[Reader-list] Fwd: an open letter to Artists in Pakistan

inder salim indersalim at gmail.com
Thu Apr 3 20:03:20 IST 2008

Rasheed Araeen
London, 2 March 2008.

During my last visit to Karachi in during December 2007 and January
2008, Durriya Kazi asked me: 'What can artists do...?'  I couldn't
respond to her question immediately. But it kept me thinking. However,
I think Durriya's question was not just about what was happening
politically, but about art's social role in society and how one could
take up this role effectively.

I'm glad that artists in Pakistan are concerned with political
situation in the country, and want to do something to improve it. I
therefore welcome the recent meeting of artists in Karachi on 29
February 2008. I wish I had been there and joined the meeting.
However, it is imperative to recognize, first of all, that art does
not possess the quality to intervene directly in political power and
change it. All that artists can do is to protest against the violation
of basic human rights and the suppression of the rights of individuals
for self-expression. In this respect, I'm in solidarity with the

This meeting has however given me an opportunity to say something
about the situation of art in Pakistan. The main problem here, in my
view, is not and should not be only about what is external to art
(politics) but, more importantly, what constitutes art itself and the
nature of its own production and recognition. Why do we make art? Is
it merely to express one's inner needs, or/and to understand one's
place in society? If it provides a value to society, how do we detect
or recognise it? And how do we assess its significance? Do we have a
rational system by which to discuss it, assess its merits and

These questions are seldom asked in Pakistan, let alone to pursue a
critical discourse that can deal with these questions. When in fact I
look at art in Pakistan, I find it extremely depressing. Every Tom,
Dick and Harry (sorry for this expression) claims to be an artist. The
problem here is not so much to do with someone claiming to be an
artist, but with the problem of its reception and acceptance. First,
does the claimant understand why he or she is an artist and what
constitutes a responsibility in this respect? I'm not invoking here
one's social or political responsibility, but a responsibility to art
itself. Art demands a serious responsibility, dedication and
commitment within its own discourse, which I'm sorry to say is totally
lacking in Pakistan. Second, as for those who claim to be critics, I
have not yet come across anyone who has the ability to distinguish
horses from donkeys. The consequence of all this is that art in
Pakistan, in general, has become deeply immersed in the culture of
mediocrity. Worst of all, nobody can question or challenge this
situation and change it, because mediocrity is the basis of power in
Pakistan, and the imagination which is fundamental to art is trapped
within and its existence is dependent on this power. In fact, it is
not just mediocrity but its celebration that leads to the delusion of
great claims: a spectacle of self-aggrandisement that is the product
of infantile mentality.

Let me be more specific about the problem of art in Pakistan. First of
all, we must recognise that art is not just about making (pretty)
pictures, sculpture (which doesn't exist in Pakistan), or what is now
fashionable — performance, video or installation art — but a
discipline. In order to understand the seriousness of the word
'discipline', let us turn to other disciplines, such as various
braches of science, and see if we can learn something from this
comparison. No serious scientist would ever say: 'Look, this what I
do. This comes from inside me...', and so on. If someone were to say
this, he or she would be dismissed as an idiot. But this happens in
art all the time, specifically in Pakistan.

The function of science is to produce new knowledge, so is (and must
be) the function of art. In order to judge and evaluate the
significance of what is claimed to be new knowledge, whether in
science or art, it must be placed within the whole body of knowledge
humanity has so far produced.

Of course, the rules of art are not as rigid as those of science. Art
involves one's own human subjectivity, and this subjectivity operates
somewhat differently in science. It seems that art demands much more
freedom of imagination, more play with the material involved in making
art. But both art and science have something common: their histories.
These histories tell us how both art and science originated and how
they have evolved since their origins, accumulating a body of
knowledge or ideas that are now there for humanity with which to move
forward into the future. In fact, without an understanding of this
body of knowledge — specifically of art, as this is our concern here —
we cannot understand our present situation and have a vision of the

Since I have used the analogy of science to explain the problems of
art, let me take you to the time when I was a student of science. I'm
in the chemistry lab with some of my fellow students, working with
some chemicals. When we mix two chemicals, a fantastic change takes
place in the tube with the appearance of a beautiful colour. We see in
front of us a spectacle so exciting that we all jump with laughter.
While we are amusing ourselves, our chemistry professor passes by:
'Ah, you think this is magic. Do you know why has this happened?' We
are first dumfounded, by this sudden question, but then try to
explain. If we didn't know that there was a rational explanation for
what happened in front of our eyes, we would have been thrown out of
the lab. We would have no right to be there pretending to be doing
serious work.

Art has now also been turned into a spectacle, and we amuse ourselves
with it but without knowing if there is anything significant behind or
within this spectacle. This came home to me recently when I watched
the program 'Khuli Baat' on Pakistani TV on 24 December 2007. It was
paying homage to Ismail Gulgee, who had been brutally murdered a few
days earlier, and it was right that we had this program. It was also
right on this occasion not to look at his work critically. But the
participants — who were important members of Karachi's intellectual
life =97 did talk about his work and put him high on a pedestal of
greatness. Gulgee may be one of the great artists of Pakistan. But how
do we know? Did anyone talk about the source of his work? Yes, they
did. The words 'action painting' were repeatedly used. But no one
asked how action painting arrived in Pakistan, and why? How come
Gulgee became an action painter overnight, without a difficult process
that artists have to go through to discover something new?

A few weeks later, an article on Gulgee appeared in Dawn, the leading
English daily newspaper published in Karachi (13 January 2008), in
which the writer claimed Gulgee to be a visionary who 'harnessed the
energy of the gesture in Islamic calligraphy and fused it with the
dynamism of modern action painting'. If it were an ordinary
journalist, one could ignore this nonsense. But these were the words
of an important critic who did not know that there is nothing in
Islamic calligraphy which can be described as 'gesture'. Islamic
calligraphy is contemplative, which is opposite of the gestural angst
of action painting. The meeting of Islamic calligraphy and action
painting is like a meeting of two opposing forces; they cannot be
fused without going through a confrontation out of which must emerge a
synthesis. We do not find this in Gulgee's work. In fact, the supposed
presence of Islamic calligraphy in Gulgee's work is an illusion, a
superimposition or a mask, to hide what is a disturbing reality
underneath; a reality that has entered Pakistan as a cancer to destroy
its creative body with its own authentic vision.

It is not my aim here to offer a critical scrutiny of Gulgee's work (I
have written an article on him, but I was told it would not be
possible to publish it in Pakistan). I'm here only using his example
to ask some questions which are fundamental to art; questions that
must be asked if we are interested in the seriousness of art. Artists
must concern themselves with what is happening in Pakistan, but
whoever comes to power will make little difference to art. The problem
is not only with who is in power, but the culture of mediocrity that
has penetrated our every walk of life and is destroying our creative

I am writing all this because I have a faith and confidence in
people's creativity in Pakistan. We don't have to look to the West and
follow whatever it offers; nor should we succumb to nostalgia for the
Mughals. Artists can offer an example, if not a lead, in developing a
modern vision for Pakistan which is not only its own but offers a way
forward for humanity at large.

With best wishes,

Rasheed Araeen
London, 2 March 2008.

Rasheed Araeen is the founding editor of Third Text. The journal has
been published since 1987 and is now in its 92nd issue. The Asian
edition, Third Text Asia, is being launched in April 2008 in Karachi,


More information about the reader-list mailing list