The first years of the twenty-first century have been a critical time for Bangladesh and Pakistan. Although the arts are thriving, the political climate is unstable. Bangladesh, which declared independence from Pakistan in 1971, has yet to get on its feet. It is an extremely poor, overpopulated nation. After Pakistan’s fiftieth anniversary in 1997, many questions still loom. Are the principles upon which it was founded justified? Will there ever be full peace and stability in the region? Pakistan continues its struggle with India, now with the added threat of nuclear war. Through their sometimes political artwork, Bangladeshi and Pakistani artists contribute unique perspectives to the complex debates surrounding their countries.
Art schools are the centers of artistic activity in these young nations today. In Bangladesh, Shilpakala Academy and the Institute of Fine Arts at Dhaka University are the main schools where students can enroll in classes ranging from painting to theater. The National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore and Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi are the two major institutions in Pakistan that challenge ideas about what can be considered contemporary art, and particularly the position of postcolonial artists within this debate. New generations of artists in Bangladesh and Pakistan think critically about their society and its artistic heritage. They use a range of local methods and materials, from the jewel-like technique of miniature painting to elements of the vibrant mass culture. Yet these artists also embrace global modes, including abstract painting and video art.
In Lahore, Zahoor ul-Akhlaq brought postmodern ideas to the forefront in the 1970s and ’80s. At NCA, he insisted on miniature painting’s relevance and viability as a source for contemporary artists. His own paintings took elements from the miniature tradition and combined them with an abstract painterly style. But some artists from the next generation have reversed this practice and use miniature painting as a foundation for their contemporary images. One such artist is Shahzia Sikander. Her work is in dialogue with the tradition of miniature painting; she expands it by adding contemporary elements such as new artistic techniques or images dealing with current events. Bashir Ahmed taught her and others, including Ambreen Butt and Imran Qureshi, in the late 1980s and early ’90s through a rigorous training in the craft of miniature painting.
Sikander and Butt are two of a number of Pakistani women at the forefront of artistic innovation; others include Alia Hasan-Khan, Naiza Khan, Huma Mulji, and Asma Mundrawala. Salima Hashmi, principal of NCA in the 1990s and currently a professor at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, has been very influential in the work of these and other younger women. In the 1980s, she continued to make artwork that dealt with political and feminist themes at a time when the military dictatorship curbed artistic expression.
Amin Gulgee is among Pakistan’s most acclaimed sculptors. Born in Karachi, he is the son of the late Isma’il Gulgee (1926–2007), the legendary artist and a pioneer of modernism in Pakistan. Amin’s art is bold, creative and multifaceted. He works primarily in copper and produces art in different scales, including public sculptures which stand at prominent locations throughout Karachi. His work is eclectic and draws inspiration from the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of his native Pakistan, as well as from a range of themes such as Hindu mythology, Buddhism and South Asian and Islamic art. His use of calligraphy as a vehicle of expression reflects his deep spirituality and his interest in the Qur’an. Amin’s recent body of work “Cosmic Mambo” is comprised of several sculptures that combine religious devotion and elements of his own cultural roots and worldview, all presented with a touch of playfulness and humor.
In Bangladesh, Runa Islam explores postmodern ideas in her art. Living and working in England, Islam develops cutting-edge videos on subjects ranging from the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the mechanics of vision. Shishir Bhattacharjee is known for his scathing political cartoons. More recently, he has made paintings in the style of Bengali film posters.