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Didactics of Art Dictators: Notes on the Art Criticism of Quddus Mirza on the work of Imran Hunzai

Apropos of the article ‘Of guns and roses’ by Quddus Mirza published in The News on Sunday (September 3, 2017). The article was a review of paintings of Imran Hunzai exhibited under the title “Laminated Souls” at O Art Space, Lahore in August, 2017. Quddus Mirza is a renowned art critic, and his affiliation with art fraternity and regular commentary on art makes him a dominant voice in the discourse of art in Pakistan. However, it was disappointing to see his review of Imran Hunzai’ work, for he fails to unravel the idea behind the art of Imran Hunzai.

The basic concept behind the “Laminated Souls” is disappearance of organic life and self, and dominance of plastic and virtual identity. Imran hails from Hunza which has witnessed drastic changes in every sphere of life including self, society and nature. With the increase exposure of the region to outside world and developments in communications, the organic elements from self and society are rapidly vanishing. His work documents subterranean processes of soul that have changed the very structure of experiencing the outside world and sources of self. The traditional worldview of Gilgit-Baltistan is deeply intertwined with the nature. Its cosmic view is embodied in the animistic rituals that people still perform. The animistic worldview encompassed both human and natural dimensions. The local culture is product of human creativity through which humans have molded nature to their needs.

Imran Hunzai’s art work is lamentation of soul that has been robbed of its organic roots and laminated by plastic life. The plastic life defines our very identity through synthetic material such as NIC, ATM card, stickers, official card, billboards, vehicle number plate, name plaque etc. In modern age, we do not exist if we do not have paraphernalia required by the structures responsible for managing our lives. Hence, we need these objective identities to merge into the mainstream of civilization of compilation. It is because of this reason Imran argues that “our representation in the light of the situation has become more important than what we actually are.”

A salient feature of the work is use of stickers to depict humans, birds and natural landscape. An analysis of Imran Hunzai’s works in “Laminated Soul” depicts physical and spiritual uprooting. It is lamentation of the self that is deprived of the cultural grounds, and finds his self in alien settings. In an alienated state and space, his persona is pasted with different masks and stickers that are prerequisite to find a niche in modern society and economy. Imran explores the process of metamorphosis of self under the influence of persona. Self is defined in psychology as “the individual as an experiencing being, the subject of contemplation, the object introspection, and the agent of thought and action.” Whereas Karl Jung uses persona to refer to “face” or “mask” one adopts to make impression in the outside world. While adopting to the needs of persona our real self gets buried under several layers. Finally, the self disappears because we lose sight of it by harnessing all our mental, spiritual and aesthetic energy to fulfil demands of the situation we are thrown into. The layers of stickers in Imran work connotes to those layers of persona that strangle the self to death. Seen in this way, the stickers in his works appear like an epitaph that only refers to dead buried inside the grave.

We live in a time when our being is engulfed in thousands of images and stickers. Everywhere, plastic life is around us. With the ascendency of market forces in our lifeworld and consumerist habits, we have lost the self, and persona has become prisoners of labels and stickers.  Hence, we have become more virtual and less solid. Karl Jung states that the purpose of persona is to conceal the individual’s inner self from others prying eyes. One of the functions of art critic is to unravel the complex interplay between self and persona, and self and society. Unfortunately, he fails on both counts in his review of art work of Imran Hunzai, because he did not see the self inundated in stickers, and wrongly situated experiences of Imran’s self in different space and culture. Instead of laying bare the conceptual basis and poetics of experience in the works gathered under the rubric “laminated soul”, Quddus went off on a tangent to attribute the creative context to the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which does not have any existential affinities with the people in Gilgit-Baltistan.

What is most offending in Quddus’ review of Imran Hunzai’s work is his condescending attitude towards work of an artist hailing from the region, which is literally on the margins of political system, academic discourse, art establishment and economy of Pakistan. His attitude smacks of an authority who issues edicts about what is art in Pakistan. One can easily discern how he covertly claims that the artists from margins, like Imran Hunzai, do not have local vocabulary in art. Therefore, they resort to language of art developed in art centres in Pakistan. He claims that “anyone who comes from Hunza, Gilgit or Chitral is not interested to be seen under that ‘locale lens’ because he, like any other inhabitant of Pakistan expresses in a language that is common, accessible, and appreciated in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.”  

After three paragraphs, he locates the source of inspiration in this vocabulary to Rashid Rana and connects it to his earlier work. By depriving Imran of his local vocabulary and experience, and making his work subservient to Rashid Rana, Quddus is implying that the artist on the centre stage of art, and metropolis of art gives voice to the marginal work of Imran. He goes further to claim that Hunzai’s work is conceptually poor as compare to Rana’s aesthetics which have conceptual strength. Hence, Quddus not only deprives Imran of language but also of mind. This is typical mindset of colonisers who assume that the colonized cannot represent themselves. It is burden of white man burden to give them voice to the wretched of earth. Quddus’ is brown man burden. It clearly shows his predilection for the narrative of state which forces diverse linguistic groups in Pakistan to merge their identity in the monolithic identity defined by it. Same mentality seems to be working in the case of Quddus Mirza.

Much has been written by scholars about the role of political and bureaucratic establishment in Pakistani state and society, but what is not discussed is the art establishment in Pakistan. It is because of stranglehold of the art establishment in defining art and its canons, and their power to include some artists and exclude others, Dr. Faisal Devji declares them as Little Dictators.  In his article “Little Dictators” published in Newsweek Pakistan (Feb 24, 2014), Devji includes Quddus Mirza among Pakistan’s cultural elite who “rewrite Pakistan’s art history and even erase important figures from it.” He writes, “…it is the small and self-appointed community of artist-critics, which [Quddus] Mirza apparently speaks for. Indeed, Pakistan is unusual in producing critics who are also artists, which in any other profession would involve them in a perpetual conflict of interest.”

Pakistani art critics must learn that art cannot be viewed holistically through galleries only. Art galleries rather reduces the broader horizons of art work. Call it a default luck or structural fault of poetics of art that the art critic comments after the fact nor before the creation of art work. This provides space for new artists to emerge. Otherwise, critics would have not allowed conceiving an idea by dubbing the artist as mentally senile. It is high time for young artist to rethink their sources of inspiration, learning and mentors. Anything that suffocates need to be rejected. To get rid of stranglehold of regimented academies, omniscient art establishment and omnipotent art mafia of Pakistan, it is imperative to manage mini rebellions by rejecting the received canons, structured aesthetics, challenging status quo and letting the individual experience speak for itself instead on relying on clutches and approvals doled out by little dictators of art working as giant guardian of art and ideology.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit. Email:

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