Stories for the Moment

Essay by Haema Sivanesan

From the Diaspora

In a black field, a sea of agile figures dressed in jeans and T-shirts are posed warrior-like. Animated, they appear as though engaged in a choreographed dance. Battle Scenes (2006) refers to a pair of paintings from the Mughal epic The Akbarnama, which records the victorious battles of the great 16th-century emperor Akbar. The artist, Hamra Abbas, draws on her sophisticated knowledge of miniature painting to construct a work that infers a relationship between historical and contemporary events. Through her staging of these battles scenes, Abbas reflects on the grand absurdity of war. But what is more interesting is Abbas’s study and interpretation of the paintings themselves. Her understanding of Mughal modes of pictorial composition is highlighted through the arrangement of battle-ready figures. Her use of an empty black background emphasizes the hyper-stylized realism of her contemporary army. Her careful study of posture, gesture and movement presents the act of battle as a ludic and ludicrous dance. Abbas’s modern-day warriors don’t go anywhere, their jerky movements engaged in a hapless and farcical repeat.

The exhibition Urban Myths & Modern Fables brings together the work of eleven artists of Indian and Pakistani background who work in the international diaspora. Drawing on the notion of a myth, a perpetuating narrative featuring heroic or supernatural characters and events, or the idea of a fable, an aphoristic or instructive story, these artists use the narrative form to comment on the world. An “urban myth” refers to a contemporary narrative describing human actions or occurrences that has a quality of believability, but is typically founded in misconception or rumour. Such myths reveal how the circulation of beliefs about culture in the contemporary world is socially mediated, partial, sensational and incomplete. On the other hand, a “modern fable” proposes a moral or ethical lesson. It is instructive or allegorical in the way it addresses lived experience. These stories often suggest the reiteration of history — the idea of history repeating itself, or of the past being embedded in the present. They suggest the irrevocable vestige of history but also reflect on its contingency insofar as the recording of history is also partial, political and incomplete.

Many of the artists included in this exhibition take up a questioning of history to reflect on issues of cultural politics — its antecedents and imperialistic resonances. Working in the diaspora, and thereby drawing on both Eastern and Western references, the artists are engaged with a critique of the naturalized discourses of culture. The issues addressed are particularly informed by the post-9/11 landscape, the events of which have significantly impacted on the lives of many of these artists, particularly those born and schooled in Pakistan. For the latter, the events of 9/11 have forced a critique of both the Western perception of Islamic culture as well as issues of Islamic conservatism and political nationalism. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terrorism” have raised concerns of social ethics, media responsibility and the fetishization of the symbols of Islamic identity. For some of the artists born in the diaspora, however, the overriding concern is with the trauma of displacement. Mitigating loss against gain, these artists are engaged with the possibility of transforming culture through a process of negotiation. A consistent theme is the problematization of the dichotomies of West-East, good-evil, friend-enemy, self-other. A key objective is to humanize notions of cultural otherness in an effort to effect a dialogue.

Moral Dilemmas

Drawing her inspiration from “To Posterity,” a 1938 poem by Bertolt Brecht, Sangeeta Sandrasegar’s haunting installation, Untitled (The Shadow of Murder Lay Upon My Sleep) (2006), consists of a series of paper cut-outs, templates of European designer chairs engraved with horrific scenes of war. Alongside, Sandrasegar has created a series of puppet-like dolls - flaccid bodies, hung, naked, dead. The work describes the resemblance of the current “War on Terrorism” to World War II. Sandrasegar’s practice draws on a range of cultural influences, from Indian henna stencils to Chinese paper-cutting traditions and Japanese manga, as well as Indian and Southeast Asian traditions of puppet craft. Her cut-outs are displayed so as to cast shadows on the wall, the cut-out and its shadow — the play of light and dark — being equally integral to the work.1 Significantly, Sandrasegar has chosen to produce this series of cut-outs from black paper, reinforcing the darkness of the scenes depicted. The artist speaks of the work as a critique of capitalist consumerism and the price of First World excess at the cost of Third World lives.2The work comments on every person’s complicity in war, contending with an ethical dilemma. However, the work also attempts to literally “bring home the reality of war” by superimposing graphic scenes onto images of domestic furniture.3

