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Contemporary art of pakistan

Last updated on 28.07.2020


Rana’s pieces of Veil series seem to oscillate between the bigger image and the tiny images. Both are contextually related to one another, as both represent the female gender and issues associated with it. Looking at the pieces from a distance, one can instantly recognize the figures to be Muslim women covered from head to toe in long burqas but anything more is difficult to infer from formal analysis.

The women are almost of the same height and physique. The colors of their burqas are different shades of brown, minutely differing from one another. The background colors are light to compliment the foreground figures. The burqas are without any pattern except for one woman whose veil has a slight floral pattern at the front but again not very significant. Thus, there is no means to characterize any woman in particular.

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As the themes of Rana’s works are always two-fold, the fully clothed obscured women seen on a macro level, when observed closely on a micro level, become a mass of pixelated squares, illustrating blurred pornographic stills of western women, sourced from the internet (Fig. 7). The identity of these western women also seems suppressed due to the blurry effects and in most instances, their faces are hidden behind male body parts. These western women are no more recognizable in these tiny images than the Muslim women are, hidden behind layers of clothing.

About Pakistan

Pakistan is a multi-cultural and complex country where the status of women varies considerably across classes, regions ethnic groups and the rural/urban divide caused by uneven socioeconomic development. The tribal, feudal, and capitalist social formations all affect women’s lives [19]. Pakistani women living in urban areas today enjoy freedom and a better status than most Muslim and many non-Muslim women in other parts of the world. Professional and educational opportunities have increased for women over the last two to three decades. According to a Human Development Report released by the United Nations in 2010, Pakistan has better gender equality than neighboring India.

The people belonging to the Northern and Northwestern tribal areas of Pakistan, also called Pashtuns, however, present an entirely different story. These areas border on Afghanistan and are heavily influenced by the Taliban regime, which is widely known for its brutal treatment of women. It is also the area where gender discrimination is the highest in Pakistan and where women are generally oppressed in a male-dominated society.

Rana has never so much as verbally confessed that the burqa-clad women in the Veil series allude to the Pashtun women, but upon careful observation, it becomes obvious. The Pashtun women wear this specific type of burqa, which is locally known as chadri but ironically called “shuttlecock burqa” because it resembles in shape to the feathered projectile used in the sport of Badminton. The term “shuttlecock” really is an appropriate name as it is a one-piece loose-fitting garment, with a tightly-fitting headpiece and covers the entire body, including the eyes, which are veiled with a mesh-like weaving of the fabric.

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In the conservative hinterlands of Pakistan, sometimes Pashtun women wear these burqas out of cultural norms, while at other times are forced by Taliban men, to wear this garment. Where on the one side these men dehumanize their women and strip them of their identities, on the other they perceive western women in a similar yet contrasting degrading manner. Rana elaborates, “due to lack of exposure to the (actual) western culture, these men (of the rural areas of Pakistan) have a very promiscuous image of the western women”.

“Two sides of the same coin”

In salaciously juxtaposing these two seemingly opposing sets of images, namely the veiled Muslim and naked western women, Rana shows the two sides of the same coin, that is, the way ignorant men perceive women from both eastern and western cultures. Thus, the artworks represent the metaphorical cries of oppression for both eastern and western women, on both macro and micro levels. Talking about his work in an interview for online magazine Creative Times, Rana says, “… my work could be categorized as being politically overt at times, but I cannot just say that I am only interested in political turbulence.

I deal with all sorts of issues, mostly from my immediate surroundings; it is not so much about the issues as the ‘representations’ around those concerns that I am interested in. I do not intend to make political art but I am interested in the politics of representation, and I hope my work transcends all the heterogeneous issues that I bring into it as triggering points”.

Rashid Rana represents current issues within the Pakistani society, ranging from political to social concerns, in a manner that instead of demonstrating his objective opinions, he engages the audience in a dialogue over them. In the next part of this paper, an effort has been made to put together his Veil series and Faiz’s poem discussed above, and prove formalistic, thematic and ekphrastic relationships between them.

Mere dare ko jo zuban Miley an ekphrasis to the veil series

Ekphrasis is a practice in art defined as “the verbal representation of visual representation”. Ekphrasis, developed originally by Greeks, is writing descriptively, most often poetically or dramatically, about works of art [24]. An equivalent but reversal practice involving art built around poetry, had also existed and still practiced in different cultures and parts of the world. (Some of such artworks, which are a conscious response to specific poems, have been mentioned earlier). This conceptual practice has helped us to provide a name to the relationship established in this interdisciplinary art-based research.

