The Geniuses of Art in Pakistan

Guest blogger, Ali Adil Khan reflects on geniuses of Pakistani modern and contemporary art

Toronto: Over the last few years, I have often pondered on who could be considered young geniuses amongst the modern and contemporary artists of Pakistan. I have thought long and hard, and researched and discussed my reasoning with fellow art critics and collectors.

Finally, I have settled on a list. My assessment is in no way conclusive and the list is not meant to be exclusive. The result is simply my conclusion based on my definition of a genius in art practice as “someone who invents a new way of looking at or creating art, one who is ahead of their time, creates a following and movement, and is admired by fellow artists, locally and internationally.”

As geniuses are revealed at a young age, among important artists there are young geniuses who tend to be conceptual thinkers and often create iconic individual works. Then there are old masters who make equally important contributions to art forms and movements and produce their greatest work when they are older. Think of Picasso as a young genius and Cezanne as an old master. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which he painted at 26, appears in more than 90 percent of art history textbooks published in the past 30 years. Similarly, Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte,” which he finished at 27, appears in more than 70 percent. For old masters, on the other hand, discoveries evolve over years instead of exploding onto the scene in a single masterpiece. Thus no single painting by Cézanne or his friend Claude Monet appears in even half of art history textbooks. Yet no one would question their place among the greats.

Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Zainul Abedin, Sadequain, Ismail Gulgee, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Rashid Rana, Shahzia Sikander and Hamra Abbas proved their geniuses at a young age. Shakir Ali, Zubaida Agha, Ahmed Parvez, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Bashir Mirza, Jamil Naqsh and Colin David are old masters. The differences between these artists’ creative life cycles are not accidental. Precocious young geniuses make bold and dramatic innovations – think of Picasso’s cubism – and their work often expresses their ideas or feelings. Wise old masters, on the other hand, are experimental thinkers who proceed by trial and error.

Even before Pakistan came into existence, Chughtai had already proven his mantel and established himself internationally as the pre-eminent artist of the subcontinent.

Below is my list of the young geniuses of modern art in the history of Pakistan.

Chughtai (1897-1975) fused miniature paintings from India with a Persian style of painting, and romanticised it to invent a personal style that was later known as Chughtai art or the Lahore School of Painting. As they say, “It takes a diamond to recognise a diamond,” and Dr Mohammad Iqbal acknowledged Chughtai’s genius in the foreword he wrote for the Muraqqa-e-Chughtai, a compilation of Chughtai’s drawings and paintings on Dewan-e-Ghalib in 1928. Iqbal wrote: “He [Chughtai] is only twenty-nine yet. What his art will become when he reaches the mature age of forty, the future alone will disclose. Meanwhile all those who are interested in his work will keenly watch his forward movement.”

Zainul Abedin (1914-1976) played a pioneering role in the modern art movement of Pakistan. Although now legitimately claimed by Bangladesh as Shilpacharya, or father of modern art, Zainul Abedin was instrumental in establishing the first art institute in Dhaka and charting a trajectory for a future generation of artists. His dedication and contribution in establishing and nurturing the art institute and the Dhaka Artists Group is of major importance. His genius as an artist was revealed through his drawings of the 1943 famine in Bengal when he sketched over 2,000 drawings using the barest economy of line with Indian ink and brush on ordinary pieces of brown wrapping paper. His images were so powerful and moving that even if seen today, as I did recently at the National Museum of Bangladesh, they remind us of his extraordinary ability to generate an enormous emotional response.

Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi
Untitled (Acrobats)
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

Sadequain (1930-1987) undoubtedly is the greatest contemporary artist that South Asia has produced. His genius was exposed early on in his career when he was declared Laureate Biennale de Paris when he participated in the 1961 Paris Biennale at the age of 31. Sadequain is single-handedly responsible for the renaissance of calligraphy in South Asia and the Middle East. He was able to accomplish a lot in a short period of time and was able to evolve a unique art form based on the cactus and the Urdu letter alif. Dr Akbar Naqvi writes in his book Image and Identity, “In November 1968, which was Ramadan, his calligraphy of Quranic verses was exhibited in a celebrated exhibition at the Karachi Arts Council. For the first time art touched the underprivileged people of the city, who came in droves to see the exhibition and made Sadequain an Awami [national] painter overnight. Art had broken the class barrier and bridged Lalu Khet with KDA Scheme-1.” Naqvi further says, “As early as 1961, he [Sadequain] invented the style, either in Paris or in Karachi, which was a distinguished contribution to Cubism. Sadequain’s style was, if we must have a name, Calligraphic Cubism.” Furthermore, Sadequain’s phenomenal murals in Pakistan, India and parts of Europe defy Michelangelo. While Sadequain’s figurative work had strong social commentary and criticisms, his paintings also looked into the future.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Farman
Art of Pakistan Auction (November 7-8, 2012)

Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999) has been credited with the revival of miniature paintings, initially in Pakistan and later globally. It was at the behest of Zahoor in the early 1980s, who was then the head of fine arts at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, a separate curriculum was designed for students to specialise in miniature painting. Moreover, he sought to insert an element of experimentation in the practise, which challenged the students to look beyond the borders of traditional miniatures. As a post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art in London, Zahoor was greatly influenced by his encounters with the Indian miniature collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was immensely fascinated by the entire collection, and in particular the masterpiece titled “Three Young Sons of Shahjahan” executed in reverse perspective by Balchand, circa 1635. Zahoor started rethinking and deconstructing the miniature. He later recreated the “Three Princes” in a minimalist style, which was exhibited as part of “Pakistan: Another Vision” in London in 2000. An exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan at the Asia Society in New York in 2009, entitled “Hanging Fire,” started from Zahoor, underlining the importance and overarching influence of Zahoor on avant-garde artists such as Shahzia Sikander, Rashid Rana and Hamra Abbas, to name a few, who were all his students. Salima Hashmi in her lead essay for “Hanging Fire” says, “Zahoor’s ability to synthesize innovation and cultural context enabled the generation after him to make work as world citizens.” Or as Rashid Rana explains, “He has made it easy for us.”

Gulgee (1926-2007) invented abstract calligraphy based on action painting popularised by Jackson Pollock in the USA in the 1950s. Gulgee was completely self-taught and began painting while studying engineering at Columbia and Harvard Universities in the US. Early on in his artistic career, he focused on portraiture and excelled in it. He was commissioned to paint the portrait of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan (1959), Prince Karim Aga Khan (1961), Zhou Enlai (1964), Queen Farah Diba of Iran (1965) and President Ayub Khan of Pakistan (1968). He then turned to making portraits from marble mosaic and semi-precious stones, a technique that he developed in Kabul using Lapis Lazuli. In the late 60s and early 70s, he reinvented himself by working in abstract styles using broad brush and bold colours and incorporating local materials such as coloured beads, small pieces of mirrors, and gold and silver leaf. During this period, Gulgee produced some of the most spectacular works of modern art ever seen in Pakistan. In the late 70s and early 80s, Gulgee started experimenting again, this time combining action painting with calligraphy. By this time, he had already mastered all major styles of calligraphy, and completely modernized it to invent a distinct and unique style, never seen before in and outside of Pakistan. He was very prolific in the 90s and until his tragic death in 2007. He leaves behind a large body of paintings and sculptures for future generations to decipher.

Lot 33: Rashid Rana, Ommatidia II (Salman Khan), 2004
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

Rashid Rana (b. 1968) is one of the most sought after contemporary artist from South Asia. His recent exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris and major collections at the Saatchi Gallery in London and the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi are a testament to his genius. His creations in C-print + DIASEC, such as the “Red Carpet” exhibited at the Asia Society in 2009 and “Desperately Seeking Paradise” first exhibited at Art Dubai in 2008 are masterpieces that have no equal.

Lot 30 – Shazia Sikander, Let It Ride # 3, 1987
24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan (Nov. 7-8, 2012)

Shahzia Sikander (b. 1969) at age 36 was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s fellowship (also generally referred to as the genius award) which provides unrestricted use of US$500,000 to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. Shahzia was the first to breakaway from the miniature tradition, and has been instrumental in the rediscovery, re-infusion, and re-contextualisation of Indo-Persian miniature painting, which has helped establish an art form that is now known and recognised as contemporary miniature, or neo-miniature. She has now entered the mainstream of contemporary art internationally and is a recognised superstar.

