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American Effect = Death Threat: The Art of Saira Wasim

Saira Wasim,
Saira Wasim, "Silent Voices." Courtesy of the artist.

Saira Wasim’s Mughal style paintings, part of the recent "American Effect" show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, are delicate, painstaking, intricate Persian miniature gouaches in layered tones laced with political and activist causes that use traditional spatial compositions with a photo realist overlay. To the untrained eye of our own Rail’s reviewer of that particular show, it was depicted as just another ho-hum example of “a style… very literal and drawn from well-known sign systems.” Dismissing “well-known sign systems,” as they relate to a country with a wretched literacy rate, ruled for most of its existence by military dictatorships and shadowed by tyrannical religious zealots, excludes the reality of just how powerful and earth-shattering those ho-hum “sign systems” are—they result in death threats, a reality Saira now faces if she ever returns to Pakistan, based solely on the contents of her work, which put a scathing spin on propaganda-as-art.

A radical innovator, she is part of a core group of eight artists trained in the only miniature painting school in the world, the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. She enters the Muslim art world with a litany of strikes against her: she’s a female miniature painter, traditionally a male profession (though that is changing, mostly due to its lack of profitability); she’s scathingly political, which pits her against powerful, belligerent forces; the mullahs have declared her work “anti-Islamic” which is enough to incite a riot—or an assassination; and she’s an Ahmadi, part of a minority Muslim group who believe their late leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian (1889-1965) was the prophet who appeared after Mohammed, a stance that has led to a level of persecution and open hunting season on Ahmadis. According to the U.S. State Department, they were declared non-Muslims by the Sunni mullahs in 1974 because they do not accept that Mohammed was the last prophet.

Amnesty International noted, “A number of laws were subsequently passed [in Pakistan] which makes it a criminal offence for Ahmadis to profess, practice and preach their faith…or call their place of worship a 'mosque'…several have been charged with blasphemy under section 295C...which carries the mandatory death penalty.” Saira told me, “I have seen so much persecution in my family…Ahmadis have no rights, not their property or their lives. Nothing is safe. If something bad happens to an Ahmadi, the police won’t help. They say the mullahs say we can’t help you and we can’t go against our mullahs…the women are raped. There is no safety.”

Despite formidable odds, Saira became an exceptionally expert miniature painter. The form itself underwent a revival shortly after the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947, as Pakistan struggled to create its own identity. The roots of miniature painting come from Persia, and it blossomed during the golden age of Islam, which flourished in the cultural centers of northern and central India at end of the Mughal Dynasty, culminating with the Islamic architecture and design best exemplified by the building of the Taj Mahal. After the Punjab was colonized by the British in the mid-nineteenth century, the best examples of miniature painting were funneled back to Western museums in London, Boston, Paris, and Berlin, forcing indigenous painting students into the humbling and difficult position of learning their own miniature technique only through imitating black-and-white photocopies of their cultural gems.

The current painting Ustad (teacher) Bashin Ahmd realized the very survival of Persian miniature painting relied on fortifying the strikingly orthodox realm of technique, and he treats it with the care of endangered subspecies of Islamic tradition. Ahmd requires rigorous instruction in draughtsmanship, and has students make their own paintbrushes from the tail hairs of either a baby squirrel or kitten. They are taught to grind their own pigments, boil their own glue and even make their own paper, all from scratch. The paper called wasli contains up to five layers burnished to a mirror-like consistency with a conch shell. Students then learn to copy the four main styles of painting: Mughal, Persian, Pahari and Rajput, and to master the balance of paint and water in their brushes so it flows smoothly. This can takes months to learn, and in rare instances it can take years to use this technique to produce a single finished painting.

It is a misnomer to associate miniature painting with the derogatory word “craft,” a term that isolates it from other, dynamic contemporary art forms. In fact, John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father, directed the College, originally founded in 1875 under British rule, to “set the natives on a path of European improvement.” At that time it split arts from craft, a distinction unrecognized by the Indians themselves.

Despite their traditional training, the group of eight in Lahore has hooked into the global dialectic, and in the past decade has produced tiny works that are having a seismic impact. This is remarkable since the adherence to technique takes on a meaning through the nationalistic identity of its host country Pakistan, and turns it into a fetishized quasi-patriotism. Any shift in presentation leads to an agonizing abandonment of historical attitudes. With the group of eight adherence to technique has led to lovely gouached strokes of simmering resistance and replaced the role of courtly propaganda with scathing social criticism.

In order to criticize your country, you must on some level still love it. Saira says Pakistan “is a land created according to the needs and wishes of its people who struggled a lot for this homeland and finally got freedom. It is a land of God-gifted blessings and culture, heritage, and vast history… and a land of innocent people who don’t know about their own cultural history…vast heritage…and their own identity. More than half of our country is illiterate. The image of our country is spoiled in the whole world because of the extremists.”

Her first exhibit, in 1999, critiqued the government of Nawaz Sharif, later deposed by Musharif. Her thesis was a sardonic take-off on the book, Badshahname, painted in the era of the Moghul Emperor Jahangir, glorifying his deeds. She showed Nawaz Shairf doing silly things to illustrate his glorified deeds, like playing cricket and putting on feasts for the Queen of England, which he did do in 1997, despite the fact that half of Pakistan was literally starving. During that time these paintings were published in all the newspapers in Pakistan.

Even Musharif was not spared from Saira’s lacerating wit. She painted “Hali Goli,” Urdu for merry-go-round, to show that the military rulers who govern Pakistan are like the entertainers in a circus with acrobats and clowns, an oddly prophetic depiction since the mullahs have started attacking circuses as being too “pro-Western.”

Saira’s current series depicts the practice of honor killings. Entitled Silent Voices, she uses the names of flowers, which are “fragile, delicate parts of nature and personifications of women.” She said, “In Pakistan if a woman is found having an affair or has been raped, the male head of the family kills that girl without any investigation or proof, just to restore the honor of the family.” There are even younger victims, the secret, illegitimate baby girls whose mothers serve in the homes of the rich, a horror she shows in a surprisingly serene piece titled "Water Lilies.” “Nobody has ever done paintings on these honor killings,” Saira said. “Our government, even the media is silent about it.”

Now that she is temporarily residing in the United States she is free to paint a series about the mullahs. “mullahs are creating many problems in our country,” she told me “and no one can raise a voice against them because people think it is against the religion to (contradict) them. And now they are imposing Sharia law in Pakistan, attacking the artist communities, and spray painting billboards that display women’s faces.”

Saira “feels responsible to tell the fundamentalists who are manipulating the public just in the name of Jihad—our generation is holding weapons instead of books.” She paints these images to “give a message to society, to raise a voice against such brutality like this.” Who do these images reach? “Women because they suffer, and are weak in such a traditional society, I think artists should come up with such issues and make people aware.”

Making people aware is one thing. Putting your life on the line to do it is another. I am curious to know if any critic, myself included, could have the strength of character or conviction to take on the government, the military, and the mullahs only by using nothing more noxious than the hair of a kitten.

Saira Waism’s work is currently part of a show that runs through October 4th at the Apex Gallery in Tribeca, located at 291 Church Street. Curated by Atteqa Ali, the exhibition is titled “Playing with a Loaded Gun: Contemporary Art in Pakistan,” and includes the work of ten contemporary Pakistani artists.


Ellen Pearlman


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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