There’s a strong artistic energy in Pakistan, with already established artists conquering the international scene and a new generation of talent growing inside.

We could almost call it a ‘movement’, if these artists didn’t have so little in common. Going from paint to calligraphy to mixed media, they don’t share any theory or technique, but rather the spirit with which they approach the art practice.

According to Julius John Alam, it’s Pakistan’s current chaos that nurtures artists. As the traumas of terrorism, coups and insurgency multiply, so do the artists who feel compelled to narrate their own experiences. Moreover, as Quddus Mirza points out, Pakistan lacks a sense of identity. Hence, the quest for individuality, typical amongst the youths of all nationalities, assumes a much stronger significance in Pakistani society, as it represents a quest for identity. Here, art serves as a social, political and cultural commentary on the country, shedding some light on its future, too. 

If you don’t trust the art critics, ask the curators.

The joint show ‘Two Wings to Fly, Not One’ by Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi, opened at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad last April. The exhibition provides a multifaceted view of Pakistan. Particularly impactful is Qureshi’s enormous installation ‘And They Still Seek the Traces of Blood’.

And They Still Seek the Traces of Blood, Imran Qureshi (2013).
And They Still Seek the Traces of Blood, Imran Qureshi (2013).

At Gandhara-Art Space in Karachi, an exhibition called ‘Microcosm’ is – for artist Adeel uz Zafar, who curated it – an investigation into a new generation of artists and their way to reinterpret their sexuality, identity and political learning through art. Samya Arif’s ‘Fast Girls – Women of My Land’ is, for instance, a feminist piece dedicated to the women who refuse to live by Pakistani societal and cultural norms.

Fast Girls – Women of My Land, Samya Arif (2017).
Fast Girls – Women of My Land, Samya Arif (2017).
Women are a big theme in contemporary Pakistani art: Rashid Rana’s photomontages, with pornography superimposed on burqa silhouettes, challenge the two extreme female stereotypes.   

rashid rana
Veil, Rashid Rana (2004).

Bani Abidi’s work is openly political; her photos and videos focus on the conflict between India and Pakistan and portray the lives of minority groups in Pakistan. Her film ‘Mangoes’ is about a Pakistani and an Indian woman who eat mangoes together.

bani abidi
A still from Mangoes, Bani Abidi (2000).
Khadim Ali’s miniature paintings also deal with identity, in particular in the context of migration, as they reflect his experience of growing up as an Afghan refugee in Pakistan in the border city of Quetta. His ‘Rustam Series’ alludes to the Persian legendary hero of Rustam, embodiment of Khadim’s Hazara heritage and often misused as a symbol to justify hostility.
  

khadim ali
Rustam Series – Untitled 3, Khadim Ali (2011–2012).

Other artists are more concerned with the physical space of Pakistan. This is the case of Naiza Khan, whose work frequently makes reference to Karachi’s fragile landscape – its surrounding coastal terrain, the architectonic details –, particularly in the exhibitions ‘The Weight of Things’ (2014), ‘Disrupting the Alignment’ (2014) and ‘Karachi Elegies’ (2013).

naiza khan
The Streets Are Rising, Naiza Khan (2012–13).
The connection Durre Waseem, painter born, bred and educated in Lahore, feels with her city is manifested in her solo show ‘Visiting Home’, which opened at Canvas Gallery in Karachi in July 2017 and pays homage to cityscapes and everyday scenes. 

durre waseem
Phathak, Durre Waseem (2017).

An artist worth mentioning is Waqas Khan, whose hypnotic works speak of the Sufi side of Islam and are therefore a message of peace. He will be showing at Frieze Art Fair 2017 – and you can admire him already at Manchester Art Gallery (until February 2018).

wows khan
The Hole, Waqas Khan (2014).
There are also many emerging Pakistani artists whose work has gained much acclaim in exhibitions and residencies throughout the world. You can see some of their pieces – and even buy them – here on artbahaar.com.

To mention a few: Atif Khan touches upon identity and Sufism by blending Central Asian/Persian and South Asian culture; Hassan Mujtaba’s art investigates society and institutionsSamina Islam and Natasha Malik both place women at the centre of their art, the former highlighting their role as the backbone of society and the latter playing once again with the notion of identity and the conflict between intimacy and societal surveillance.

Atif Khan Art Bahaar Artist

Migration II, Atif Khan (2013).

Hassan Mujtaba Art Bahaar Artist

Inertia III, Hassan Mujtaba (2016).

Samina Islam Art Bahaar Artist

Hina, Samina Islam (2017).

Natasha Malik Art Bahaar Artist

Untitled, Natasha Malik (2011).

These could be the stars of tomorrow’s art scene. Investing in Pakistani art means encouraging the efforts of a country to find order and beauty out of the chaos.

- SILVIA SEMINARA