With such a scarcity of primary material to research from, Simone Wille has been valorous in her endeavor to revisit modern art in Pakistan. The resulting book is a case study in innovative ideas backed by solid research.
‘Modern Art in Pakistan’ by Simone Wille is neither a comprehensive survey nor a wide culturally reflective tome on modernism in Pakistan. In fact, it is remarkable in its specificities and the ways in which a contracted trajectory of thought is presented; one which was so influential and persuasive that it embraced, within its parameters, all modernist practice while forming the premise for connections with contemporaneity. Wille refers to the sub indices of “history, tradition, place” and in one fell swoop gives us the lens for the reassessment of modernism in art history.
Wille traces the essential influence of history, more purposely Mughal history, to create the grounds for modernism in Pakistan. She says, “It was either used to glorify a magnificent past prior to colonisation or to establish a Muslim cultural consciousness that stood apart from a nascent Hindu nationalist construction”. She continues to elaborate that art during Mughal rule introduced several ideas and techniques which impacted South Asian art then, and which continues now. She says “it can be stated that modern Pakistani artists came to echo the dynamics of history and tradition, juxtaposing old and new, local and foreign, and in that way responded to the consequences brought about by colonial modernism, the process of decolonisation, and the experiences involved”.
In an endeavour to discover the locus of modern art in Pakistan, Wille leaves no stone unturned and investigates space in very broad terms to understand its influence on art practice. She speaks of place in terms of Partition and the “new place in which a variety of people lived, but shared little”. Wille believes that the heterogeneous population of new Pakistan and the diversity in cultures, identities, class and education served up a multiplicity that affected art and its output deeply. In another respect, Wille refers to space as a construct within the Mughal miniature tradition and speaks about its critical role in the practice of the modernists, particularly Zahoorul Akhlaq.
Wille has done a great service to the documentation of the history of art in Pakistan because she traces the most imperative lineage of influence that has so far been overlooked by historians and researchers, although informally, teachers and professors especially in Lahore have been educating students within this theoretical framework for at least a decade now.
The three chapters that constitute the core of the book discuss Shakir Ali, Akhlaq and then the legacy of Pakistan’s modernism in contemporary art as she calls it, which comprises Rashid Rana and a lesser known German artist Beate Terfloth who was deeply influenced by Akhlaq.
Wille discusses six of Ali’s works painted from 1941 to 1966 and reveals “a clear stylistic shift from art that was, initially, concerned with form, towards art concerned with pictorial and material effect. Ali’s development of an aesthetic materiality helped him to liberate painting from the idea of mastery — something that Georges Braque witnessed and valued in Paul Cézanne’s paintings — and something that drew Ali closer towards the mastery of the formless and accidental by which means he introduced new challenges and possibilities, ideas and experiences into his works.” Thus Ali embraces the parameters of modernism and opens up avenues for the induction of postmodernism with Akhlaq becoming Ali’s natural successor.
In writing about Akhlaq’s vital place in the annals of art history, Wille references the relevance of institutions like the National College of Arts, Lahore, which nurtured traditions in art. She says, “One such tradition became the formal investigation of space within painting. Zahoorul Akhlaq initiated and advocated this approach by re-evaluating, revisiting, and re-examining a number of ‘Eastern’ traditions, which he then, together with a segment of certain Western modernisms on the levels of formal experimentation, transformed into a qualitatively new stage in Pakistani modernism.”
Wille writes like a well-trained historian and researcher but without the coldness of empiricism that often pervades theoretical discourse. The one element most visible in the book is her empathy and responsiveness for the country and its art without any of the sentimental indulgence that could deter international readers.