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Broad Brush

by Faisal Devji
Asif Hassan—AFP

Asif Hassan—AFP

The enduring factionalism of the Pakistani art world.

[dropcap]D[/dropcap]espite its many troubles, or perhaps because they call for sustained reflection in the realm of culture, Pakistan today produces art, music, and literature of remarkable originality. Although art is the most rarefied of these cultural fields, being accessible to the smallest number of buyers and audiences, it has arguably become the most factionalized of them all.

In my last piece for Newsweek I wrote about this conflicted world, describing how a few artist-critics were creating a canon for Pakistani art on the basis of censorship, exclusion, and a nationalism that is constantly disavowed. These were the very characteristics, I pointed out, which had defined the country’s long experience of dictatorship, whose culture therefore lives on in the work of those who profess to decry it.

That piece aroused some debate in the art world. Two of the art historians I had criticized complained, on this newsmagazine’s website, of “outrageous” and “unbalanced attacks” against them. The professional nous of these artist-critics to select and evaluate art help them determine its aesthetic and market value for museums, galleries, and collectors globally. But their links with particular artists and institutions make it difficult to distinguish the art historian from the agent.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with art historians preferring and even promoting some artists over others. What raises eyebrows, though, is the seemingly careful framing of Pakistan’s art history in such a way as to foreground friends and to marginalize, if not quite eliminate, rivals. Because artist-critics like Iftikhar Dadi and Virginia Whiles have produced the founding script of Pakistan’s art history, all subsequent interventions will have to take their narrative into account. This is why it must be contested.

Dadi, who teaches art history at Cornell, responded to my article by arguing that his Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia was neither a “broad, bland survey” nor devoted to contemporary art, but was a selective study of modernism in 20th-century South Asia. This is not true. Instead of being about “Muslim South Asia,” itself a meaningless aesthetic category, his book is devoted in nationalist fashion to Pakistan, treated as if it were the political telos of all the subcontinent’s Muslims. Unfortunately, the title ends up marginalizing non-Muslim South Asian greats, such as Pakistan’s Colin David.

Pakistani art is promoted as a form of Third World development.

Justifying the inclusion of his own work as part of the “Karachi Pop” movement in one of the book’s two sections on contemporary art, Dadi asks if I am “seriously suggesting that I should have omitted even this brief mention, and provide no context whatsoever for Karachi during the 1990s?” But as Ardy Cowasjee, owner of Karachi’s Ziggurat Gallery, points out in another comment to my earlier piece, it was Unver Shafi and Amin Gulgee who dominated the city’s art scene in that decade, so Dadi’s claim to be providing a “context” for it is somewhat disingenuous—especially since he ignores these artists.

Pakistani art is promoted for a global audience as if it were a form of Third World development, with its role in the empowerment of women, for instance, lauded in award statements. No Western artist, of course, would be described in this way, which throws light on the problematic entanglements, essentially with the marketing of a country’s misery, in which its Pakistani practitioners as much as critics are bound. But Dadi denies relying upon patriarchal genealogies by mentioning his work on female artists like Zubeida Agha. It was not the presence or absence of women in his narrative to which I objected, but rather the use of genealogy as itself a patriarchal form.

Dadi also takes umbrage at my suggestion that he’s unaware of the historical context in which the artists he studies work. Of this I gave two small examples, the first being Risham Syed’s use of the number 5.  Similarly he doesn’t notice that Saira Waseem’s painting Round Table Conference might invoke the Round Table Conferences of the 1930s that decided Pakistan’s future. The futility of the original Round Table Conferences is mirrored in the meetings of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to which Waseem’s painting refers. But Dadi justifies these absences by stating that he is only responsible for the references his artists mention. To be sure, the art historian should trace the social resonance of symbols and terms beyond artistic intentionality.

