December 2009, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art From Pakistan

Faiza Butt. Get out of my dreams II, 2008. Ink on polyester film. H. 22 x W. 28 1/2 in. (55.9 x 72.4 cm). Private collection, London. Image courtesy of the artist


Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art From Pakistan
Asia Society
725 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10021
September 10, 2009 through January 3, 2010

Art has an ability to exist simultaneously as aesthetic object and a window onto a world. The 15 artists in Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan present strong individual artistic voices that exemplify such a conception of art. There are no precious novelties, naive exoticisms, or blanket statements on a nation’s artistic practice. Hanging Fire is a liminal space where horizons are opened and preconceived notions reevaluated.   

These artists were selected to represent a range of disciplines and perspectives. The curator, Salima Hashmi, has often been seen as a champion of female artists, yet for this exhibition she gives space to an entire range of Pakistani perspectives. The exhibition is balanced in terms of gender and medium, and focuses on artists with a clear awareness of global artistic dialogues. It highlights artists who are currently based in Pakistan, primarily in the artistic centers of Karachi and Lahore. 

An interesting feature of the show is Hashmi’s decision not to present a historical exhibition of the most informative artists of post independence Pakistan. Instead, the exhibition provides insight into the country’s current artistic environment.
Hashmi offers the sublime work of the late Zahoor ul Akhlaq as an entry point into the exhibition. His work creates a dialogue between South Asian artistic tradition and modern European art. Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s significant impact as a teacher also functions to give the exhibition a semblance of unity: many of the artists in the exhibition were students at the National College of Art in Lahore during his tenure.  


Imran Qureshi (born 1972). Moderate Enlightenment, 2007. Gouache on wasli. H. 9 x W. 7 in. (22.9 x 17.8 cm)
Aicon Gallery, New York. Image courtesy of Gerald Lerner

Perhaps the most familiar form of traditional Pakistani artwork is the Mughal miniature, which was revived as a contemporary art form by the NCA in the 1980s. The center of the Mughal courts were located in what is now Pakistan. The process is highly labor intensive and is built upon learning through copying other miniature works. In Hanging Fire, the discipline of miniature painting is represented by Faiza Butt, Mahreen Zuberi, and Imran Qureshi. All three artists explore disconnect and dualities as subject matter, reflecting the creation of contemporary work by utilizing the most traditional discipline within Pakistani art.  

Faiza Butt has melded miniaturist painting with the pointillist aesthetic. The images she employs dance the thin line between violence and celebration as they take on multiple identities. Mahreen Zuberi’s images of pastries, doilies, and mouths being probed by dental hygienists appear intentionally unfinished. The portions of Zuberi’s imagery that are fully realized are sharp, immaculate and evoke a clinical consumer utopia. The world depicted in these paintings is one where importance is placed on indulgence and image—yet hands and mouths float about without bodies. The pain inflicted in the name of hygiene remains unprocessed. 

Imran Qureshi’s depiction of disconnect is more subtle. The series of paintings, Modern Enlightenment, shown in this exhibition depict traditionally religious figures taking part in modern activities and fashion statements. The artist plays with stereotypes and offers figures with complexity and contradictions. Qureshi draws heavily from theatre, which was one of his primary interests growing up. As the miniature form of painting grew out of manuscript illumination it has a strong narrative quality to it. Qureshi’s works read as scenes within a play—a momentary glimpse at a fully developed story. 


Asma Mundrawala. Game Over, 2009. Digital print on card. H. 7 1/4 x W. 7 x D. 7 1/4 in. (18.4 x 17.8 x 18.4 cm). Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of the artist


Another artist in the exhibition with an interest in theatre is Asma Mundrawala, who has a background in performance and performance theory. Mundrawala’s pieces in this exhibition are pop up fantasies that simultaneously read as theatre sets and holiday cards. They provide a look at an ideal world created through the layering of photographs of Karachi’s architecture from the 60s and 70s. Her works are an image of a society that never quite existed, but has come to seem real through nostalgia, romanticized memories, and the film industry.  

Rashid Rana, the most recognized artist in the exhibition, is best known for creating photomontages of veiled women made up of pornographic images. Rana creates a large image out of a multitude of smaller images that contradict the larger subject. Red Carpet 1 when looked at from a distance is a beautiful deep red carpet. Upon closer inspection, it is revealed that the carpet is made up of images taken in a slaughterhouse. The work reflects the duel existence of Pakistan as a purveyor of beauty and violence.  


Rashid Rana (born 1968). Red Carpet 1, 2007. Edition 1/5; C-print + DIASEC. H. 95 x W. 135 in. (241.3 x 317.5 cm). Collection of Pallak Seth. Image courtesy of Gallery Chemould and Chattertjee & Lal Mumbai


Rashid Rana (born 1968). Detail of Red Carpet 1, 2007. Edition 1/5; C-print + DIASEC. H. 95 x W. 135 in. (241.3 x 317.5 cm). Collection of Pallak Seth. Image courtesy of Gallery Chemould and Chattertjee & Lal Mumbai

Adeela Suleman’s works are made up of units that have their own identity, yet take on a new one once assembled by the artist. Suleman creates fetish objects out of mundane objects. Drain covers, pots, and tongs take on new identity as exotic armor. These sublime objects come to seem part of a distant ritual. They are humorous and sensual at the same time.  

Every artist in the exhibition provides a lens through which one may interpret the contemporary artistic practice of Pakistan. They represent a very personal and specific view of the world around them. When putting together an exhibition that highlights the art of a nation there are inherent challenges. The task is practically impossible. How does one pick a handful of artists to represent an entire national practice? Salima Hashmi’s solution is elegant—rather than putting together a survey, she provides a taste. Hanging Fire is an amazing amuse bouche. It wets the palate and leaves the viewer wanting more.
An important part of the exhibition is beyond the space—the catalogue. It provides an important window into the context of the work and world on display. The book includes brief biographies for each artist, a time line of important art and political events in Pakistan, as well as essays by many different voices. The catalogue solidifies the importance of the exhibition. It provokes thought and opens a forum for continued discourse.


Bani Abidi. Shan Pipe Band Learns The Star Spangled Banner, 2004. Double channel video installation. 7 minutes, 31 seconds.
Courtesy of the artist and Green Cardamom. Image courtesy of Bani Abidi and Green Cardamom

Hanging Fire concludes with Bani Abidi’s double channel video installation, Shan Pipe Band Learns The Star Spangled Banner. The pipe band is part of the colonial legacy of Pakistan. They were initially attached to the military, but now primarily play Indian music at weddings. They exemplify the complex cultural identity of contemporary Pakistan. Abidi’s video shows a brass pipe band in Lahore that had been commissioned by the artist to play the United States national anthem. The band fumbles through the music with apparent frustration, yet with a great deal of sincerity—a beautiful and poignant note to end on.  

Like the pipe band who hung up their military uniforms, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan strips off the popular image of Pakistan as a violence ridden country to give us a more complex picture. This first, and significant, note struck at the Asia Society is a welcome and serious invitation to discover and explore the wealth of artistic talent in Pakistan.

Justine Ludwig

Justine Ludwig is a Swiss American adventurer and a curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, OH

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