If Sandrasegar’s work addresses the lack of social consciousness in the globalizing world, then Amin Rehman’s work investigates its banality. Rehman’s text-based installation Black Hole (2007) reiterates and redefines the tabloid headlines and media grabs that inundate our airwaves. Working specifically with language used around the war in Iraq, Rehman examines the construction of media hype. He is particularly concerned with addressing the persistent rhetoric of fear and its racialization. Rehman’s text-bytes are primarily in English, but he intersperses these slogans with romanized Urdu references — kala pani (black water), agg kadarya(endless fire), naukar chakar (servant-master) — to reflect on twin approaches to the language of fear-mongering. Rehman regards his work as a testimonial to the victims of the war. But the work is also an expression of distrust in the processes of democracy.4

Drawing on similar concerns, Tazeen Qayyum makes miniature paintings of exquisitely detailed cockroaches and decorated fumigators. These allegorical works reference the colloquial Pakistani description of the treatment of Muslim soldiers as insects.5 Qayyum’s paintings and installations reflect on the dehumanization of soldiers fighting the “War on Terrorism.” Her work comments on the West’s aggressive response to an insidious yet intangible threat, where terrorism posits that the identity of the enemy is not openly declared, and where, in the interests of “national security,” all Muslims are viewed as adversaries6 Qayyum’s work explores the current state of political anxiety, where the enemy, like the cockroach, is elusive, fugitive and unknown.

New Narratives

A number of the artists included in this exhibition have trained in the traditional technique of miniature painting at the National College of Art, Lahore, Pakistan. The historical miniature, conceived to illustrate or evoke mythical or poetic genres, is inherently concerned with narrative. In the West, Modernist concerns of formalism and conceptualism have to some extent sidelined the genre of narrative painting. However, in Pakistan the contemporary miniature has become an important forum for the critical and political investigation of everyday life and culture.7 The miniature allows the artist a personal voice and a place from which to speak in a context where alternative voices and discourses have been lacking. Moreover, like video, it is a medium that is easily and cheaply disseminated by post or courier, having the potential to reach wide audiences. It is therefore a powerful medium for artists working at the margins of the Western world.

Khadim Ali is an ethnic Hazara whose familial connections are to the Afghan city of Bamiyan. Since the mid-1990s this region of Afghanistan has been occupied and destroyed by the Taliban regime, resulting in the brutal killing and massacre of thousands of Hazaras.8 Living and working in Pakistan, Ali uses miniature painting as a means to tell a story of ongoing persecution, and to contend with enormous loss — of country, family, culture, home. Perhaps more than any other artist in this exhibition, Ali draws on art as a “strategy of survival,”9 a means by which to maintain a voice in a context of grave insecurity. In this ongoing body of work, Ali explores the psychological effects of war on a generation of Hazara children who have grown up under Taliban rule. Superimposing his own paintings over drawings made by Hazara children in Bamiyan, Ali contextualizes the children’s images of warfare within a landscape dominated by the looming hollows of the recently destroyed colossal Buddhas. He explores the loss of childhood innocence and reflects on the insidious means by which children can become easily indoctrinated into a culture of violence.

Subverting Stereotypes

Several artists included in this exhibition are concerned with the ethical questions informing the current state of global politics. Yet other artists are more focussed on a critique of cultural stereotypes. Drawing on strategies of parody, irony and punning, Naeem Rana and Alia Toor appropriate the iconographies of both the East and the West to subvert typecast notions of culture. Rana produces digital prints that reference his interest in the conventionally Islamic art forms of calligraphy and geometric patterning. Juxtaposing Urdu calligraphy alongside pop-culture images drawn from B-movies and the tabloid media, Rana is engaged in a provocative critique of both Western and Islamic propaganda. satisfaction guaranteed (2006) depicts a nubile female figure armed with the phallic machinery of war. The calligraphy reads: “for any solution/two jet fighters/one good-looking sheila.” The artist is as much concerned with challenging Islamic militantism as with overturning the West’s blind acceptance of the stereotypes of Islamic culture. All the while he undertakes a complex critique of the media, reducing it to pornography — a passive and easy means to seduction.

