Enriching two lands at once

Suljuk Mustansar Tarrar writes about the methods and inspiration behind the work of a number of Pakistani artists living abroad

Enriching two lands at once
In the city of all things big, New York, Talha Rathore, trained in traditional miniature, produces her delicate small-sized work, which expresses a connection with her adopted country and the strings still attached to the motherland. Rathore is among the group of artists who started creatively challenging the boundaries of traditional miniature in 1990’s and setting the stage for contemporary miniature. Her imagery consists of pathways, paper boats, trees, maps and strings spun around these objects, depicting real and imagined links. Her work, done with New York City maps, is melancholic but particularly interesting. For Rathore “moving to the US in 1998” with her husband and fellow miniature artist Fasihullah Ahsan “has definitely had a big impact” on her thinking. This is reflected, for instance, in the NYC subway map patched together with different materials. She notes that “although Miniature and Manhattan present two completely opposite entities, yet through my work, the city, a symbol of modernity, is being disclosed to the genre that stands for the traditional materials, historic technique and ethnic content.” A few years ago, Rathore says that she had the strong feeling of “revisiting the early years of my career and this was probably a way to cope with my nostalgia”. As a result, in her latest work, “cypress-trees and paper-boats” appeared again “more than a decade later.”

Rathore had to negotiate the demands of motherhood, studies and her practice in a new environment – a source of “tense and celebratory” images in her work. As an immigrant she also navigated between what was familiar and reluctantly abandoning what could not be held as a matter of survival. According to Rathore some of her multiple identities – Pakistani artist; NY-based Pakistani artist; miniature painter – all combine to make her what she is.

Khalil Chishtee

Khalil Chishtee once taught sculpture in NCA and now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and fellow sculptor and artist Ruby Chishti. He moved to the US for family reasons. He did his graduate studies from California and says that his “work went through a major shift after leaving my hometown, in fact by understanding this fact that nothing is constant other than the ‘change’, and now it’s more like a fluid present than a rigid past.” Seeing his skills, the owner of Chishtee’s newly built apartment building asked him to design an entrance gate for the building. Chishtee’s gate drew much more interest than the building itself from passersby – many even stopping to take photographs. This led the landowner to commission Chishtee to decorate the whole building and led to other such commissions.

Arriving in a society that thrives on consumption, Chishtee focused on the importance of waste and discarded materials and his work made of trash bags is a direct result of that. Chishtee is always in need of plastic trash bags and continues to be inspired by this worthless material. He is an environmentally savvy artist. His sculptures are light and without any internal support – and they are hung or indirectly supported. His other work is in text – where he challenges English words by putting them at certain angles and agitating the viewer to read them in an unorthodox manner.

Mumtaz Hussain

Ruby Chishti’s work pronounces the fragility of existence. The tenuous, soft layered material used by her to express her elf puts the viewer both at comfort and at variance with its serenity. Ruby Chishti says that “I felt that in this fast pace of life and struggle to survive…I could not find the luxury to have time to recall those memories which were dear to me. I started to think in the materials that were ephemeral like fallen twigs, just like the fragmentary nature of memory.” Her works “Sketch of the fading memory” and “…And then I buried my pride along with you…” are expressions of this realisation.

Most of her composition have doll-like soft round bodies, which to a degree relates to the artist’s own paralysed mother – who she cared for over the course of 11 years in Pakistan. Added to this imagery is how societal context, war and violence “reduce women to helpless and confined roles.” Crows are a recurring motif in Chishti’s work and among other things reflect her migrant status and will to “survive in the most challenging conditions.”

Mumtaz Hussain is a painter, filmmaker and writer living in New York. He earlier lived in Europe and says that his exposure to museums, galleries and access to literature and movies has allowed him to build a different dimension of aesthetics for his work. Mostly relying on oil or acrylic, Hussain’s paintings are mainly of four types; a South Asian style of painting with influences from Jackson Pollock in which the artist sees himself; his own fiction linking words with pictures; Indus Valley scripts; and calligraphy used as a visual idiom.

'In the absence of sparrows' - Ruby Chishti

Sarah Ahmad is a visual artist based in Memphis, USA. She was away from the art world for a while and then returned to produce geometric work in mixed media and installations. Her works are on a fairly large scale. Ahmad says that living in the US took her on this exploration of life through her work – which became a quest for creating narratives of a transcendent, trans-national identity that defies all categorisations. Ahmad is currently experimenting with 3D printing and laser cutting and the “work with the screen carvings and Islamic geometric patterns” reconnects her with her “cultural heritage and identity.”

Shafaq Ahmad is a multimedia artist working in the US and started her art career there. She got her art education from there, too. According to her, art history classes in the US mainly focused on Western art, which influenced her work and she felt the need to learn more about art from her own culture. She mentions that from her years in Pakistan, she gained the use of brilliant colours and beautiful patterns besides mysticism.

Faiza Butt is a UK-based artist. Her work is evocative and takes up socio-political and cultural issues. Butt has a strong narrative in her work which arises from her continuous questioning of her surroundings. Moving from Pakistan to England to do her Masters at the Slade School she was surrounded by the Eurocentric view of arts in academia and practice. And she challenged that notion by utilising skills acquired back home – and in the subject matter of her work, mostly collected from mass media.

She says that “Whenever I come across an interesting photograph in a newspaper I tend to tear it out and base my work around that image. For example: Mugshot Images of Asian men presented as terrorists, refugee children in state of despair, politicians and heads of state in elegant righteous postures, female presentation through prisms of patriarchy, as well as masculine codes through sports and ‘championship’ – all appear in my work through allegories and symbols.”

Butt “redesigns these images”. As an artist she feels a responsibility to start a discussion on them. She draws these images “beautifully” believing that it “serves as a trap to lure my audience towards the most gritty realities that face us today.” Even in the selection of her material she “rejected painting on canvas” and “discovered Mylar (architect’s film) serves” her purpose best – along with the Indian ink that she uses.

A number of other Pakistani artists are active in the diaspora – some extensively covered in the media, others comparatively less known.

Tahir Mahmood is a Toronto-based designer known among other things for his furniture designs combining South Asian and Bauhaus aesthetics. Anila Qayyum Agha is known for installations projecting geometric shadows. Salman Toor paints scenes from everyday life, especially from Pakistan. Saira Wasim, Nida Bangash and Sania Samad are also based in the US. Munibah Sehar lived for a long time in the Gulf, turned against her artistic expression, and only recently returned to wasli. Mahwish Chishti teaches in the US and uses decorative drones in her work. Bani Abdi, based in Germany, comments on parallel realities through her videography.

With Pakistanis living in different parts of the world this is not an exhaustive list of diaspora artists and the work of many other needs to be appraised and evaluated. But this article hopes to document a critical contribution from Pakistanis – an aspect not commonly recognised and not part of any narrative on the role of migrants in enriching the culture and arts of another society.

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