At the beginning of this century, a Pakistani painter, traveling by taxi in Milan, was asked by the friendly taxi driver: “where are you from?” The passenger asked the driver to hazard a guess. “Dubai,” said the driver; to which the painter replied, “oh come on, anyone can be from Dubai”. The driver’s second guess was London and the traveler’s response unchanged. Eventually he told the young Italian he was from Pakistan and that was the end of the conversation.
Cities like Dubai, London, New York are located on specific soils and are part of certain nation states but, in a sense, they are also located in South Asia, providing places and opportunities for artists, writers and others creators of the region to meet, exchange ideas and collaborate. Such collaboration might not otherwise be possible in the subcontinent due to visa restrictions and political tensions. Given its imperialist past, the UK is a natural/neutral refuge for many professionals away from their home country.
Diaspora, exile, migration and asylum are various forms of displacement in which a person can survive in a distant country. Recalling the past spent on the territory “of origin”; abandoned land local time is spinning in your head. The search for identity has many cultural manifestations for example language, music, faith, food and clothing.
The distance offers a larger lens to see one’s reality/roots. A number of Latin American novelists have written about people, places, conflicts, politics, and the history of their country and continent while residing in Madrid, Paris, and London. Some of the works might not have been feasible had they been done in Bogota, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro. Likewise, poets Noon Meem Rashid and Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote some of their best verses while living in London or Beirut. Several artists from our region, including AJ Shemza, SH Raza, F D’Souza and Tassadaq Suhail have lived in the UK or Europe, but their art was a way of remembering the reality of their place of origin, therefore rooted in writing, miniature painting, tantric forms and religious, social and cultural narratives of the subcontinent.
Four women artists trained in British art schools formed the Neulinge (new arrivals) Collective in 2018 “to debate and highlight issues related to global politics and their impact on women of color.” Hailing from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, these artists (some based in London) deal with issues of identity, tradition and heritage. Their works – in a contemporary language – refer to cultural practices and popular forms.
Curated by Noor Ahmed, the work of these artists was exhibited as Home Ground from August 11-25 at Art Chowk, the Gallery, Karachi. Paintings, textile installations and works on paper depict how the idea of home can be expressed in different languages.
Probably the most exciting – and ambitious – inclusion was the Chudamani Clowes paintings. Originally from Sri Lanka, Clowes “currently lives in London, where she has spent the last forty years”. She belongs to the “post” generation. “Post,” not in terms of post-modernity or post-colonialism, post-human or post-truth, or social media posts; but postage. Before WhatsApp emails and SMS, people sent, anticipated, waited and received letters (like the former protagonist of Garcia Marquez’s short story No one writes to the colonel who goes to the post office to ask if he has any mail).
Four female artists educated in UK art schools formed the Neulinge (newcomers) Collective in 2018 “to debate and highlight issues related to global politics and their impact on women of colour”. Hailing from India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, these artists deal with issues of identity, tradition and heritage.
One factor was a large presence in villages and towns before email. He used to bring mail, messages from loved ones. These pieces of paper – a single page folded into an envelope to save postage – were the words (if not the substitute) of a distant father, brother, husband, son.
Chudamani Clowes appropriated the format of an airgram letter to create The unexpected letter, employing a canvas military tent, spray and oil paint. With its interlocking forms, its stains and its range of hues, the work becomes the transcription of an understandable language. In fact, all writings are doodles, until someone deciphers them. At the Royal College of Art in London (where Clowes received his MFA), students used to scribble home letters in Hebrew, Japanese, Greek, Arabic, Bengali, Tamil that looked like the traces of a drunk insect. Yet they were readable sentences for those who could read them. Clowes builds a text which, beyond the recognition of alphabets, consists in identifying the signs of love, desire and loss. Many times handwriting gives away more than a person intended in their choice of sentences, structure of passages, and editing of content.
In the age of emails and phone messages, the only handwriting left is art. Chudamani Clowes explores it to such an extent that his works become a pictorial vocabulary. Its vaguely scribbled lines, marks and strokes convey the complexity of the storytelling, as well as the painterly quality that transforms the work into a strong visual, accessible to people from diverse geographies and different histories.
The link to the past was also visible in the art of Divya Sharma, an Indian artist based in London, who graduated in sculpture from the Royal College of Art (2021). For Sharma, “home is a state of mind”. She resurrects it through her textile and thread hanging (Form of identity, 2022). The work, with its connection to local textiles, offers layers of weaves that are more about color, shape and texture than apparent concept. However, one cannot miss how various materials, mediums and techniques have a political, historical and gender background. The British introduced oil on canvas as the sublime and supreme medium to a country where other modes of image making were practiced, such as gouache on paper, fresco, embroidery, wood and stone carving. Sharma’s preference for textiles is significant, since the medium is marginalized (not being art), particularly for its association with female weavers/workers.
Recognizing and respecting forms of representation was evident in the work of Maryam Hina Hasnain. His images of bleeding patterns in blue/green (blue prints, 2022, ink and bleach on tracing paper) suggest how a person’s identity is not static or immobile or strict (or stagnant). The dripping ends of a traditional pattern on large rectangles, address the reality of tradition in a vibrant, vital and vigorous way in contrast to the fail-safe mode seen in Marium M Habib’s painting and chalk pastel on paper in the depiction of the Ashura procession and a beach house in Karachi. Rendered convincingly, these surfaces do not deviate from the expected “notions” of autochthony. A hut by the sea as well as religious rituals to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (peace be upon him) become issues of identity – and attraction.
Whether you come from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or/and live and work in London, your creations are not limited to these moving localities. Art belongs to the hour when the ground under our feet is neither the homeland nor a foreign country.
The writer is an art Lahore-based critic.