On the evening of Saturday October 24, President of the Pakistan Arts Council Ayesha Kamran welcomed guests to the USC Pacific Asia Museum, pondering over how she could introduce the celebrated panelists for Traces of Blood: Art and Activism in Pakistan Today.
The truth is, no introduction could possibly do artists Salima Hashmi and Imran Qureshi justice. Recognizing this, Kamran chose instead to quote writer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of art is not ugliness,” she recited. “It is indifference.”
Indeed, artists are activists who refuse to remain indifferent in the face of trouble, choosing instead to use their paintbrushes as tools to expose injustice. In fact, it was Hashmi who once said that when the world gets worse, the art gets better: “The worse the world becomes, the stronger the artists feels that their voices need to be heard,” she elaborated. “The artist finds for people the voice that they cannot find themselves.”
Perhaps this is indicative of how artists express their grievances in ways unlike most other conventional activists who march through streets beating their drums and bugles. Rather, an artists’ grief is personal. It is creative, and though tragic, its results are beautiful.
That night, guests of the museum were shown that, indeed, such beauty is borne out in difficult times. Hashmi and Qureshi, along with art consultant Marilyn Wyatt, reflected on contemporary Pakistani art in a panel discussion, which featured work from Hashmi’s latest book, “The Eye Still Seeks.”
“We live by poetry, music, and art. We live by these things that make human beings feel whole and put us in touch with our humanity,” said Hashmi.
Hashmi is more than just the daughter of late poetic genius Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who is still considered one of Pakistan’s most famed poets today. She is an acclaimed cultural writer and a passionate anti-nuclear weapon activist who serves as Punjab’s vice-chair person for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and is a member of Amnesty International. But perhaps most prevalent is Hashmi’s role as an art historian and creative painter whose adoration for the arts paved the way to her career at Pakistan’s renowned National College of Arts, where she taught for years before serving as the college’s principal for four years.
“By working together in art, our main objective is to create an atmosphere and a world in which peace is what we want to live by,” she said. Though she explained that peace is “elusive” in today’s world, Hashmi believes that, through art, we can make that goal very tangible. It was at NCA where Hashmi happened upon Qureshi, a like-minded student whose artistic talent paired with his deep-rooted passion regarding societal dilemmas mirrored her very own desire to live by peace and thusly reminded her of the tangibility of her goal. Hashmi recognized, perhaps prematurely, that Qureshi was destined for greatness.
She was right. Now an internationally renowned artist, Qureshi has traveled the world, leaving his mark—rather, his paint splatters—on areas near and far, from New York to war-torn Afghanistan and his beloved Pakistan.
His creations undoubtedly serve as metaphorical expressions reflecting the issues that continue to hurt the country of his origin: traces of homegrown militancy, traces of sectarian violence, and, of course, traces of blood, as depicted by the recurring element of bold and unsettling—yet equally mesmerizing and thought-provoking—paint splatters.
“It’s not just about Pakistan, it’s also about humanity,” said Qureshi. “I want my work [to reflect] the feelings of all of the people who are suffering around the world.”
But the magnificence of some of Qureshi’s most well known creations, including his site-specific installation Blessings Upon the Land of my Love, is that they serve as reminders that beauty exists even amidst the ugly: Foliage still blossoms from a limitless pool of blood, as Qureshi juxtaposes his intricately painted flowers with crimson splatters of what appears to be bloodshed.
Yet such work is to be admired briefly, as his grand murals are impermanent: After exhibits, in the haste of a fleeting moment, the power of a sand blaster banishes his artwork away. “Whether it is for one minute or for forever, every artwork is equally important to me,” said Qureshi. “The art is not disappearing entirely; it will appear again at a different time somewhere else, in a different form or in some other shape.”
While the specific creation is gone and his beautifully stunning murals with blood-red paint are wiped away, what cannot be erased with such ease is the underlying, political issues that inspire much of Qureshi’s work. Instead, those issues are seemingly perpetual and have nestled deeply into the country’s narrative. But while Qureshi’s work doesn’t necessarily correct the entrenched sociopolitical ills, it surely has initiated the productive process of rewriting Pakistan’s rather tainted narrative and reconstructing the atmosphere of a country with broken hope.
“The concerns have been passed on from one generation to the next, so I am tremendously proud of Imran because I remember him as a young student who wanted to learn everything—and he did, and more,” said a proud Hashmi. “It gives me a peculiar kind of satisfaction and joy to have him by my side because I know that he will be there when I am not. All teachers have this feeling; it is the one thing they go away with.”
Luckily, Hashmi and Qureshi are not alone in their pursuit of weaving the arts with activism. “The Eye Still Seeks” features tons of budding artists who similarly share both passions of art and activism and have uncovered their inherent desires to merge both.
Hashmi’s book includes artworks that are more than just visually stunning masterpieces; they are artifacts that serve as a reminder of the dilemmas that currently plague societies worldwide, including issues of conflict—both external and internal—and issues of gender. Such topics demand our attention, and Hashmi’s chosen artwork has started a very necessary dialogue. In her words, the book is fearless.
“In the turbulent history that Pakistan has had, its creative people—its writers, singers, artists, poets, musicians—have enriched not only Pakistani society but also the world at large,” she said.
Together, these artists have established the paintbrush’s might, proving that, along with the pen, the paintbrush too is mightier than the sword.