Whiles, who teaches at the Chelsea College of Arts, had a walk-on role in my article; I dedicated one sentence to her Art and Polemic in Pakistan: Cultural Politics and Tradition in Contemporary Miniature Painting. Her response to my piece is unscholarly, and relies on personal and ad hominem arguments. Whiles can’t understand why someone not connected to the art world and its system of favors should risk writing, as I did, for no apparent cause or benefit. She describes my piece as “a foul text full of anger and subjective spite.” Having toyed with my being a “frustrated groupie” as a possible cause for the article, Whiles finally decides that I must have a “psychoanalytic” motive.

It is no accident that those who accuse others of psychoanalytic motivations should display them so clearly in their own writing. Thus Whiles imagines the late Zahoor ul Akhlaq launching a physical attack on me. Since I had acknowledged his role in the development of the new miniature, it is not clear why she thinks Akhlaq would engage me in “fisticuffs.” But given the fact that he had been murdered in exactly such an attack, this image is in rather poor taste.

Whiles also claims to be “speaking truth to power,” which I wouldn’t have thought possible for a London-based academic whose work involves marketing high-end art to elite buyers. But maybe she is part of the same vanguard as Edward Snowden, and we just didn’t know it. If not honesty, can we at least expect some humility from Whiles about the profession she and I both share?

From our March 22, 2014, issue.

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Iftikhar Dadi March 22, 2014 - 5:10 am

Response to Faisal Devji:

On the issue of my book as having “produced the founding script of Pakistan’s art history,” this is far from being the case. Art in Pakistan has been subject to continuous study since the pioneering book by Jalaluddin Ahmed, which was issued in numerous revised editions over the years. Akbar Naqvi published his massive and exhaustive study in the late 90s, Salima Hashmi has authored many books, and Salwat Ali’s volume was issued quite recently. In addition, there are several journals and online platforms, as well as many publications that are in press or in the process of being completed. Anyone is free to contribute to this activity at both the popular and the scholarly level. I do not possess an exclusive contract on writing the art history of Pakistan, nor do I seek such an inflated mandate.

Conversely, as a scholar and academic who values his independence, I do not accept dictation as to the subjects I wish to address, or on the choice of artists I prefer to write on. On the question of inclusion and exclusion, let me be very clear. My book is neither an all-inclusive study, nor a comprehensive study of even the few artists I do examine: “All genealogies are selective” (p. 40 following Roxanne Euben). As I noted in my previous reply, writing an academic scholarly work “requires one to focus on a set of questions and an archive, and above all, to advance an analytical and conceptual understanding of aesthetics and society based on necessarily selective cultural practices and artifacts” than would be possible in a survey that covers many more artists. By the time my book was in print, a number of interesting artists such as Imran Channa, Yaminay Chaudhri, Ehsan ul Haq, Ayesha Jatoi, Ali Kazim, Mehreen Murtaza, Iqra Tanveer, and others have emerged, whose practice may not necessarily be best understood via the “Muslim South Asia” genealogy (much of my own artwork with Elizabeth Dadi also cannot be fully subsumed under it). Their work requires other frameworks to adequately address.

Devji asserts that the category of “Muslim South Asia” is a “meaningless aesthetic category.” I am sorry but I do not possess Devji’s declarative prowess, and am unable to adjudicate on this issue with a single sentence. Indeed, my entire book is an attempt to suggest nuanced and focused answers to specific artists and works with reference to this contested and unstable category, one that nevertheless forms a necessary problematic in the context of Pakistani nationalism. One does have to read the book, however, to be able to carry on an informed discussion about the salience of “Muslim South Asia” with respect to the work of the artists I examine.

