Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 9, 2012
Iftikhar Dadi Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks, edited by Carol W. Ernst and Bruce B. Lawrence.. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 360 pp.; 28 color ills.; 78 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780807833582)

In his complex and disciplined book, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia, Iftikhar Dadi provides a genuinely antifoundationalist history of the modern art of Muslim South Asia. Instead of viewing that history through one or more existing analytical frames—namely Pakistani nationalism, Islamic or artistic cosmopolitanism, global modernism, or, most predictably, the tradition of South Asian Islamicate art—Dadi describes how artistic practice was driven by the inherent instability of each of those categories. The “crisis-ridden quest” for an “adequate discursive and aesthetic ground” for modern artistic practice led Muslim South Asian artists to experiment with a tradition that was always already in question (2). If there is a strong center to this defiantly deconstructive study, it comes in the idea that to grapple with tradition was a requirement for the development of a viable South Asian Muslim artistic self. This artistic self was an imperative of global modernism, just as public subjectivity was a crucial feature of modernity (4). Dadi writes a genealogy of South Asian Muslim artistic subjectivity by looking carefully at the work of seven artists. He provides a model for recuperating the portion of the modernist project that promoted the nuanced and reflexive critique of the historical and political bases of identity while seeking “an alternative universe” in art (31).

Dadi begins with Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897–1975), who is celebrated as the first important modern Muslim artist from South Asia. In the history of art in colonial India, Chughtai is commonly associated with the early twentieth-century Bengal School of Painting. Led by Abanindranath Tagore, this group of artists challenged the formal and ideological assumptions of colonial art schools and the academic painting they favored. They developed a new and supposedly more authentically “Indian” form of modern art influenced by Mughal painting, Japanese wash technique, pan-Asianism, and an emergent Indian nationalism centered in Calcutta and grounded in the valorization of India’s Hindu and Buddhist past. Although he resided in Lahore, Chughtai initially published his work in the Calcutta journals that promoted the Bengal School; he was the only Muslim artist consistently included. Dadi summarizes this account while pointing out how tense Chughtai’s relationship to the Bengal School later became when the Muslim artist challenged Abanindranath’s appropriation of Mughal painting while himself painting a series of Hindu subjects.

Alongside this account of Chughtai’s uneasy relationship with Indian nationalism, Dadi discusses the artist’s deep involvement in Lahore’s lively Urdu literary scene. He focuses on the 1928 publication of the Muraqqa’-i Chughta’i, a modern example of the codex album common to Timurid, Safavid, and Mughal courts. This illustrated edition of the Urdu poetry of Mirza Ghalib, the master of the ghazal who wrote during the dissolution of the Mughal Empire, included an English forward by the poet Muhammad Iqbal, the preeminent intellectual force in Muslim South Asia in Chughtai’s time. The volume is evidence of both Chughtai’s creative interrogation of the Mughal past and assertion of his place in the modern literary world. It also gives a sense of the discursive relationship between modern visual art and literature. The integration of artistic and literary debates about artistic subjectivity, tradition, and modernism is a crucial touchstone for Dadi, for whom the most important resource for understanding the modern art of Muslim South Asia is its historical relationships to writing.

Dadi turns next to the mid-century modernism of three painters, Zainul Abedin (1914–1976), Zubeida Agha (1922–1997), and Shakir Ali (1916–1975). Dadi’s account of these three painters questions the programmatic opposition of a realistic and politically grounded “progressivism” to an individualistic, apolitical, and universalist “modernism,” which has continued to characterize accounts of the art of the immediate post-independence era in both Pakistan and India. Instead of defining modernism as the avoidance of “ideological exigencies and manipulation,” Dadi suggests that the “move toward formalism and abstraction” was “a positivity that artists enacted to explore personal and social predicaments of modernity, in parallel with their counterparts in India and in many other locations around the world” (98; emphasis in original). While Dadi engages with the debates over realism and abstraction in his readings of Abedin and Agha, the stakes of modernism in this period are clearest in the case of Shakir Ali.

Trained in modernist styles of painting at the J. J. School of Art in Bombay and Slade School in London, Shakir Ali contributed short stories to Urdu journals associated with progressive writing in the 1940s. But when he moved to Lahore in 1952, he was a modernist in a cultural milieu dominated by progressivism. Shakir Ali responded to progressivist demands with “haunting silence, recourse to romanticism, and painterly modernism via practice[,] bypass[ing] narrower ideological divides to fashion an inner modernist subjectivity for the artist” (130). In the 1960s, Dadi notes, Shakir Ali turned to Qur’anic and poetic calligraphy, thereby “acknowledging the relation of the self to a longer discursive tradition and . . . relaying his cosmopolitan concerns to address the wider Muslim world” (131). This turn followed the contours of Shakir Ali’s own writing on art, in which he notes that only after understanding her or his own inner self could a painter begin to address the social (129). But Shakir Ali’s turn also provided a local context for the transnational practice of calligraphic modernism, which Dadi describes in detail in the following chapter on the most valorized modern artist in Pakistan, Sadequain Naqqash (1930–1987).

