Reviewing The 35th National Exhibition: Is Pakistani Art In Crisis?

Reviewing The 35th National Exhibition: Is Pakistani Art In Crisis?
Somewhere in a discussion about a crisis in contemporary art, an American art critic, Dave Hickey once said: "Criticism, at its most serious, tries to channel change, and when nothing is changing, when no one is dissenting, who needs criticism?” It is a befitting observation about the ongoing art exhibition at the Alhamra Art Council, Lahore, where the Artist Association of Punjab organised 35th National Art Exhibition by displaying the works of 156 artists from across the country. The works comprise of the usual landscapes, portraits, figure compositions, still life and calligraphy. The overwhelming majority of the displayed artworks belong to the conventional techniques from Western art, with a few exceptions where the artists have experimented with the content and skill. One must appreciate the good intentions of the organisers but at the same time also try to reflect upon the quality of art on display.

In Pakistan, art criticism does not exist in its true sense and its absence provides the context for traditional art to carry on without any substantial content. Going through the quiet gallery, the artworks on display clearly declared their lineage and the sources from where the artists are inspired. This article aims to analyse the exhibition to help the art audience to perceive, interpret and judge artworks on display in this mega show.

Historically speaking, landscapes have always been a favorite subject with painters since ancient times, but it emerged as an independent genre in the 19th century in Europe. The styles of landscape painting varied in Chinese, Japanese and Indian art, but European styles of painting seem to dominate this display. A good number of artists have painted landscapes depicting the areas from where they belong in a representational and photographic manner. The influence of late Khalid Iqbal, Ghulam Mustafa, Kaleem Khan, Mughees Riaz, Shahida Manzoor, Zulfiqar Zulfi and Mian Ijaz ul Hassan is all but too visible in all the landscape paintings on display. Variation in the rendering and style is difficult to find. A sizeable number of artists have displayed figure compositions. Rahat Naveed Masud, Sumera Jawad, R.M Naeem, A.S Rind and Ali Azmat are among the leading artists in this category. Their compositions do engage the viewers to look closely and interact aesthetically.

The end of the 19th century in Europe also paved the way for nonobjective and abstract art. Kandinsky the father of Nonobjective art once said, “walk with a line”, making a nonobjective image became alive with his statement. There are a few nonobjective paintings on display in the exhibition including Samina Zaheer, Minna Haroon, Ayesha Siddiqqui and Sidra Liaqat. Western artists who started painting in this manner theorised about their medium and techniques. Some calligraphic paintings are also on display. The work of Arif Khan is prominent with his fluid technique and command on the Arabic text. Calligraphic painting emerged as an independent medium in the Muslim world after World War II when the colonial powers left the countries that they had once occupied. In a quest to establish their identity, calligraphic art emerged as a form of art. In Pakistan it has come a long way, but very few artists show command with the pen and the aesthetic value of the artwork is often compromised. This is quite visible in this show.

Paul Klee once said, “Art does not reproduce what we see, rather it makes us see,” but in this exhibition it is quite noticeable that artists have tried to reproduce what they see rather than make the viewers see through their art. This state of affairs indicate a creative and intellectual crisis.

In the present age of phone cameras, the reproduced image does not give the viewer any incentive to look closely neither does this sort of art provides any social commentary. Devoid of any symbols and metaphors, most of the paintings are just a reproduction of physical reality. In such art, the meaning and content is also compromised. Art is based on a trajectory of philosophy of art which develops a conceptual framework; Art Criticism which establishes critical understanding about new forms of art; and Art Education where art is taught/learned through historical and contemporary approaches belonging to the environment in which art is created.

In Pakistan, the effect of colonial teaching is too obvious in all forms of art displayed in this exhibition. It is often overlooked that the Western art movements were the result of artists working within the art trajectory and were closely linked with all the scientific and philosophical developments happening around them. In Pakistan, however, this fact is ignored, and art teaching is done through the learning of Western Art movements in a stylistic manner only. A lack of regional art history in the curriculum makes the void between the artists and their environment wider still.

In the current situation, it looks as if Pakistani art is in crisis, experiencing an intellectual and innovative void. Every year, the same kind of art is produced without any visible change, making Mr. Dave Hickey’s statement true: “when there is no criticism, there is no change.”

The author is an art historian, researcher and educationist