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Méré Humd(r)um: Contemporary Pakistani Art

Méré Humd(r)um: Contemporary Pakistani Art

February 08, 2012

New York's Aicon Gallery hosts a compelling exhibit on contemporary art by young Pakistani artists.

There's an odd, twisted fascination you feel towards Cyra Ali's sculptures of disembodied intertwined limbs on display at New York's Aicon Gallery. The limbs are adorned with bright, floral fabrics and carry a bizarre sexuality to them. The pieces evoke a gaze from the viewer, the very gaze that Ali seems to invite in her subversion of conventional femininity in Pakistani society. It's a bold challenge to the longstanding patriarchal desires to repress female sexuality by using the very body parts that have traditionally been deemed taboo. Ali's work is part of a bold, captivating new exhibit called Méré Humd(r)um: Contemporary Art from Pakistan at New York's Aicon Gallery, which is running until February 25, 2012.

The exhibit consists of work from twelve young artists - most of whom are in their 20s - that spans a variety of mediums and styles. The dual meaning of the exhibit's name, Méré Humd(r)um, evokes two parallel, yet equally potent, feelings - 'méré humdum' (my soulmate) and 'mere humdrum' (where the ordinary, the everyday, is something most Pakistanis long for). "Chaos is a big part of their lives," says Aicon New York Gallery director Andrew Shea, "so the theme we have here is how these artists react to the chaos and violence that surrounds their lives in cities like Karachi and Lahore."

This chaos and violence is very evident in its various interpretations by the artists. Abdullah M.I. Syed's Flying Rug pieces, for example, are a multi-layered commentary on various aspects of life and politics in Pakistan. Syed uses the Eastern legends of the flying carpet as the basis for two of the exhibit's most gripping works. The first is a series of US one dollar bills folded into paper airplanes, pinned together and arranged into a beautiful Islamic symmetrical pattern. The shadows it casts form the image of an ornate flying carpet. However its subtext - US capitalism, paper airplanes, prayer rug - provides plenty to trigger a discussion around the issues. Created with a similar intention, the Flying Rug of Drones, is perhaps a much more aggressive commentary by Syed. In this piece, numerous box-cutter blades are assembled into squadrons of drone-line airplanes descending from the ceiling and again forming the image of a flying carpet, albeit a much darker and dangerous one.

This generation of young Pakistani artists represents an odd dichotomy."There was a first new wave of contemporary artists," explains Shea. "Then we asked, what's the next generation doing? How do they see their country and the world?" What they found in these artists and their work was that the unpredictable political, economic and social climate of Pakistan and its lack of opportunities is in turn providing ample fodder for the transformation of the visual arts. A creative flowering, if you will, out of the crisis of a struggling state.

The artists are also deviating from their traditional artistic heritage, such as miniature painting, and using modern, local materials and concepts to offer their forms of expression. For instance, Shoaib Mehmood's re-appropriated miniature painting, Just Do It, depicts several headless figures wearing the exact same blue jeans and yellow Nike shirt. This commentary on globalization influencing traditional heritage arts is a powerful statement that peels yet another layer towards a deeper understanding of contemporary Pakistan. This threat of globalization is evident in many other parts of the world as well, further suggesting that in some ways Pakistan's struggles are no different from anywhere else.

Another artist, Sara Khan, reflects on a symbol and object that is the very epitome of violence - a gun. In her various pieces, she paints bright floral patterns all over toy guns, offering a subversive meaning for the very symbol that is a tool for so much violence. Thus it becomes clear as you explore the various works that the artists are also making a conscious effort to imbue a sense of optimism, however hidden or reluctant, into what they are expressing.

Commenting on the exposure these young Pakistani artists are beginning to receive worldwide, Shea says, "Contemporary Pakistani art is starting to pick up steam in the West. The Asia Society [in New York] did an exhibit, which was the turning point. But I don't know of any other gallery that focuses exclusively on contemporary art out of Pakistan like we do at the Aicon Gallery." It's a significant moment in the art world and for people in the West to experience a part of Pakistan that is both drowned out by the constant images of violence and is also a reaction to those very images. These artists and their work represent part of the voice of the Pakistani youth; the youth that is struggling to find opportunity and growth in a country where simply too much is uncertain.

