychrome, decorated kitchen ware (a funnel, tiffin boxes, spoons, pots) of the sort found in ordinary markets, they speak to a false attempt to protect women through traditional restrictions on their activity and social participation.  Barbarella had no more glamorous protective gear.

The entire large gallery was suffused with what sounded like bagpipes playing flat and I wondered whether it was the parade I had passed in the street that day.  It turned out I was hearing a video screening just off the exhibition space: Bani Abidi’s The Shan Pipe Band learn to play the Star Spangled Banner (2004); so they were flat bagpipes!  It was an amusing and  poignant document of cross-cultural understanding. The lively exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for a view of Pakistani culture that doesn’t make the news media and left me wanting to know more about what is happening in Pakistan and the culture around the art – who are the viewers and patrons for this art?  How large is the artist community? Do they have ongoing contact with a particular artist community (communities) elsewhere?  The Asia Society’s single art event connected with the exhibition is past, but other programs related to Pakistan can be found on the website.


adeela suliman, asia society, bani abidi, faiza butt, imram qureshi, naiza kahn, pakistani art, rashid rana, salima hashm



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