Devji writes that my “book is devoted in nationalist fashion to Pakistan, treated as if it were the political telos of all the subcontinent’s Muslims.” Can Devji please enlighten us as to exactly where I suggest this? An example of how carelessly Devji handles the entire issue of the linkages between Indian and Pakistani artists should suffice. In his “Little Dictators” piece, Devji notes that my “book foregrounds artists like Chughtai and Sadequain, whose emergence and influence cannot be understood without taking into account powerful Indian voices like S. H. Raza, M. F. Hussain [sic] and Tyeb Mehta of the older generation or G. M. Sheikh and Zarina Hashmi among the younger one.” This suggests that Husain at least (being the oldest Indian artist in this group after all) influenced Chughtai’s development. But Chughtai was born in 1897, and as I argue in chapter one, had already matured as an artist by 1928, when he published his celebrated Muraqqa. Husain was then 13 years old. Can Devji kindly clarify as to how a 13-year-old boy living in another part of India might have influenced a much older artist in Lahore? In fact, I do discuss Husain’s framing by Indian art historians as a nationalist Indian artist (p. 31), and also his late encounter with Sadequain (p. 174). Oddly enough, Shakir Ali, who worked and studied in Bombay during the 40s, and whose trajectory has the most affinity with the Bombay Progressives (whom I discuss on pp. 96-97) is missing from Devji’s laundry list above. It seems that the simple act of reading a book and comprehending its arguments is too much to ask of this reviewer.

On the question of genealogy as being patriarchal, I’m afraid Devji is doing a clear turnaround from his own earlier position. In the “Little Dictators” piece, he claimed that I trace “contemporary aesthetic production back to founding fathers in a comically patriarchal way… [suggesting that] Imran Qureshi… is the ‘father’ of the new miniature.” This clearly implies that since I supposedly identified Qureshi as “founding father” (I never used this phrase), this is a patriarchal genealogy precisely due to its masculinist origin. Now in the present piece, Devji makes the rather different and quite extraordinary claim: the very practice of genealogy as a mode of critical analysis is itself patriarchal. This is surely a major methodological assertion, and requires much more explanation than a casual and passing mention. Perhaps Devji’s towering methodological insight will be of great interest to the most critical of feminist scholars working today such as Wendy Brown, whose formulation of genealogy I cite in my book (p. 4, 41).

With reference to Devji’s totally uninformed allegations regarding market motivations ascribed to me, let me state for the record that I do not participate in marketing of art or artists in any capacity. I do not advise collectors. I have flatly refused approaches from auction houses to serve as an assessor, as I believe this will compromise the integrity of my scholarship. I did not know Rasheed Araeen personally before I started writing on his work, but I have never ceased to appreciate his integrity and artistic struggle in very difficult circumstances, and his abiding commitment in enabling the work of other marginalized artists and scholars to become visible. Many of the artists to whom I devote considerable attention, including Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali, and Zainul Abedin, are not “market” artists, in that their work largely does not circulate in the circuits of collecting or in international exhibitions. These figures, along with Chughtai and Sadequain, are not friends of mine and could not possibly be, as they passed away decades ago. I do not own any of their works. Some of them were friends of my uncle Dr. Abdul Sajid Khan however, and growing up in Karachi, I was intrigued by stories of their unconventional lives and by encountering their singular works–both of which struck me as strange and wondorous gifts to humanity. I consider my book to be an inadequate tribute to their life and work.

Again, let me reiterate that my book focuses on modernism. The work of contemporary artists is briefly examined only in an 11-page epilogue, and only in terms of whether these artists and practices intersect with the critical framework of the book. With reference to the interpretation of the number 5, I wish make a broader observation about identifying artists with reference to ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or other markers of minority identity. Given the absolutely terrible state of affairs in Pakistan for minorities, my ethical stance is that I will not categorize the work of any artist with reference to these markers, unless the artist themself identifies with these positions. By the way, Devji is most welcome to find another reference to Round Table Conference. As a scholar who believes that meanings of artworks arise from their encounter with various communities of reception, I cannot possibly object to this. On the other hand, I too have a right to interpretation, and on recognizing the most adequate framework for situating a work of art based on my own understanding. So my objection is simply on Devji’s rigid insistence on the uniform and universal validity of his own subjective reading.

