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Urdu digest illustrated

12 March, 2013

An unfamiliar space
Does the art of digests in Urdu qualify to be called art? That is one question posed by a recent group show of artists
By Amra Ali

Divisions between “illustration” and “art” have been closely guarded in the art milieu; or for that matter, in most art communities globally. The fact that these distinctions exist, and have been re-enforced by systems that continue to create hierarchies have had to do with the parameters that define taste and beauty.

Since there is no singular definition of taste, beauty and what “good” in art may or may not be, it is eventually a matter of subjective taste arrived at through consensus.  But then, how does the art community, which includes the gallery, critic, and to an extent artist and collector conclude, that the work of a certain artist is “art” or not? Why is an artist or a particular art form not permitted entry into the ‘mainstream’ gallery circuit, while another is? What are the distinctions and why/how have these distinctions between “art” and “illustration” become ingrained in our definition of art?

There are divisions between fine art and graphic art that separate creativity or channelise it into different applications. Some of these have to do with function and non function, whereas most have to do with the commercial and non commercial.

Take the example of an artist such as Mashkoor Raza. A name more known than many, a serious artist, Mashkoor Raza has established a niche which is outside what we like to assume as the mainstream art circuit. While it will no doubt be an outrage to include the work of this artist in a “serious” art show, at home or abroad, the artist happens to be the recipient of the highest Presidential Award in Pakistan. It is no doubt that the Mashkoor School represents or responds to popular taste. And it may be an unsaid rule that the popular in art, which has to do with “kitsch” and all things outside the parameters of high culture, are somehow not thought kosher within serious art discourses. Whatever that ‘serious’ represents is subject for another and other discussions.

It is decided though, that the entry of the local or popular taste has to be permitted entry with careful scrutiny; through a process that does at some stage requires validation from the higher authority: the Western mainstream. Hence, we see the popular in art entering through the front door, only if it has gone through a screening process: of acceptance in international gallery circles. How truck art is interpreted or why it is used on the cover of Granta magazine on Pakistan may give us some clues into the issues of neo colonial appropriation and ‘gaze’.

The question now arises: how to reclaim popular cultural symbols into the domain of mainstream representation. Yet another related, but slightly separate question is of the culture of the popular Urdu Digest art. Definitely an outcast, even the shadow of it is not to be tolerated in our elite galleries. This is why we have seen the work of the celebrated artist Iqbal Mehdi sold primarily in the corridors of local hotel galleries. The fact is that these works sell, and cater especially to the taste of foreigners who come to stay at the five star hotels, and like to take a taste of popular imagery from Pakistan.

The subjects of the work predominantly has been females in eastern attire and jewellery, with traditional elements such as with the matka or urn; having to do with everything and anything exotic. On the same note, we can contest the application of the exotic in accepted art forms such as in Neo Miniature. These are very interesting divisions, and relevant points of discussion into the interpretation of cultural and artistic hierarchies in Pakistan, and their contribution to contemporary narratives in art.

So, what about the art of digests in Urdu? Art or illustration? That is one question posed by a recent group show of artists who illustrate for popular digests in Urdu. curated by Shahana Rajani, at ArtChowk gallery in Clifton, Karachi. One of the new posh galleries in town, ArtChowk has been introducing many new artists as well as showcasing the work of artists who would not have otherwise been given exhibition space on ‘this side’ of the Clifton Bridge. The recent show is also one kind of a bridge, as the curator hopes to address the content and context of the work of artists or illustrators who contribute to urdu digests. The biggest curatorial challenge here seems to find a way of saying that despite the work being illustrative, it is art.

The act of bringing this work to the gallery space is to initiate discussion into its form and content. What it also does is to try to expand the art discourse, as well as to challenge taste. Incidentally, the artists in this show have been snubbed or refused exhibitions in most galleries, says the curator. The curator can thus play a critical role in shaping the nature and content of discourse.

The works of Inam Raja, Imran Zaib, Shahid Hussain, Shaista Momin, Zakir Hasan Chishti and Zulfiqar in this show are mostly in pen and ink, with the exception of Chishti who uses water colour and airbrush. The mounted works sans glass frames provide an immediacy to the intricate linear element in the work. While the work is usually printed in low resolution, the original work is much larger, with a strong sense of light and dark. Rather than discussing the content of each work, it is more important to first identify the context of the show. The nature of this intervention in the gallery space challenges our relationship to the use of cliché. How do we come to form a relationship to illustrations of stylised faces which have a similarity to Urdu film posters and cinema hoardings? Many successful visual artists have childhood histories of apprenticeship with sign painters and cinema billboard painters. However, this genre is outside the domain of visual art, gallery art, or art discourse; one reason being that visual culture and its theoretical space has removed itself from many local references due to the social and economic divisions that are also reflected in the language divide in society: the divide between the Urdu and English medium.


Shaista Momin; ‘Untitled’ Pen & Ink on paper.


Amra Ali
art critic, curator
senior editor / Co-founder