Political Art in Pakistan

Salima Hashmi is an artist, writer and activist. As part of an artistic vanguard in Pakistan, she believes art is an effective form of social critique. On March 25th she returned to Bath Spa University (having studied at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham in the early 60s), to discuss political art practices in Pakistan. Her talk: ‘A Song For This Day: Social Critique in Pakistani Art’, reflects on the power of art and the role of the contemporary artist.

Salima Hashmi grew up in a politically charged environment.  Daughter of the renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz who was imprisoned for his political views, and Alys Faiz, a human rights activist in Pakistan, she has a fine-tuned awareness of the political tensions and sensibilities that characterize day-to-day life.  Her early life experiences have led her to take on political roles including Punjab Minister for Health and Culture, and she has remained a practicing artist throughout her life.


Salima Hashmi, ‘Poem For Zainab’, 1994;  ‘a response to a horrifying incident in which the wife of a cleric was brutalised by her husband and hospitalised’

 For Hashmi, the idea that political activism goes hand in hand with art is relatively new in the West.  In Pakistan, however, art, politics and education have always been closely associated.  ‘Art is always political’, Hashmi reflects, ‘it cannot be dissociated from the circumstances in which it is made. Even when not professing to be political, it borrows from the political.’

She recalls that in the growing up, contemporary art was used as ‘a vehicle for foreign policy, to show how free the West was’.  However, the arts have had a long history of social critique in Pakistani culture.  Historically, poetry and oral traditions have carried strong messages of dissent, shared though songs and poems that spread contagiously and cannot easily be suppressed.  Hashmi explains; ‘in poetry there’s an ambiguity of meaning, between the worldly and the sacred’.  Words transfer more easily that art, but Hashmi believes that because art is a direct encounter, it can forge stronger links than words.  Although poetry is a familiar form of dissent, contemporary artists have had to construct new audiences, often by making artworks that reference popular poetry.

Art is powerful because it can provide psychological liberation not just for the artists but for their audiences too.  But sharing artworks has not always been easy.  Public art is difficult during a dictatorship, but contemporary artists have found subversive ways to communicate publicly.  For example, artist Ayesha Jatoi created ‘Clothesline’ in 2006.  In ‘Clothesline’, Jatoi used a decommissioned warplane as functional domestic object on which she could dry laundry.  This unsettling juxtaposition draws attention to the absorption of war and violence into everyday life.  At a glance, this gesture may seem unthreatening, however it acts as a public criticism and lamentation of the casual violence of war and misuse of political power.


‘Clothesline’ Ayesha Jatoi, 2006

Although art can provide psychological liberation, can it have a larger social impact; a political impact?  Can art change our lived realities?

Hashmi responds to this question by referring to the painted trucks that are common in Pakistan. In Pakistan, trucks and busses are often decorated by individual artists, and commonly feature lines of poetry.  Hashmi explains that these artists are envied because of their ability to communicate with viewers far and wide.  ‘Imagery alters as society alters,’ Hashmi reflects.  This is a reciprocal process.  The truck paintings have the ability to influence popular culture, she explains, ‘they are potent’.

Art can create a sense of freedom, a shared space of free communication.  This can be a space in which social relations are created independently from the State. Although this might not immediately impact lived realities, it can amplify voices of political dissent and gradually shape our political logics.

As well as campaigning against the production of nuclear energy, Hashmi is member of Amnesty International and Pakistan Peace Initiative to India.  She has served for four years as professor and the head of the National College of Arts.  In 1999 she received Pakistan’s Pride of Performance award.

This entry was published on March 30, 2015 at 11:49 am. It’s filed under Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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