Devji states, “Pakistani art is promoted for a global audience as if it were a form of Third World development, with its role in the empowerment of women, for instance, lauded in award statements.” I have no idea whatsoever as to what this outlandish statement means, or how this relates to my scholarship. And most bizarre is Devji’s sudden return to scholarly piety, when he notes that Virginia Whiles’ response to his earlier piece “is unscholarly, and relies on personal and ad hominem arguments.” May I be permitted to ask whether his “Little Dictators” piece is a model of restrained expression and deep scholarly insight? Or is it a gross example of precisely what Devji now finds objectionable? Is the label of “little dictators” for other scholars, not in fact, a most unprincipled ad hominem allegation? The Urdu phrase “sau chuhay kha kar billi hajj ko chali” perhaps best expresses this new turn in Devji’s trajectory.

Finally, on the question of Karachi during the 1990s, does Devji seriously mean to suggest that only two artists “dominated the city’s art scene” during the 90s? In the most cosmopolitan city of Pakistan and one of the largest cities in the world? Really? Perhaps numerous generations of artists with diverse and active practice, such as Ali Imam, Shahid Sajjad, Jamil Naqsh, Mehr Afroze, Durriya Kazi, David Alesworth, Samina Mansuri, Naiza Khan, Bani Abidi, Huma Mulji and many others, were merely helpless figures? Or perhaps Devji needs to be better informed on this point and indeed, on virtually everything else he has written in these two pieces?

Iftikhar Dadi
Associate Professor
Department of History of Art
Cornell University

Iftikhar Dadi March 24, 2014 - 12:22 pm

From the beginning, it has been clear that this was never intended by Devji to be a scholarly debate. With each response, Devji’s defensive backlashing further exposes his ignorance and his inability to get basic facts straight. Devji has now elaborated on only one new issue he obliquely alluded to in his second piece, Naiza Khan’s Prince Claus award. For the record, the quotation he has reproduced is NOT written by me, but by the Prince Claus Award Committee, of which I was not a member. So yes, Devji’s statement is outlandish, with characteristic mischaracterization all too familiar by now. I have already replied earlier to all the other issues he has raised. I stand by my responses, and maintain that Devji is uninformed and wrong in every instance. He is clearly out of his depth, and I have better things to do than to engage further in this charade.

Iftikhar Dadi
Associate Professor
Department of History of Art
Cornell University

Iftikhar Dadi March 24, 2014 - 5:15 pm

A very last comment: I have never described Devji as being “mentally unbalanced.” Yet another mischaracterization by him. I prefer not to indulge in such ad hominem attacks, and do not believe that the purpose of debate are served by the vicious tone Devji has adopted throughout this exchange.

Shahnaz March 26, 2014 - 9:31 am

Iftikhar, just wanted to give you a massive reality check regarding your final comment about never describing Devji as mentally unbalanced and other comments that refuse to take on the core issues that should be at the heart of this debate. Please take responsibility for the choices you make in your analysis and writing (your comments and your book!). Bottom line: You neither acknowledge nor assume responsibility for the issues Devji raises around your analytical choices or the content of your communication (accusations in your comments or omissions in your book). This phenomenon only serves to reinforce your role in and contribution to the bigger picture painted by Devji in his two articles. I would have held you in higher regard if you had recognized and engaged — as the scholar that you are — in a serious debate about the bigger issues at hand rather than your defensive “I never”s.

How can Devji possibly be mentally balanced if — in your great scholarly style — you develop a caricature of him, highlighting the following characteristics across your various comments: makes outrageous allegations; chooses to mount unbalanced attacks; has not comprehended or read your book; has a different understanding of widely established facts; generally operates in the realm of the “odd” and what is clearly fiction; makes outrageous accusations and malicious, uninformed allegations; has a rigid insistence on the uninformed and universal validity of his own subjective reading; makes outlandish statements; and, indulges in bizarre and sudden returns to scholarly piety; prone to mischaracterization; vicious in his tone, etc.

What is your magic formula for mental balance or imbalance? It seems to be as elusive as the methodology and its associated strengths and limitations in your book!


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