New Delhi


Devi Art Foundation

Featuring miniature paintings and room-size installations, and works whose reference points range from Lollywood (Lahore’s film industry) to Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “Resemble/Reassemble” sets out to show the broad diversity and the best of contemporary Pakistani art, presenting works by forty-five artists. Curated by Rashid Rana, Pakistan’s leading global art star and one of the founding faculty members of the art school at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, the exhibition is composed exclusively of works from the Lekha and Anupam Poddar collection. The show exemplifies the extraordinary commitment and vision of the Devi Art Foundation, which, in just a year and a half, has become the most important institution for exhibiting contemporary art in South Asia.

“Resemble/Reassemble” presents a fresh and cosmopolitan selection of art from Pakistan, shying away from the prescriptive labeling and categorizations that sometimes plague “national” exhibitions. In fact, the show avoids defining Pakistani art in any cohesive way, thanks to Rana’s eclectic choice of works and his decision to organize the exhibition purely visually. Yet even if the curator has shied away from a thematic or developmental organization, certain concerns emerge collectively among artists; not surprisingly, these include colonial history and terrorism, considered jointly by Risham Syed in her “Needlework Series,” 2001–2002, which borrows imagery from news coverage of the US invasion of Afghanistan, and refers to South Asians’ adoption of Victorian embroidering. Other recurrent topics are sexuality and the tension between religion and secular life.

Poignantly, many artists invoke an urgent need for open discourse, and speak to the lack of communication and communion paralyzing society. In Ehsan ul Haq’s kinetic sculpture Zero Point, 2008, two working fans face each other with the seemingly innocuous task of cooling the air—but instead they blow air only onto each other, creating a useless, indecipherable noise. Similarly, in the two-channel video Conversation, 2002, Aisha Khalid evokes a sense of strained communication as two hands (one Caucasian and one South Asian) alternately embroider and unstitch a single rose, constantly undoing each other’s work. With its silent “mouths” at each end, Adeela Suleman’s sculpture Parallel Conflict, 2007, constructed of bathroom pipes, drain covers, and steel silencers, further echoes the notion of two entities unable to interact.

Critically discerning these concerns enhances our understanding of certain artworks, but this also points to the exhibition’s main flaw, which is that its emphasis on aesthetics offers little intellectual context around artists and movements. In downplaying issues of identity and historical narrative (except in the excellent catalogue) the show risks losing the character of this transitional and complex moment, when Pakistan’s artists are actively negotiating national, political, religious, and other positions within their work and in regional and “global” art worlds.

In the developing discourse on Pakistani art, this exhibition will likely be remembered as a follow-up to the recent show “Hanging Fire” at the Asia Society in New York. Yet, in its selection, outlook, and function, “Resemble/Reassemble” stands apart. Mounting it just outside of Delhi at a time of heightened tension between India and Pakistan is a particularly significant gesture. The exhibition goes beyond the usual scope of cultural diplomacy to create openings for Pakistani artists in India; since the commercial art world in Pakistan remains quite limited, this may represent a significant expansion of opportunities. Indeed, the real impact of the conversations it has staged may unfold not only here during the course of the show but across borders, in years to come.

Beth Citron