Asia Society Goes Contemporary with Pakistani Art

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View a slideshow of works from the show>>

Contemporary art from Pakistan? Never seen it. At least until now, as the Asia Society presents the world’s first exhibition of work by more than a dozen Pakistani artists from the last 20 years. The varied media in Hanging Fire shapes a collective voice that exposes an underrepresented niche of contemporary art while alluding to Pakistan’s historical narrative and its current socio-political tensions. And garbage art be damned, trust us when we say this is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Click through for an insider’s tour and a breakdown of the must-see list.

Asia Society is more than just a museum; it’s a global organization founded in 1956 that works to “promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States” via a range of cultural and educational programming. Its arts center on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile comprises spacious galleries, a garden cafe, and a soaring central staircase that resembles a dragon’s spine – an obvious, though effective, nod to Asian art and culture. The stairwell is currently the location of a site-specific installation by artist Imran Qureshi, an emulsion and acrylic wall painting that originates two stories up and slides down the walls, culminating in a finely etched puddle on the ground floor.

Last week we had a chance to preview Hanging Fire in the company of Melissa Chiu, Director of the Asia Society Museum and VP of Global Art Programs, and Elaine Merguerian, Associate Director of Communications. (For insight from guest curator Selima Hashmi, we recommend attending the curator/artist roundtable at the Asia Society on Thursday, September 10 from 6:30 to 8:00 pm.) We learned that Pakistan is the world’s second largest Muslim majority country, that Lahore is the cultural capital and Karachi an entry point for Afghani immigrants, and that the artistic tradition of miniature painting influences almost all contemporary art produced there today.

Often referred to as the father figure of Pakistani contemporary art, Zahoor ul Akhlaq was the first to subvert the miniature painting tradition, pushing its boundaries by playing with scale and proportion. Murdered in his own home in 1999, ul Akhlaq is the only artist of the 15 in Hanging Fire who is no longer living, though his influence is carried throughout the show, especially in the work of close friend Anwar Saeed. Saeed’s brightly-hued, abstract figurations are at first glance rather traditional, though the exhibition of his decorative book – painted atop the incendiary text I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual – clues us in to an intense, emotional connection to pain that Saeed himself experienced after being injured in the same attack that killed his friend ul Akhlaq.

Notably, over half of the exhibiting artists are women. Huma Mulji made waves in the arts community earlier this year with her piece Arabian Delight, a taxidermied camel stuffed in a suitcase that was removed from Art Dubai and later bought by collector Charles Saatchi (naturally). Her sculpture High Rise: Lake City Drive places the common Punjabi water buffalo atop a pseudo-Ionic column, a frequent element of the hastily constructed nouveau villas littering Pakistan’s countryside, a clever commentary on Pakistan’s ability to “live three hundred years in the past and thirty years in the future.” Working in the two-dimensional realm are Mahreen Zubari, the youngest artist in the show at age 21 who studied miniature painting with Imran Qureshi and now translates the technique into sly mouth/sex analogies; and Faiza Butt, Pakistan-born and London-based, who creates film-like montages of stereotyped Indo-Persian characters on a symmetrical backdrop of pop culture ephemera.

The juxtaposition of Pakistan’s past and present is a common thread throughout the exhibition. Rashid Rana, who has emerged as one of Pakistan’s leading names in contemporary art, compiles brutally realistic, miniature images into a giant grid forming something seemingly inoffensive and commonplace, a red carpet. Likewise, Imran Qureshi’s miniature paintings, done in the traditional application of gouache and goldleaf to wasli paper, depict daily Muslim life with an ambiguous subtext, such as the man reading the Koran in a field wearing camouflage socks.

Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan opens Thursday, September 10, and runs through January 3, 2010. A full-color, 160-page publication chock full of essays and photographs will accompany the exhibition.