saleema hashmi paintings_0005

My Father’s poetry has a strong influence on my work


Salima Hashmi (b.1942) is a many-faceted personality. A painter by vocation, she has achieved recognition for being progressive in terms of techniques and materials. In more ways then one, she succeeded in establishing herself as one of the leaders of Pakistan’s modern art in the period, which could
be described as Post-Shakir Ali.

The last of the Martial Laws was imposed in mid-1977, and a struggle for the revival of democracy ensued. The art scene at that time on one hand reflected the beauty of landscape, man and his socio-religious beliefs, and on the other resisted the dictatorial laws which were the very anti-thesis of beauty and creativity. Being her parents’ (Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Alys) daughter, Salima was one of those who fought against laws, which impinged on women’s rights and democratic rights of people. She and likeminded artists of the time created a socio-politically conscious art, which may have on occasions been abstract in form but was expressionistic and communicative at the same time.

Salima Hashmi, former Principal of the prestigious National College of Arts, speaks about her career as an artist, about the milieu, which has been her inspiration and also candidly comments on the evolution of art and art education in Pakistan.

The environment which led her to become a creative artist

I was brought up in a house where literature, music and art were part of everyday life. Paintings were always there, and so was music. Writers, poets and intellectuals used to visit us frequently, due to which a constant feeling of creative activity was there. Also there were other things as well, which I saw as a young child, and which left a deep impression, such as my father going to prison. I think it had such an impact on my personality that I became a shy introvert.

In those early years of my life, art was taken for granted as one of the things one did. My mother provided me with art materials when I was a very small child. On every birthday, I would request a paint-box, crayons or books. These were my favourite things. Since I hated school, home was the place where one could do things, which one truly enjoyed, whether it was drawing or painting or listening to music. The environment encouraged creativity.

Art as a source of her expressions

Well, I never knew that I was going to study art until got to college. And it was really my mother who led me towards painting and designing, rather than pursuing a subject like political science. Also, it was my parents’ friendship with Professor Sponenberg, which encouraged me to come to NCA. But before coming to NCA, it was really my mother more than my father who suggested that this was the way I should go. I also believed that one day I would teach; I intuitively felt that I would be a good teacher. It was another thing, which I succeeded at and have enjoyed doing.

Art has not been my only sources of expression; I’ve also been involved in performing arts. I was an extremely shy person and perhaps acting provided me with a vehicle for pretending to be some body else, and still expressing myself through it. Even as a small child I played with puppets, which my English grandmother sent us. Sister, my cousins, and I used to do little performances, for the neighborhood children. Puppets continued to be a passion in later years, when I went to television and used them to put across ideas for children as well as adults. So performing arts, whether it was theater, television or puppetry, have all been forms of expression for me. I think, teaching too, if done creatively, is a form of expression.

Her inspirations and influences

There have been many. Firstly, of course, at home my father and my mother, and my father’s friends. As a small child I sat very close to people who came to our house to meet my father. I insisted to them to tell me stories, whether it was Patras Bokhari or Maulana Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, Salik uncle or Taseer uncle. I think these people influenced me a great deal, though at that time I was not aware of it.

A strict disciplinarian, my mother was a very strong influence. She was straightforward and pragmatic, and she tried out to pass on these traits to us. She showed her strength of character in those years of struggle when my father was in Jail. What I learnt most from her was that you had to work hard to survive. Contrary to popular perception, my father also was very hard working, and remained so all his life. We always saw him getting up early, reading papers and going to work. Even if he didn’t go out to work, he did it at home. So work was something essential. Never in my life have I identified being artistic or creative with being relaxed; it always had to do with inner discipline. Inspirations and influences were political as well as artistic. Major events in the sub-continent, such as the Partition, my father going to prison, the Martial Laws, separation of East Pakistan, all influenced my work but most of all the eleven tragic-years of Ziaul Haq’s regime did have a huge influence .

