New York

“Hanging Fire”

Heralded as the first major American museum exhibition of contemporary art from Pakistan, “Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan” sets out to challenge preconceived notions about the nation and its culture. As has been correctly and repeatedly pointed out in many newspaper articles (including no fewer than three full-length pieces in the New York Times), such an exhibition is long overdue. In its intention to instigate a corrective shift it follows a familiar pattern, but that doesn’t make the process any less important. To have mounted this exhibition is itself a major accomplishment, for which credit is due to curator Salima Hashmi—formerly a teacher at the country’s National College of Arts (NCA) and currently dean of the School of the Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore.

“Hanging Fire” presents work by fifteen artists, ranging from Rashid Rana, Pakistan’s most prominent global art star, whose large tapestry-like photocollages are made up of small and at times disturbing images, to Anwar Saeed, whose A Book of Imaginary Companions, 2008, is a set of very personal images painted directly on the pages of Pierre Seel’s I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual (1981). Rana, Saeed, and several other artists in the exhibition share an indebtedness to the late Zahoor ul Akhlaq, a longtime teacher at the NCA, several of whose haunting paintings, often depicting silhouetted or half-formed figures against abstract and geometric grounds, are also on view.

The exhibition is organized around themes, including “Women Rule,” “Articulating Politics,” and “High Rise.” There is no doubt that these issues remain important to emerging and established Pakistani artists. Yet some of these categories may be out of date as framing devices to engage Pakistani art today. “High Rise,” for example, implies that cities endanger Pakistani culture: The wall text claims it considers “the threat that rapid urbanization poses to a rural, slow-moving way of life.” The inclusion in this section of Lahore-based artist Huma Mulji’s installation High Rise: Lake City Drive, 2009, in which a taxidermic bull sits dramatically on top of a classical pillar, suggests that it intends—above all—a parallel critique.

The narrative of the exhibition skirts any mention of friction with India, Pakistan’s relations with America, or its position vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Iran, although some of these concerns are pointedly taken up in the artworks themselves. In Bani Abidi’s video installation Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner, 2004, for instance, a group of musicians rehearses the US national anthem. Yet the work’s placement in the “Women Rule” section unfortunately directs attention away from its engagement with the widely felt frustration in Pakistan when the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, shortly after Abidi moved back to Lahore from Chicago.

What complicates the narrative of “Hanging Fire” most, however, is that its premise ends up prioritizing an autonomous national stance, by which the works in the show are bound to a fixed Pakistani identity. Long a problem in exhibiting art from countries outside Western art centers, this risks objectifying or flattening diverse practices into a single frame of analysis, and further segregating the art as exotic or provincial. This can be fraught when there is little sense of the intellectual discourse from which such art has arisen. In this case, the rich, multiauthor catalogue accompanying the show offers a substantial remedy—and, again, several artists in “Hanging Fire” also compensate by critically engaging the very notion of a Pakistani idiom, as in the skillful explosion of cross-cultural imagery surrounding turbaned men in Faiza Butt’s pointillistic Get Out of My Dreams II, 2008.

In spite of the distance between the categorization structuring this exhibition and the variety of the artworks’ handling of often quite different and more complex subjects, “Hanging Fire” successfully challenges the prevailing way of looking at the contemporary cultural production of South Asia (in the region and abroad) as having India at its core. In that achievement particularly, it is critically and historically important. But the exhibition also demonstrates a need to consider Pakistan and its artists relationally, both in terms of its immediate neighbors and a broader “global” contemporary scene—a need, ultimately, to revise the very history that this show will have helped establish.

Beth Citron