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Indo-Pakistani art of the twentieth century falls into two time periods, pre- and post-Partition (1947). As a distinctive national and cultural form of aesthetic expression, however, art in this area is only as old as the young nation that celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of independence in 1997. The significance of Akbar Naqvi’s book, Image and Identity, therefore, is that it is the first scholarly investigation of the history and development of modern and contemporary art of the subcontinent to explore in almost inexhaustible detail one part of it: Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad.
Pakistan is a small country situated at the nexus of the trading routes that have crossed Asia for millennia. The oldest extant remains of South Asian civilization are situated in the Indus Valley region of Pakistan. It is the Mughal presence from the sixteenth century, however, that has left the most indelible imprint on this part of the world. And it is this Mughal influence that is Muslim at heart that informs the art of Pakistan today. Lahore was the Mughal capital and later in the nineteenth century, the Sikh capital of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Today it remains the cultural center of Pakistan, home to writers, poets, calligraphers, and painters. The majority of artists about whom Naqvi writes live and work in Lahore, a fact that he sees as contributing to a distinct aesthetic ethos.
Image and Identity is a long book consisting of ten chapters, seven of which are over one hundred pages in length. Each chapter is essentially a book within itself. This has allowed Naqvi to discuss in considerable depth the different developments in Pakistani art that have occurred during the twentieth century. In the Introduction and The Prelude Naqvi lays the foundations for an understanding of the Indo-Pakistani art world that grew from the Bengal School of the Tagores, the oriental styles of Chughtai, and the inevitable presence of the Raj. Organized as a form of khabar tarikh, narrative history, Naqvi provides extensive biographical information on all the artists he writes about, much of which is from his own personal interactions, discussions, and observations, adding valuable insight that is often highly subjective and critical. The point that Naqvi emphasizes throughout, however, is that artists and writers across the subcontinent do not know their history as well as they should (p. xxviii) and that they are not aware of how history has repeated itself in the inevitable absorption of foreign cultures. This leads to his provocative questioning of sources, particularly of Western artists and movements of this century, whose styles have been appropriated and used by Indo-Pakistani artists, but rarely with theoretical understanding, due to an uncritical and uneducated reception by colleagues, collectors, and dealers. Cubism from Paris, and Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop, Neo-Realism, and Conceptual Art from the United States have all played influential roles for Indo-Pakistani artists who have taken ideas and styles from the West and used them to develop their own aesthetic vocabularies. Naqvi emphasizes the importance of cultural understanding that can only be glossed from reading a book or visiting a country. (p. 339, n. 49) He stresses that in order to understand something of the ethos of contemporary Indo-Pakistani art it is important to know that its history is a palimpsest that provides the foundation for all intellectual, spiritual, and creative pursuits. Philosophy, literature, music, and science, but above all poetry and Sufism, pervade the sensibility of Pakistanis.
In the book-length chapter titled “The Predecessors,” Naqvi discusses the art that was made up to the time of Partition. This is the first time that a thoughtful and in-depth critique of Abdur Rehman Chughtai (1897–1975) and Ustad Allah Bukhsh (1895–1978) has been written. Chughtai’s and Allah Bukhsh’s painting could not have been more different. Chughtai, openly hostile to Western art and insistent on restoring the miniature tradition in his idealized romantic figures from Persian fables and Mughal history, represented the Indo-Muslim answer to the Tagores’s Hindu nationalism, whereas Allah Bukhsh embraced the realism of Western painting with a veneer of Raja Ravi Varma. Despite their different approaches both Chughtai and Allah Bukhsh reflected the diversity of art in Lahore. Sensing the changing times and tastes, Chughtai defended his work by claiming that only the right kind of viewer could appreciate his art, this was because of the villain–modern art. (p. 68) Unlike the elitist Chughtai, Ustad Allah Bukhsh was a revered teacher who painted the people of the Punjab including farmers, villagers, singers, and entertainers. His lyrical landscapes grew out of Joshua Reynolds’s tradition yet were tinged with Claude Lorrain’s sensibility. Naqvi, however, goes to great lengths in discussing European landscape painting, which is irrelevant to Allah Bukhsh’s work. (p. 103) Such asides occur throughout the book. They are interesting, because they serve to position Pakistani art with reference to Western art, and in so doing reflect another way of observing our own art in the West. By the end of the book Naqvi has covered and commented on most aspects of Western art, using it as a touchstone that becomes a somewhat defensive mechanism, together with his extensive quotations of literary and philosophical sources, whether relevant or not to the art in question.
Image and Identity will be very helpful as a reference book, because Naqvi has mentioned virtually every artist that he is aware of, some of whom probably do not belong in a work such as this, and others who are pivotal to the development of modern Pakistani art. His sections on Zubeida Agha (1922–1997) and Shakir Ali (d. 1975) are extensive, wherein he traces their personal and artistic lives, and their contributions to the development of a modern and non-traditional aesthetic.
Not all art comes from Lahore. Karachi has also produced outstanding artists whose vision is distinctive. Karachi is in Sindh, a desert environment that is different from the rich fertile valleys of Lahore. It is also a city that grew from Raj colonial exploitations where there was little cultural awareness. Naqvi sees this as a reason for the popularity of abstract art in Karachi. (p. 345) Ismail Gulgee (b. 1926) and Sadequain (1930–1987), both artists from Karachi, were branded as malamati, or rebels, as much for their personal lives as their paintings, which in the case of Sadequain were tortuous in their imagery, reflecting his personal psychosis in a thoroughly modern idiom.
“Feminine Space” is a chapter that focuses on art made by women artists from the late 1960s. However, such artists as Zubeida Agha (1922–1997) and Anna Molka Ahmed (1917–1995), were pioneers who were very much part of the Lahore art scene as early as the 1940s. The next generation included Lubna Agha (b. 1949), Nahid Raza (b. 1947), and Samina Mansuri (b. 1956) who contributed to the eruption of female consciousness in the intellectual circles of Lahore in the 1970s. The female body became the subject of much of their work. Lubna’s broken, disintegrated woman is her own violated self. Nahid’s exploration of the world of prostitution in the Hira Mandi reveals the ultimate victimization of women. The last part of this chapter, titled “Masculine Space,” is devoted to work by male artists. This is rather odd. It would have been more meaningful to place these male artists in the foregoing chapters, where their work would be assessed along with other male artists. Perhaps Naqvi thinks of their art as being feminine, i.e. less than male art?
The very last two artists discussed in the book are doing provocative, conceptual work. They are also female artists. Dure Ahmed uses objects to expose the self-deception of the ego. Her work invites viewers to question their own sense of reality as much of contemporary art does. Uzma Durrani’s (b. 1966) performance Ignitable Souls (1996) was a moving critique of domestic violence faced by all women. Naqvi, who is mostly empathetic to women’s issues, misses the point entirely when he warns Uzma about the problems of mixing high art with those of underprivileged people in a museum. (p. 833)
Image and Identity is a most thoughtful compilation of modern and contemporary art in Pakistan that will be a major reference for scholars and anyone interested in art of the subcontinent. The most egregious deficiency, besides missing pages in my copy, is the lack of a bibliography. Each chapter is followed by endnotes in which references are given, but the omission of a bibliography reduces the usefulness of such a book, and is something for which Oxford University Press should also take responsibility.