Contradiction Remains Vital to Pakistan and Its Art
By RANDY KENNEDY, New York Times, September 2, 2009
As a crew of riggers finished hoisting a big taxidermied water buffalo onto its surreal perch the other day at the Asia Society Museum on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, there was a certain logistical satisfaction for those who looked on. “Watch the tail, guys, the tail!” one rigger yelled as the beast was pivoted into place atop a tall Ionic column, where it seemed to have climbed in its confusion.
But the sense of symbolic accomplishment in the feat was much greater. The water buffalo is a ubiquitous presence in many areas of Pakistan, where its tail is often painted red with henna. And the ascension of one onto a pedestal — to create a comically eerie sculpture by the artist Huma Mulji — was an apt metaphor for the larger exhibition being installed around it that morning in several of the museum’s galleries.
“Hanging Fire,” which opens next Thursday, is the first major survey of contemporary art from Pakistan to be presented by an American museum. And for many artists and curators who have long worked in relative obscurity in Pakistan’s contemporary art world — one that has been thriving since the 1980s despite and perhaps in some ways because of the country’s instability — it is a highly anticipated event.
“I think it’s difficult for people outside Pakistan to understand what this kind of recognition on an international stage means within the country,” said Melissa Chiu, the museum’s director. “It’s a big moment.”
The exhibition features the work of 15 artists, almost all of whom live and work in Pakistan. Most have passed at one time or another through the National College of Arts in Lahore, an influential force in the country’s artistic life, where the show’s curator, the painter and writer Salima Hashmi, taught for many years. (In the exhibition’s catalog the novelist Mohsin Hamid lovingly describes the school as a microcosm of creative Pakistan; many of his friends went there, and he remembers it as a place where “people who prayed five times a day and people who escaped from their hostels late at night to disappear on sexual adventures in the city could coexist.”)
Pakistan’s reputation in the contemporary art world has often suffered from a simplistic conception that it is a society inhospitable to free expression. And certainly during several periods in the country’s 52-year history, its visual arts, theater and film have been hemmed in by restrictions imposed under sharia, or Islamic law, and under military rule.
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Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan - Asia Society website