Pakistan’s Palette of Blood and Tears

Kuni Takahashi for The New York Times

Abdullah Syed’s “Flying Rug,” made of United States $1 bills shaped like American drones and arranged in carpetlike patterns, from “The Rising Tide.” More


December 17, 2010

KARACHI, Pakistan — In this chaotic city of 18 million people, an exhibition of works by Pakistan’s most significant contemporary artists shows just how imbued with violence daily life here is: on the street, in the air and in the debate about the future course of the nation.

Installed in the elegant rooms of the Mohatta Palace Museum, a confection of Mughal architecture in pink stone, the exhibition, “The Rising Tide: New Direction in Art From Pakistan,” includes more than 40 canvases, videos, installations, mobiles and sculptures made in the past 20 years. Its curator, the feminist sculptor and painter Naiza Khan, said her aim was to show the coming of age of Pakistani art, which blossomed when censorship was lifted after the death of the American-backed Islamic dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Violence was not an intended theme. “I wanted the works to reflect the many strands of the urban condition,” Ms. Khan said in her light-filled studio in an upscale neighborhood here.

But the corrosive impact of Pakistan’s struggle with Islamic militants, its tortured relationship with the United States and the effects of an all-powerful military pervade the show.

The artist Abdullah Syed, for example, assembled a fleet of drones — the pilotless American aircraft that fire missiles at militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas — constructed from the blades of box cutters, the very instruments used by some of the 9/11 attackers. They float on wires just above the viewer’s head, the silvery blades shimmering menacingly in bright light.

A second fleet of drones is constructed from dollar bills folded into the shape of the planes and stapled together in circular patterns that resemble those of an oriental carpet. Called the “Flying Rug,” the paper fleet casts an ominous shadow on a nearby wall.

Mr. Syed, one of several artists in the show pursuing a career abroad, teaches at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “I’m always navigating ideas between the West and here,” he said, perched on a ladder as he hung his killer fleets. The “Flying Rug” takes sides: “I’m saying, ‘To hell with Uncle Sam.’ ”

Though in the West the drones are often seen as an essential element in the fight against terrorism, in Pakistan they are considered imperial interference by the United States, he said. In the show’s catalog Mr. 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.

In recent years work by Pakistani artists has begun appearing in museum shows outside the country — in Paris, London and Dubai. Ms. Khan wanted to bring them home, to show the strength and variety of their projects. Among her choices are Rashid Rana, whose “Desperately Seeking Paradise,” a huge metal cube covered in photographs of the dilapidated residential buildings of Lahore, appeared at the Musée Guimet in Paris recently; and Imran Qureshi and Anwar Saeed, whose works appeared in “Hanging Fire,” a survey of Pakistani art at Asia Society in Manhattan last year.

Mr. Qureshi is a leader in the modern school of Pakistani miniature painting derived from the court painters of the Mughal era. But rather than paint delicate images of princes and princesses, modern miniaturists have expanded their vocabulary. Ms. Khan chose a Qureshi miniature of a missile, painted after Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998. Also on display is a large-scale triptych panel by Mr. Qureshi of drips and splotches executed in a lush pomegranate hue. Or is that the color of blood?

Part of what differentiates this exhibition from the recent shows of Pakistani art in New York and Dubai is the inclusion of young people fresh out of the country’s growing number of art schools.

Sara Khan, 24, a recent graduate from the art department at Karachi University, is from the Pashtun ethnic group, whose traditional homeland is in the turbulent tribal areas in northwest Pakistan, where the army is embroiled in fighting militants. To escape the lack of development in the region, many Pashtuns have moved to Karachi in the past 30 years, among them Ms. Khan’s relatives.

Ms. Khan, who was born here and has never been to the tribal areas, doesn’t even speak Pashto. “They call me a fake Pashtun,” she said in an interview.

In her work Ms. Khan uses emblems of Pashtun culture painted in the style of a children’s primer on pages sized to resemble a school exercise book. Among the images: an AK-47 rifle — the standard-issue weapon of the tribal zone — a bullet and a series of domestic items, including bread, milk and eggs.

“Pashtuns are very strong, but I am showing emblems in a soft way,” she said. “I am saying, ‘We are not exactly what you think we are.’ ” A simple two-part work by Risham Syed reflects the violence that many urban, middle-class Pakistanis feel. A red wall lamp similar to those that hang in the homes of the well-to-do in Lahore, in northeastern Pakistan, is juxtaposed with a tiny 4-by-6-inch canvas, painted in a brutally realistic style. It shows a lone man in Islamic religious garb futilely trying to damp down a wall of flames that engulf a building.

Ms. Syed, who teaches art at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, seems to be edging close to the question some Pakistanis are raising gingerly about the responsibility of extremist clergy for the wave of suicide bombings in the nation’s cities.

Ms. Khan, the curator, took a year away from her studio in Karachi to put the show together. She felt strongly, she said, that even though fear and violence emerged as central themes in the art, Karachi should be seen as more than just a city of gangland killings and ethnically directed shootings.

“It means a lot to me to bring art center stage at a time when so much is denied in the country,” she said.

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