One of the more important things that museum exhibitions can do is show us things we haven’t seen before. If that causes us to realize that we’d made assumptions that were ill-founded, then all the better. One New York institution that has an excellent track record in this regard is Asia Society, with shows like “Inside Out” (1998-99), “Between Past and Future” (2004), and “Edge of Desire” (2005) that really played a major role in introducing the contemporary art of China and India to audiences here. Tomorrow morning, September 10, they open their latest show, “Hanging Fire – Contemporary Art from Pakistan” which runs through January 3. It’s a relatively small show, presenting the work of 15 artists, but it offers plenty of surprises and a great deal to think about. It has been curated by the artist-scholar Salima Hashmi, Dean of the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, and someone who probably has a better grasp of contemporary artistic developments in her home country than anyone else. She certainly has strong opinions about it, as I discovered when I spoke to her this morning. Here, on the fingers of one hand, she explains why should see her show.
Why is this exhibition important? Those of us on the other side of the world are tired of being misrepresented by the media in ways that make it seem that they are talking about another country. They don’t seem to get a sense of the vitality and energy, or the sheer courage and grit that make up a people or a nation. That was something that I wanted to address. The work here could not have come out of the sort of country that we read about in the headlines. It does not proclaim things, it doesn’t carry a label, it doesn’t wave a flag. But it is self-assured, and in that self-assurance you find the kernel of Pakistan – you get a sense of the determination of a people, their sense of themselves, their dark humor, and their delight in life.
There were two options in doing this show. No one in New York really knows about the history of Pakistani art so perhaps I could have done a survey which would fill them in on the last 60 years. The other way – and this was I did – was to present what’s happening now. The work had to be about the here and now. Places like Pakistan don’t really make a lot of sense for most of the audience in the U.S. – they read the headlines, they watch the news clips, and they’re horrified. It seemed to me that these were the things that needed to be addressed.
One of my worries was how this whole thing was going to hang together. The show is very diverse. There’s video, there’s sculpture, there’s photography, there’s what we call the “new miniature”. There are traditional techniques and a lot of iconoclasm. But Pakistan is so diverse, and it has so many inherent contradictions, that if there is a kind of fragmentation in the show then it speaks quite truthfully about the multi-faceted place that is Pakistan. So let it be!
When the demigods of our world have gone, and the tin-pot dictators have disappeared, and presidents have been voted out of office, I think that what remains is a piece of music, a poem, or a work of art that tells you what it was like to be alive at a particular time.
There are deeply liberal elements in the culture of Pakistan but not in the culture of the State. There is a difference. I wanted visitors to the exhibition to get a sense of people rather than a sense of policies, because I think that is the level at which you really make connections. I wasn’t too concerned about how the work would be received in the U.S. I was far more conscious of the fact that if the work was deeply felt and deeply personal the language would be well understood regardless of the context in which the work was made.
On the fingers of one hand is based on an original idea by Jacquelyn Lewis.