The subliminally seductive effect of pop-culture media is also explored in Rana’s DVD projection Overleaf (2007), produced in collaboration with Nusra Qureshi. Overleaf explores the intersection of vernacular imagery, drawn from films, posters and TV, with images of colonial kitsch and objets d’art, symbols of middle-class wealth, taste and refinement. The work critiques middle-class modes of consumption — of both objects and information — and references the range of visual forms and associated ideas that define the contemporary condition in South Asia.

In Aprons/Veils (2007), Alia Toor draws a visual pun between the image of the niqab(veil) and that of the apron. Contesting the West’s fascination with the oppression of Muslim women, Toor draws out symmetries and correspondences between Islamic and Western cultures. The niqab and the apron are depicted as masks of gendered identity, designed to conceal, control or domesticate sexuality. At the same time, both garments lend themselves to modes of fetishization through their very concern with concealment. Toor’s work tackles issues of masking — of hiding, protecting and disguising, and “performing” an imagined self in response to perceived cultural expectations or social norms. Informed by the work of American women artists of the ’80s and ’90s, Toor problematizes the performance of sexual identity in accordance with culturally determined systems of control.

By contrast, Sabeen Raja defies accepted convention by producing miniature paintings that explicitly address contemporary themes of sexual fetish and perversion. Her paintings are semi-autobiographical, and derive from her experience of living in the United States. Her recent paintings reflect on the apparently melodramatic concerns of contemporary American society, marvelling at the permissiveness of American culture, which is at odds with the conservatism of Raja’s middle-class Pakistani upbringing. ‘How do I tell my wife that I’m gay?’ (2007)draws on a long tradition of Mughal and Rajput portraiture, but Raja subtly manipulates the iconography to cleverly reinterpret and subvert the form. The extraordinary beauty of her painting and her use of humour are foils to address, in this case, the culturally contentious issue of homosexuality. In this way Raja challenges the polite and romantic depictions of love that are a defining theme of the historical miniature.

Reality and Fiction

Working in collage, Hitesh Natalwala draws on myth to contend with the trauma of a multi-generational history of migration. Natalwala’s forebears migrated from India to South Africa, then from South Africa to Kenya. His family then moved from Kenya to the U.K. and, finally, from the U.K. to Australia. Natalwala’s story is not unique, but it is paradigmatic in that it defines the post-colonial experience as being centred on a history of displacement. Since immigrating to Australia from England in 2001, Natalwala has been concerned in his work with negotiating a family history of rootlessness and dispersal. The series of collages included in this exhibition draw on the Hindu myth of the Descent of the River Ganges, an epic story of sacrifice and redemption, in which Natalwala identifies broad themes of movement, change, loss and adaptation that reflect on his own experience. The artist’s appropriation of the myth is informed by a process of investigation and interpretation. His research is indicative of the second-generation immigrant’s need to consciously learn his native culture. Natalwala has adapted and transformed the narrative of the myth, reinterpreting its imagery for a contemporary context. In this way, Natalwala demonstrates a concern with the processes of reconfiguring cultural forms as a means of regeneration.

Henna Nadeem plays with the notion of myth to unsettle romantic notions or constructions of place. Working with found images from old tourist posters, calendars, books and magazines, Nadeem layers and splices together pictures of monumental European landscapes, producing fantastic hybrid scenes that challenge comfortable and “natural” notions of landscape. Nadeem’s collages are grafted together through the use of Mughal architectural patterns and vegetal motifs, introducing a third — and somewhat foreign — design element to shape the interpenetration of forms. Works such as Summit (2000), Waterfall (2000) and Snow Melt (2000) collapse compositional elements of foreground and background to produce disorientating vistas, deconstructing the picturesque ideal conveyed by her touristic source images.

Nadeem regards her work as being concerned with ideas of cultural dissonance, tackling issues of inaccessibility, isolation and the illusion of the idyll. She states:

By appropriating imagery … I am playing with clichés assigned to me as a “British female Muslim,” in an attempt to avoid a fictitious construction of my identity. … This conceptual blurring of reality and fiction encourages the work to be experienced as a series of possibilities. …10

Her work is concerned with transforming the inherent tension between culturally specific visual forms in order to realize new potentials. Like the other artists included in this exhibition, Nadeem draws on her art practice as a constructive means of contending with the tensions of living in the diaspora. By understanding and transforming this tension, however, Nadeem nicely sums up the relationship between the fictions we draw on and the stories we live out.