Sadequain presents Dadi with a challenge, for his work combined critical engagement with French modernism, the production of modernist calligraphy, and the visualization of an Indo-Persian discursive history. He was larger than life, basing his artistic persona in part on a Sufism that became increasingly transgressive as Pakistan underwent Islamization in the 1970s and 1980s. Dadi’s account of the artist explicates these aspects of his work, while introducing the reader to the complex thought of Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), who, Dadi writes, provided Sadequain with a model of modernist subjectivity in which “restlessness, struggle, and heroism” were central (147). Dadi finds in Iqbal’s combination of a critical appropriation of continental philosophy and an “activist reading of the Islamic past” a parallel to Sadequain’s artistic work, which not only “translates the classical, the poetic, and the textual into the visual,” but also establishes the transnational form of calligraphic modernism as a viable vehicle for art in Pakistan. Calligraphic modernism, which was popular across the Arab-speaking region, selectively appropriated an Islamic discursive tradition while opening up “a dialogue with metropolitan artistic languages” (173). Ultimately, calligraphic modernism did not allow Sadequain to overcome the conflict in which Iqbal was also caught: between the universalist ambitions of pan-Islamism and modernism and the more bounded but ultimately accountable political and cultural formation of the nation-state.

In the last, meaty chapter of Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia, Dadi shows how that conflict has been disentangled over the past forty years or so, as the transcendent claims central to modernism were conceded in favor of artistic practice located in a contemporary time and space. That shift is internal to the career of Rasheed Araeen (1935– ), who though born in Karachi has lived in London since 1964. Araeen is the founding editor of the scholarly journal Third Text, which has been an important platform for articulating a “transnational conception of modernism,” in Dadi’s words (179). Even before leaving Karachi, Araeen began to take apart the formal and ideological assumptions of late modernism. But it was the institutional racism of the London art world—its insistence that non-white artists not “lose their ‘oriental’ character” (182)—that led him to engage critically with the idea of “tradition.” While Dadi discusses Araeen’s less obviously political sculpture, he emphasizes the formal innovation and confrontational spirit of interventions like The Golden Verses (1990). This billboard work, which was shown in Britain, Germany, and the United States, features a bitterly ironic Urdu text extolling the virtues of the White race and civilization rendered in gorgeous nasta’liq on top of an image of an “Islamic” carpet. When displayed, it was defaced with antiracist flyers and Urdu inscriptions attacking its racist sentiment, but also with swastikas, presumably placed there by white supremacists. By inviting such responses, Araeen’s work fulfills its ambition of performing the complexities of racial and religious identity in its time and place.

Dadi finds a parallel public intervention in the 2003 site-specific Henna Hands project of Karachi-based, London-born artist Naiza Khan (1968– ). Using the henna paste associated with the festive decoration of women’s bodies, Khan stenciled figures onto the graffiti-laced walls near the Karachi railway station. Across her staunchly feminist body of work, Khan engages with both the discourse of South Asian Muslim thought and, as in Sadequain’s calligraphic modernism and Araeen’s postmodern appropriation of it, with the materiality of the written sign. This is as true of Khan’s striking print Khamosh (Silent) (2006) used as the cover image for Dadi’s book, as it is for her Heavenly Ornaments series (multiple dates) of steel sculptures, in which lingerie is fashioned from sheets of metal, becoming an impossibly intimate and graceful form of body armor. Khan took the title of that series from an early twentieth-century text that instructed women to set themselves free of custom by adopting scripturalist practices. To Dadi, this reference to a text of both historical importance and contemporary influence is a sign of the keen grasp that Khan has on the complexities of feminist politics in contemporary Pakistan, where, Dadi writes, “in order for the voice and the body of the woman to emerge into public space from a condition of invisibility and subalternaity its presence must be recognized and shaped by discursive norms” (212; emphasis in original).

Dadi is clearly impressed by Khan’s commitment to engage—rather than simplify or evade—the textual history and present political implications of debates about women. This desire for complexity is Dadi’s rationale for many of Khan’s formal choices, including her use of calligraphy and her avoidance of references to either premodern South Asian or Islamic visual artifacts or the charged contemporary image of the veil. Implicitly, he differentiates Khan’s approach from the more commonly valorized practice of “modern miniature painting” situated in Lahore and associated with artists like Shahzia Sikander, whom Dadi does not mention. While in his epilogue Dadi briefly outlines the work of Lahori painters, he opposes accounts that view their practice as the most important movement in Pakistani contemporary art. Indeed, Dadi’s entire book traces a genealogy so immersed in the written and/or calligraphic word that he makes it quite difficult to assimilate the work of painters who ground their work in the images of the past. Similarly, his account of modern artistic subjectivity diverges profoundly from the narratives of artistic training that emerge from the National College of Art in Lahore, which make a virtue of the schematic opposition between tradition and modernity (see Hammad Nasar, ed., Karkhana: A Contemporary Collaboration, Ridgefield, CT and London: Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and Green Cardamom, 2005).

Though genuinely groundbreaking and richly layered, Dadi’s eloquently written and beautifully illustrated volume teaches quite well, and is appropriate to upper-level undergraduate and graduate classes. It makes a crucial addition to the growing field of scholarship on global modernism, not only by explicating the work of understudied artists but by simultaneously reevaluating the terms in which modernism can be described and asserting their continuing importance to the practice of contemporary art.

Karin Zitzewitz
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Michigan State University

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