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Those many wonderful people who I have come across in life, there have been many inspiring ones. For instance, Pablo Neruda, whom I met with my father, listening for hours to Roshan Ara Begum and Barey Ghulam Ali Khan, watching Gopi Krishna and Krishnamurti dance or listening to Begum Akhtar sing in person. All these were quite inspiring. Then there were some great people in NCA those days, like Professor Sponenberg and James Warren. Not only were they good teachers, they also made one see the essence of art.

When I went to England, Howard Hodgkin then an internationally known name taught me about mediums and materials in painting, Jesper John about film and Adrian Heath the composition. Most inspirational of all, I think, was the discovery that in the sub-continent, I was still living in the 19th century, under the influence of the British academic art education. Cliches then taught in our painting classes thankfully were forgotten rather quickly and the fact that I did photography as well as painting and filmmaking was also crucial. Being a photographer, I was able to understand there was more to object than mere appearance. As a painter, you know that appearance of an object has very little to do with reality. Both these rather contradictory ways of recording the world were instrumental in shaping my style of expression.

There was never a question of art for art’s sake in my work. There’s always been a purpose, whether it was performing arts or visual arts. For me communication was the name of the game and still I think so.

Her contact with Pakistan while studying abroad

Studying in England was a luxury, I suppose. But I was constantly in touch with what was going on at home. Then I came back and got married, took part in group shows; the first solo-show came many years later in 1983. And when I was banned from Television in (Ziaul Haq years), I went back to painting. Those were eleven very hard years, the darkest era of my life and it changed me in more ways than I can comprehend. It altered my collective way of thinking, feeling, seeing and did so very deeply.

Whatever happened in the country has always reflected in my work. It was m 1971 when I did a series of works called Sohni Dharti. The title was supposed to be ironic. It was about tearing apart, tearing ourselves apart.

Influence of Faiz’s poetry on her work

Influence of my father’s work has been very deep on my personality and on my work. Like him, I record my time, and like him I don’t do it with anger. Even when the anger is there, it’s camouflaged. My work is lyrical and I like to think that I got that strain from him. I’m attached to beauty and I’m attached to all the elements that make a work of art beautiful, whether It’s line or colour, tone or texture. Other than that, I suppose, the basic influence is allusion to humanism, and that too comes from my father.

In one series of paintings my father directly influenced me; it was the work which I did in the ’80s and in which I used the symbolism of prison bars. My husband had been jailed briefly during Zia’s period, and then my father’s ‘prison poetry’ became all the more alive. Also I was very close to the Palestinian revolution, and visiting my father in Beirut, witnessing the massacre at Shatila and Sabra refugee camps had a profound effect. This experience reinforced me to do a sordid series of paintings called Shatila Mornings. Many years later, I did another series called Dastey Tahey Sung which again is one of my father’s titles from one of his anthologies which he in turn, of course, has borrowed from Ghalib. It had to do with one’s commitment: the fact that one’s hand is under the stone and you cannot remove it because that is your commitment.

Later, in the ’90s, I did a series called Dairy of a Terrorist, which had a lot to do with my childhood, using photographs, including those of my father. It also was partly based on the tragic events happening in Karachi. The series looks at the cycle oflife and at how today’s terrorist can be tomorrow’s hero. So definitely my father’s poetry has had a very strong influence over my work.

Her subjects

In my early years, in the ’60s, I was much interested in the formal aspects of painting. I enjoyed working on still life, techniques, employed glassing, under¬painting, textures, the contrast between thin paint and thin paint line, allowing it to drip down so that you felt its flow. Later on, content became primary and the technical aspects were subject to the extent that I felt it more important for the painting to be real in the context of what was happening around me rather than just enjoying its colours or its lines.