The exhibit at New York Aicon Gallery features the work of artists Roohi Ahmed, Cyra Ali, Sara Khan, Rehana Mangi, Shoaib Mehmood, Hassan Mujtaba, Seher Naveed, Aisha Rahim, Abdullah M. I. Syed, Amjad Ali Talpur, Iqra Tanveer and Ehsan ul Haq.

For more information, visit the Aicon Gallery website. Image courtesy of the Aicon Gallery. 


  • Pulkit
    10.02.12 11:52 AM
    @Saira: Thanks for the comment! It's definitely not a strange tangent. I'm curious - could you point me to some contemporary artists from Pakistan whose work doesn't address war, violence, etc? I'd be very interested in seeing what else is being created.

    I think you may be right about certain themes and topics having more resonance (or salability) in the international art market. However, I definitely didn't feel that the artists whose work is on display at Aicon were romanticizing the violence and chaos. They were very much challenging it and re-appropriating it.

    If you'd like to see more of the samples of work in the exhibit, you can go to the Aicon website:
  • Saira
    10.02.12 06:38 AM
    Wish there were a couple of more visuals to actually see what the entire exhibit was like.

    Commenting on the work - contemporary Pakistani art has a very tricky presence in the international market. Much of it has become infinitely more about stereotypes, as well as a romanticized notions of violence...visuals/concepts that have become almost textbook. Many argue that these have become almost formulaic for financial success abroad, as such artworks sell out much faster.

    Will the west ever be able to experience Pakistani contemporary artists without the labels of war, violence, victims, etc. etc.? It seems as if the audience almost expects this kind of work when they connect Pakistan with art, and this is the only subject matter they get to see.

    At the same time, at least our art is making its way into international media too sometimes.

    I apologize for going off on such a strange tangent. Today is just that kind of day.

    Keep writing!
  • Pulkit Datta
    Pulkit Datta
    09.02.12 11:02 AM
    @dr_idli : I never said the threat of the globalization is the only problem. Far from it. I said it's one of the issues the artists touch upon. My point is that some of the works show that the young artists are reacting to globalization in addition to the violence/instability around them, and am I by no means suggesting those two are part of the same issue. I completely agree that radicalism/fundamentalism and political instability are also huge problems and most of the artists' works do address that.

    As for the flying carpets, what do you imagine when I say "eastern legend"? Isn't Arabia considered part of the "the East"? And since the origin of the flying carpet seems to be Arabian/Persian, the influence of these cultures across Asia over time has also meant that such legends have also been taken beyond just their origins. That's usually what happens - culture flows, evolves and mixes. It is also the "natural order of things."

    Many of the things you have commented on are issues that are the result of decades of dirty political games and misgovernance, both within Pakistan and by international players. This art that I've written about is a reaction to these issues, an expression of ordinary people in Pakistan. It is challenging and reacting to the policies of their government and their problems, not supporting it. I think you might be getting those two things confused.
  • Pulkit Datta
    Pulkit Datta
    09.02.12 10:40 AM
    @Harry: Thanks for the colorful comment! :-) Art is subjective and usually as much about interpretation as it is about intention. I am by no means an expert in this but I know there is art I connect to and understand and some art I don't. As for the usefulness of art, in this case I believe if the work of these artists can give us a window into even one part of what it means to be young in Pakistan, then it is doing something. It's a mode of expression, just like media, film and music.
  • dr_idli
    09.02.12 02:02 AM
    Hmmm , not many comments on this post ! I don't know whether its just me , but i feel the author is as lost as the artists he describes ...

    An example being " threat of globalisation " ?!? In pakistan ?!? From all the news it's the threat of radicalism and fundamentalists thats the problem ! assasinations of liberal thinkers , institutianalising terrorism. And the people who can do a difference , well fleeing the country to embrace the western world !

    Flying carpets as an eastern legend ? no clue it was - arabian yes , but never crossed iran ! then again , history text books in pakistan don't mention anything of the culture pre mohamed era - even though they have a rich history .

    Culture is encouraged by cheering their neighbours bombing the Bamian Budhas . I don't want to know what "conventional feminity in pakistan " means ...

    As for chaos , It's everywhere ! It's the natural order of things . It's just how you manage to go through it.
    08.02.12 09:59 PM
    @ PULKIT

    Would you not say so that, art is as usefull as a tit flavour lolipop to a infant. :) It never makes sense in real life. As much as I like certain art, but there are equally some I hate.

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