Faiz’s poetry makes great use of symbols through allusion, which makes metaphors come alive in many instances. Mere dard ko jo zuban Miley dramatically associates pain with singing and a victim with a particle – a particle which has no existence. Lessing argues that “painting is a synchronic, visual phenomenon, one of space that is immediately in its entirety understood and appreciated, while poetry (again, in its widest sense) is a diachronic art of the ear, one that depends on time to unfold itself for the reader’s appreciation”.

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Thus, as the poem does not signify any specific time or place, or does it specifies the identity of the narrator; it can be interpreted in various ways. Although, most of Faiz’s poetry was written in the wakes of socio-political issues of the nation during the Modern/ postmodern era, but in the existing circumstances, this poem is frequently associated with women suffering due to gender inequality or gender oppression in the Pakistani society. Two verses from the poem also became the title for two very popular drama serials recently aired on national television channels. Both serials revolve around the experiences of women and ideas related to gender oppression, which is exactly the message behind the Veil series.

Mere dard ko jo zuban miley

The title of the poem “Mere dard ko jo zuban Miley”, literally meaning “if my pain could find words”, if appended to the art series, will seem fit as the women indeed are in pain but unable to voice their sufferings. The mood of both artworks is similar, that is serious, and is consistent throughout. The poem consists of verses short in length, woven together to create the whole, also with the use of the word miley repeatedly, to maintain rhythm within the poem. Veil also utilizes very small pieces of images, very similar to one another in context, fused together to form a larger whole. Dard, however, is more metaphoric than Veil, as the poem uses tropes, which exaggerates the usual meaning of the verses.

Faiz has used phrases such as “naghma-e-beside” (lit. voiceless song) and “Sara-e-benihana” (lit. unidentifiable particle) to refer to the pain and being of the narrator. These metaphors juxtapose disparate entities to characterize the condition of the narrator, which is of oppression, and to intensify the depth of pity; an assumed audience can feel for him/her. Veil series, on the other hand, is more straightforward in its formalistic approach as it clearly shows the characters, giving distinct messages regarding their oppressed conditions through their visual representation.

The later part of the poem

The later part of the poem verbally represents the wishful thinking of the Muslim and Western women in the Veil series, of becoming a significant part of the society; getting a distinctive identity for themselves and to raise a voice against their hardships.

Thus, it is not paradoxical to say that Dard and Veil have an unintentional ekphrastic, formalistic and thematic relationships among them. The phenomenon of Social Realism exhibited in the intelligible meanings of both of these disparate artworks also asserts to the quote, ‘in his poetry there is painting and in his painting, there is poetry”. In this manner, the dramatic words of Dard can be analyzed as representing the voice of the veiled Muslim women and the stereotyped western women, who are indicated as being devoid of their particular identities – the women waiting for their plights to be heard, the women waiting to be freed of these injustices.

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Poetry and paintings (visual art), although seemingly disparate, have been regarded as “sister arts” by many artists and writers, across culture, place and time [27]. Mughal miniature paintings often had a dedicated area for poetic verses or calligraphic text underlining the theme of the painting. Later modern and postmodern artists of Pakistan also revived this practice along with the tradition of Mughal miniature art. Abdur Rehman Chughtai’s miniature paintings on Mirza Ghalib’s poetry and Sadequain’s figurative art based on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s verses exemplify this trend.

Contemporary artists of Pakistan have extensively experimented with the miniature art techniques and have developed a variety of new methods. At the same time, contemporary artists have also observed to be closely associated to the ideas of “Social Realism”. The art works categorized under Social Realism, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, present the thoughts and beliefs of the artists; literary and visual both; protesting, sans violence and force, against social injustice.

Ideas of Social Realism are widely utilized by Pakistani artists, probing the held assumptions and perceptions associated with the society due to unchanging socio-political conditions of the country in the last six decades. Gender oppression and inequality, specifically women’s social exclusion in Pakistan was the subject highlighted, out of many others, in this paper. Rashid Rana’s Veil series unintentionally visualizes the same concerns as voiced in Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem Mere dard ko jo zuban Miley.

The Veil series

The Veil series, which is an innovative form of traditional art with its use of tiny photographic collage to form a bigger picture, represents the perception of women in specific areas of Pakistan. The thematic and formalistic approaches of Rana, in the series, are similar to the poem Dard, if studied with reference to gender oppression. We thus arrive at the conclusion that there is an ekphrastic, formalistic and thematic relationship between the two artworks.

The art of Pakistan has come a long way with the nation’s contemporary artists being recognized and well regarded in international art circles. The contemporary artists, using art as a means of expression and utilizing a variety of mediums and social subject matters, are compelling the world to look at Pakistan from a different angle. With the help of such artists and intellectuals, it is concluded with the hope that not only Pakistan but also the whole world will find a way to become a better place, as hoped and expressed by Faiz in another evoking poem.

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