Diaspora artists - I

Suljuk Mustansar Tarar offers an overview of the role and work of Pakistani artists based around the world

Diaspora artists - I
Human beings are constantly on the move. They move for different reasons. Mostly in pursuit of security, exploration of new lands, adventure, or just generally in search of better opportunities elsewhere. In the post-colonial era people have migrated, mainly westwards, to avail better economic opportunities, higher education or for political reasons. Moving from one’s own land to another is not an easy journey. There is a certain angst attached to it with trials and tribulations. Writers, artists, and painters use their creativity to express both positive and negative experiences, the physical and emotional anxieties of new locale and society, to reinforce their roots and multiple identities or sometimes to criticise them – and at times only to prove the superiority of their adopted homes.

Diaspora writing is a more familiar and established genre and many of us enjoy works by authors of Pakistani or South Asian origin, typically taking up themes like socio-cultural adjustments or civilisational, ideological and generational divides. Occasionally there are also writers who are accused of knowingly demeaning their own land and culture at the altar of fame and recognition.

Single panel from diptych by Ambreen Butt, from the series 'I must utter what comes to my lips II & III' - Watercolour and white gouache on wasli paper - 25 x 18 cm

Pakistani painters, sculptures and ceramists based abroad have been producing some fairly dynamic work. Raashed Araeen, Iqbal Geoffrey, Anwar Jelal, Shemza, Tassaduq Sohail and Masod Kohari come to mind from the older generation.

A sizable number of Pakistani-origin visual artists are engaged in creative and innovative work. As compared to the older generation, today’s diaspora artists benefit from a more connected world and relatively more open attitude towards artists from non-Western backgrounds. They are also able to stay connected with the art scene back in Pakistan. I have come across work of a number of these diaspora artists, having known them or their work in various contexts. I have always found it particularly fascinating to observe subtle changes in their work and their experimentation with new materials. Some themes from Pakistan continue to undergird their works. It is also interesting how they, as individual artists, situate themselves in terms of artistic identity.

Contemporary miniature from Pakistan is like a global art movement. Some of its protagonists like Shahzia Sikander, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Fatima Zahra Hassan, Ambreen Butt, Talha Rathore, Tazeen Qayyum, Saira Wasim and Khadim Ali are based in different parts of the world. There are other contemporary artists like Mumtaz Hussain, Khalil Chishtee, Ruby Chishti, Faiza Butt, Anila Qayyum Agha, Sarah Ahmad, and Faisal Anwar who received their training in Pakistan and are now residing abroad. Their training from Pakistan provided the foundation to further build upon further their visual arts careers. We also have a host of artists like Huma Bhabha and Shehzad Dawood who got their degrees abroad and undertook the journey to connect with their roots. The case of Huma Bhabha is particularly fascinating, as she took an independent trajectory – drawing inspiration from Latin and African cultures. An important aspect about Pakistani diaspora artists is that most of them are women.

'Did You Come Here To Find History' by Nusra Latif Qureshi

This article provides an overview of work being done by some of the artists living abroad.

Shahzia Sikander is one of the most recognised names amongst Pakistani diaspora artists. Based in New York, her contribution and accomplishments in pioneering contemporary miniature are widely known. Sikander continues to impress us with her creativity.

She has been successfully reinventing and reinterpreting herself: from her early encounters with the international art world of the pre-9/11 era to becoming a global citizen trying to expand conversations around social, political, religious and cultural identities. Her work has continuously evolved both in medium and content and creating new means of engagement. From miniature painting, she further delved into larger-scale mediums like installations and murals. She has explored multimedia videos, animations and performance-based collaborative works. Amongst her latest commissions are portraits of Malala Yousafzai and US anchor person David Letterman for the latter’s TV show.

Ambreen Butt is a leading visual artist based in Dallas, USA. She specialised in miniature painting from NCA, Lahore. She has done drawing, sculpture, installations and paintings utilising her traditional miniature training. Her works like “I am my lost diamond” and “I am all what is left of me” are on a relatively larger scale and despite politically difficult messages Butt’s work has the visually pleasing colour schemes associated with traditional crafts. Her subject matter is mostly around the themes of war and violence and how they impact women’s and human rights both locally and globally.

'Where The Sun Never Sets' by Nusra Latif Qureshi

Moving countries has played an “enormous role in evolving her visual vocabulary” and as a “South Asian Muslim Woman” in the US she faced her own complex challenges. She has successfully worked hard to develop an aesthetic to communicate just that. There is a continuous dialogue in Butt’s work about her hybrid existence.

Far away from Sikander and Butt, Down Under, another of their fellow miniature graduates Nusra Latif Qureshi lives in Melbourne, Australia. Latif Qureshi is one of the leading players in contemporary miniature. Latif Qureshi juxtaposes colonial and historical symbols on traditional miniature images to comment on contemporary issues. She educated herself in the history of her adopted land because as she puts it, “it matters to me to understand the social reality of the people I live with, with their varied backgrounds and lived experiences.” According to her, moving to Australia has also allowed her a different vantage point to look at issues back home. Latif Qureshi believes that “once that distance or space between the social and cultural realities of a homeland and an adopted home is negotiated, the rest becomes somewhat easier.”

She draws parallels between the colonial histories of Pakistan and Australia and along with criticism of monarchy, she started to include the issues of migration and ‘boat people’ in her work. She has displayed in different parts of the world and received awards for public commissions in Australia. Her much acclaimed digital print from 2009, “Did you come here to find history” was produced for the Venice Biennale. As an immigrant artist she has addressed topics of racism and twisting of facts in politics as she highlights European migrations from the 1800s in paintings – depicting them in comparison to the ‘boat people’ of the early 21st century. She says: “In my painting ‘Boat People II’, I showed a silhouette of King Edward in India with a dead tiger and a section of a ‘European’ boat along with a group of waterskiing athletes/performers and two male life guards; the last two being stereotypical Australian icons.” The work also helped her to examine “the humanitarian treatment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.”

With regard to access to material required for traditional miniature, Latif Qureshi started using the illustration board instead of wasli, which is not regularly available. An illustration board seemed a good substitute technically. She has also worked with large-scale digital images, “which have been easier to get printed and packed off to exhibitions overseas.”

Latif Qureshi is proud of her heritage and considers herself fortunate “as an artist, born in the glorious city of Lahore, studying at National College of Arts, and training in musaviri – or miniature painting” and “these facts are part of my practice, and they do form the core of my understanding of art.”

As an artist living in an ever more connected world, yet one rent apart by inward-looking ideologies, she desires for “a more globalized expression, where I, an artist, do not dumb down the conceptual content of my work, but persist in creating an articulate and meaningful image.” Hence her works are simple and strategic to look at, with fewer images, but potent with symbolism and easily understood historical messages.

The writer can be reached at smt2104@caa.columbia.edu