Hamra Abbas (b. 1976) left a lasting impression on me when I first saw her sculptures titled “Lessons on Love,” a set of life-size works based on erotic miniature paintings from the Kama Sutra, and in particular, one that showed a man and a woman seated facing each other on a Howdah (an elephant or horse back mount), embraced in love and engaged in a hunting scene. This brilliant composition and a transformation of miniature into a life-size sculpture captured my attention, as I fully comprehended Hamra’s creative expression of a paradoxical relationship between sex and violence. Last year when I saw her masterpiece titled ‘Buraq’ at the “Hanging Fire” exhibition in New York, it further confirmed Hamra’s exceptional talent and genius. Hamra’s versatile practice straddles a wide range of media, as she questions widely accepted traditions and uses culturally loaded imagery and iconography in creating new platforms from which to view notions of culture, tradition and exchange. Hamra’s research on madrassahs [Islamic seminaries] after her return to Pakistan in 2007, resulted in creation of exceptional works: an installation titled ‘Read,’ which was exhibited first at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad and then at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the 99 faces of children in the madrassahs, which was awarded the Jury Prize at the Sharjah Biennale in 2009. Hamra is the recipient of the 2011 Abraaj Capital Art Prize and currently doing a residency in New York.

Read another article by Adil Ali Khan on Miniature Art from Pakistan and follow his top ten picks in the current auction.

Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan

Josheen Oberoi revisits the seminal 2009 exhibition Hanging Fire at Asia Society, New York

New York: Asia Society, the premier global institution promoting understanding between Asia and the United States, held the first museum survey exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art in the United States at their flagship space in New York in 2009. Curated by the renowned writer and curator Salima Hashmi, the exhibition Hanging Fire was a study on the vibrancy and multiplicity of praxis of contemporary artists in Pakistan.

On the occasion of Saffronart’s inaugural auction of Art of Pakistan, starting today, I retrace my steps to a piece I had originally penned for the Saffronart website in 2009. The show included the work of fifteen Pakistani artists in diverse media, many of who are part of the upcoming auction. As a survey exhibition of contemporary artists and art practices in the country, the exhibition served to undermine the monolithic perspective of Pakistan and its art that often still dominates the news media. The artists in the exhibition addressed contemporary concerns ranging from the personal and local to the regional and global, thus offering a glimpse into the active internal dialogues that animate Pakistan. What follows is a brief survey of what I saw.

Hamra Abbas
Ride 2
Painted fiberglass and wood
Approx. H. 72 x W. 39 x L. 94 in.
Image courtesy of the artist and Green Cardamom
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Amongst the works on display was Hamra Abbas‘s Ride 2, 2008, an electric-pink fiberglass sculpture of Buraq (a mythic winged creature – half woman, half horse) believed to be Prophet Mohammad’s holy mare. A popular motif in Pakistan, it is often illustrated in classical narratives. However, it was the folk representation of the Buraq that Abbas reproduced in this life-size work, that claims the religious icon within a female narrative, and, through it, signifies both power and freedom.

Naiza Khan
Galvanized steel and suede leather
H. 26 x W. 12 5/8 x D. 6 3/8 in. (66 x 32 x 16 cm)
Image courtesy of Mahmood Ali
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Adeela Suleman and Naiza Khan’s works also evoked questions of identity and of the politics of the body. Naiza Khan’s sculpture Spine, 2008, for instance was a corset-like cage made of galvanized steel with red suede stitched over it. The sculpture appeared to be an armour-like trap encompassing and protecting the body, but was also seductive in the choice, colour and texture of the suede. Explaining her work, the artist says, “These objects occupy a place between love and war, and are ambiguous in their position of aggression and seduction.”

The sculptures by Adeela Suleman displayed in the exhibition were made of found domestic objects (tongs, jars, funnels and spoons) and physically resembled the structure of helmets worn by two-wheeler drivers in Pakistan. In Suleman’s works, objects associated with female-use are re-framed within a non-domestic setting, evoking questions of gender roles and boundaries. Also included in the exhibition were photographs of women wearing these object-helmets, bringing immediacy to the works by inserting the gendered self into them.

Mahreen Zuberi
Open Wide I
Gouache on wasli
H. 9 5/8 x W. 12 5/16 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Mahreen Zuberi showed six “austerely rendered vignettes” of the symbiotic relationship between pain and pleasure, executed in gouache on Wasli paper. Using the traditional miniature format, the artist presented images of objects that had the relationship of aggressor and victim. In one of the works, for example, disembodied hands holding dentist’s tools probe a similarly body-less mouth set on a flat negative space. This exploration of the human psyche using inanimate objects is a familiar trope for the artist as also seen in the work below from the upcoming Saffronart auction.

