Impassioned play : social commentary and formal experimentation in contemporary Pakistani art



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Today, a growing number of Pakistani artists have embraced the nation’s perceived visual languages and political, social, and cultural history to interrogate and unpack Pakistan’s contemporary society and identity. The fruits of this shifting and mixing are works of art that turn artistic and societal traditions, from miniature painting to matrimonial rites, on their sides even as they uphold their significance. In these works, artists present their views on life in the country and their experiences as Pakistanis. Their paintings, videos, sculptures, installations, mixed media works, prints, and drawings are not soapboxes from which they shout out their messages. Instead they present issues and concerns in a manner that means to define them uniquely as Pakistani. Unpredictable social developments and current events that require in-depth investigation appear in imagery without any direct answers to these debates. Rather, Pakistani artists offer them to incite further investigation. Through their works, artists express and examine the complicated nature of Pakistani national and cultural identities by looking at the society’s most volatile concerns. Yet they address these issues in an unexpected fashion. They examine serious concerns like the India/Pakistan divide in a humorous fashion; they explore bloody, murderous acts like “honor killings” in pristine paintings. In this multifaceted treatment, the intense issues affecting Pakistan are interrogated with ambiguity. These artists do not simply present critical issues related to society in Pakistan; they play with them. And in this way raise questions about their meanings. And they do not only look to Pakistani society for subject matter. They also turn to it for methods of approaching art by exhibiting sensitivity to traditional materials, techniques, and styles. I analyze this artwork within a context of art practices in Pakistan, pedagogical methods at art schools in the nation, and the impact of larger historical events and social processes: colonialism, the partition of India and Pakistan, and globalization.