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Action as Modernist Code

From: Criticism
Volume 55, Number 2, Spring 2013
pp. 351-356 | 10.1353/crt.2013.0011

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In the late 1990s, I was in Lahore, conducting doctoral research and befriending the artists and scholars associated with the National College of Arts (NCA). Of these, Rashid Rana, at that time a teacher at the NCA and very much a rising artist, was my favorite for the easy affection he showed me, a newcomer to Lahore. Later when he became famous and I started seeing his artwork splashily displayed, I was proud. At the same time, I wondered whether his rise in the international markets did not coincide a little too neatly with the downward trajectory of the nation of his birth, Pakistan, into political chaos in the 2000s, as if it amused art connoisseurs that a country so bungling in statecraft should produce such fine art. I wondered whether Rashid did not pander a bit to the widespread representation of Pakistan as an extremist religious stronghold, if only to shock, for instance with his image of the veiled woman who dissolved into thousands of images of naked, strutting playgirls upon closer look.

Banish such cynical thoughts, urges Iftikhar Dadi in his cogently written and lushly illustrated 2010 book Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia. Dadi, an art historian at Cornell University and a respected artist in his own right, contends that if we are to have a proper appreciation and a pleasurable encounter with some of the most serious art entering the world's scene, we must step away from such easy criticism and grapple with the difficulties of the emergence of modernism as a movement within the art of what he calls "Muslim South Asia." As an aside, "Muslim South Asia" is a formulation worth unpacking. Presumably, Dadi uses it to bring colonial India and pre-independence Bangladesh within the purview of artistic inheritance and production in Pakistan, without having to delve too much into the histories of art in those two nations. I understand this formulation as allowing art in Pakistan to be grounded in its own terms and not in a derivative or defensive posture to the nations in the region with which it has shared and conflicted histories. It is a bold and perhaps founding move on Dadi's part to suggest that in attending to the art that Pakistan feels to be its own, we also attend significantly to the art of the Muslims of South Asia.

That artists of the region have had to contend with postcolonial anxieties about the originality of their contribution to modernism, and the politics of influence is the assumed background to this work. Dadi presents this dilemma succinctly in his introduction to the book. The plight of Muslim artists is further complicated because they stand in a problematic relationship to an aesthetic tradition established as Islamic art by Western scholarship. The problem is simultaneously one of determining how to lay claims upon this tradition while critically perceiving and representing the structures of mediation, and one of securing the artist as an independent subject as opposed to a master plier of the tradition. Besides such questions of the positioning of the artistic self and its sovereignty, there is the further conundrum of the artist's target audience—that is, whether it is the nation, the people, or an emergent cosmopolitanism.

Disclaiming any attempts at representativeness, Dadi takes up a handful of artists—Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Zainul Abedin, Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali, Sadequain, Rasheed Araeen, Naiza Khan and those around them—giving them four meaty chapters in more or less chronological order to work through the range of possibilities, limitations, contradictions, ambivalences, and transcendences within the afore-sketched terrain of dilemmas facing the modern Muslim artist. Blending biographical sketches, vignettes that illuminate a particular path taken, historical contextualization, description of specific milieus, focused attention to formal elements within individual works, and engagement with wider theoretical and political concerns, Dadi masterfully presents less the profiles of artistic subjectivities and more a series of actions, productive and proliferating, converging and differentiating, that run through and constitute the current generative code of Pakistani art.

It is worth taking up each chapter in turn to consider the astonishing variety of actions undertaken by each artist. In so doing, I do not...

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