Mahreen Zuberi
Gouache on Wasli
10.5 x 15.5 in
From: Saffronart’s 24 Hour auction: Art of Pakistan, Lot 68

Imran Qureshi
Moderate Enlightenment
Gouache on Wasli
8.5 x 6.5 in
From: Saffronart’s 24 Hour Auction: Art of Pakistan, Lot 31
Exhibited and published: Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Imran Qureshi’s works share the same medium and scale as Zuberi’s, but are deliberately sociopolitical in their intent. Working in the tradition of Mughal miniature portraits, Qureshi contemporarized the figures in his paintings. On the surface, their setting, background and garb appeared traditional, but the figures were depicted exercising with dumbbells or reading contemporary books; questioning stereotyping based on appearance. Qureshi had also installed a site-specific painting at the Asia Society for this exhibition. One of his important works in the current auction that was part of the Hanging Fire exhibition is on the right here.

Like Qureshi, Faiza Butt deals with the issue of stereotyping, but relates it to the recent, global increase in tension and fear. In two of her works on display at Asia Society (Get out of My Dreams, I and II, 2008), she presented noble young men in settings reminiscent of ‘Paradise’, staring out of the frame to meet the viewer’s gaze. A closer examination of the works, however, revealed that the figures are surrounded by symbols of modernity and technology like hairdryers, wine glasses, electric razors, and US currency, and that the young men themselves are bedecked with signifiers commonly linked to contemporary religious radicalism.

Faiza Butt
Get out of my dreams I
Ink on polyester film
H. 24 x W. 19 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Huma Mulji
High Rise: Lake City Drive
Taxidermic buffalo, sheet metal, fiberglass, henna, and Duco paint
H. 137 7/8 x W. 82 7/8 x D. 26 7/8 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Two of the other artists, Huma Mulji and Asma Mundrawala, dealt with the specific concerns of urban-rural relationships and the changing landscape of Pakistan, albeit in divergent ways. Mulji’s installation (High Rise: Lake City Drive, 2009) – a vulnerable looking taxidermic buffalo placed on a high Greek column – confronted the question of progress as defined by changing economies and the uneasy relationship between urban and rural Pakistan.

Mundrawala confined her work to the context of Karachi and the effects of modernization on its landscape and culture. Her works included pop-up books and a video installation, which re-imagined nostalgic scenes from moments of popular culture. Using photographs of people she didn’t personally know from her family albums, she reinvented idyllic Karachi scenes that did not necessarily exist anymore, “recreating an unsatisfactory world by furnishing it with imagined alternatives”.

A reimagining of oppositions was also seen in Rashid Rana’s photographic montages. In Red Carpet I, 2007, he created an elaborate, vibrant mosaic of a Balochi carpet using images from Pakistani slaughter houses as its minute, bloody components, making his concerns with duality and contradiction explicit. Ayaz Jokhio’s drawings also emphasized the visual impact of physical forms and the incongruity of their different functions. In Diptych No 1, 2008, the image of a pen was juxtaposed with an enlarged drawing of a bullet, startling the viewer with both their visual similarities and the sharp divergence of their functions.

Rashid Rana
Red Carpet 1
Edition 1/5; C-print + DIASEC
H. 95 x W. 135 in.
Image courtesy of Gallery Chemould and Chattertjee & Lal Mumbai
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Bani Abidi’s ironic video titled Shah Pipe Band Learns The Star Spangled Banner, 2004, followed a brass pipe band in Lahore hired by the artist to learn the Star Spangled Banner (the American national anthem). Through this work, the artist captured the anxiety of the uncertain times in Pakistan, and the country’s ambiguous relationship with the West. The futility of the exercise of learning the tune and the irony of it underlined this sentiment for the artist.

Ali Raza
Throne II
Burnt paper collage and acrylic on canvas
H. 72 x W. 48 in.
Image courtesy of the artist
Image source:
From the exhibition – Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York, 2009-10

Also on display were Anwar Saeed’s explicit illustrations in the book, I Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual, a true story of a boy imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for being homosexual. By rendering these images, fantastical and sexual in form, the written story of pain and humiliation was made personal by the artist.

Like Saeed, Ali Raza also used text, but as raw material for his paintings. He burned advertisements and used the ash to create collages with acrylic paint, commenting on the issues of censorship and corruption that continue to confront Pakistani society on a daily basis.

Importantly, paintings by Zahoor ul Akhlaq, who died in 1999, were also part of this exhibition. An important figure amongst Pakistani artists, he revived the techniques of miniature painting, and encouraged students to innovate with subject matter. This teaching is evident in one of his works that was on display, the triptych A Visit to the Inner Sanctum 1-3, 1997, which although in the style of miniature painting was abstract in content and form.

This exhibition represented the range and vitality of contemporary Pakistani art, in terms of medium as well as content. The exhibition, not being too far in the past, is also a significant marker in the continuing practices of these and many other artists living and working in Pakistan.

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