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Abstraction in her art

I find it rather silly to look at some of the very basic debates that have been going around. One of them is, you know, whether realism is supreme. A line that you put down on paper is real; irrelevant of what it represents, it exists in its own right. I think that there are two levels of debate about art in Pakistan. One is the very basic level because people have really not grown up much. They’re still talking about whether a painting should be representative or not. As far as the other debate is concerned, that one’s left behind. So far behind that you really can’t look back at it. Because one is very much aware that realism per se never was part of our artistic tradition. Whether you’re taking it right back from the rock drawings in Chilas, or you’re looking at Gandhara or Mohenjodaro or you’re looking at Mughal painting or whatever. It was totally irrelevant to us until the British came here; they changed om aesthetic mood. Unfortunately the British ruled for 150 years, and they passed on to us this chocolate-box type of realist painting. It is supposed to represent a level of excellence but is nonsensical really.

I think painting issues of today have to do with seriousness of purpose and a commitment to the meaning of what one is doing. It involved the realization of the kind of society that we’re living in, the requirements of material and medium, a commitment to exploring medium and material in every aspect. It needs a commitment to really understand the world around oneself; both in terms of its physical structure and also with an attempt to understand its inner order and its inner meaning. Because, after all, if art has to be true, it has to be a reflection of what our life is about.

With reference to what the younger people are doing today, I think they understand very well what their work should be about. However, they are weighed down by a dilemma. One is how to survive economically and still be committed to what one wants to do, and, in other words, how not to compromise. And the second is trying to construct a vocabulary, which takes note of our history. And, it requires an immense amount of search, of thoughtfulness and tremendous hard work.

Special symbols

These have been many, some of them I’ve already mentioned. Hands are very important to me. I’ve used them in different ways in my work. They have a physical feeling, a symbol of searching, a symbol of pain and also a symbol of protest. I’ve used clouds a lot, both as moving images of promise and of turbulence. There are windows in my work, both as ways of looking inside myself and as means of looking outside. They are also symbols of escape and of hope, finding a way out when there’s none. I have used doors in exactly the same way. However, they’re also a symbol of a passage in times of struggle.

Profile of her favourite contributions

I suppose at different times they’ve been different ones. I’ve mentioned Shatila and Sabra. Some of the work, which I did in the ’80s was about the female form. The female nude, if you like. The unclothed female form was a symbol of protest. This work was very much with reference to the laws against women during Zia’s time. I would often use collage, pieces of paper that were about what’s happening. The women’s demonstration, police action against the MRD and so on, my work has always shown the nameless, faceless female form, which is protesting and showing up the hypocrisy in society. In Sisters of the Third World this form is used for protest and also to demonstrate strength. Criticism on her art Well, I guess, I’m my own favourite critic. Sometimes I ignore my own criticism and that is very comfortable. But I know when the work is not really worthwhile and when it’s something that’s special, I really value criticism from my contemporaries and from those whom I respect because they know about what current issues are. But usually I do not respect criticism when it is done for the sake of criticism, or one, which is ill-informed. I don’t mean to say that people should not criticize my work. Very often, people quite young will say something of such great insight, which really puts you in your place. It makes one realize that one has the responsibility to communicate something through one’s work.
History of Pakistani art

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The history of Pakistani art, like the history of the country, is very checkered. It’s very fragmented. There are names, which are milestones, like Shakir Ali, ZubaidaAgha, and Shamza. These are up to the ’60s. And then you’ve names of the 60s, Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Sahid Sajjad, Jamil Naqsh and others who went for the individual journey and individual quest. It’s interesting that during the ’80s, there was much good work by female artists. At that time most people were engaged in conformist, state-sponsored work but these few were very original indeed. Still they were not patronized officially. I consider Mehr Afroze, Nahid Reza, Qudsia Nisar as women who stood their ground in difficult times. Then today, when you look around, there’s a marvellous range of work. Anwar Saeed’s work is introspective, yet very strong in its content; Rahat Saeed from Islamabad has depth and thoughtfulness. Then there is Nazia Khan in Karachi, Sumaya Durrani, Durriya Kazi and Samina Mansoori. These are people who are doing commendable work; highly individual and very thoughtful, it doesn’t pander to the market. Despite that, because of its meaningfulness and relevance it finds audience and also market.

Role of contemporary modern art in Pakistan

I don’t think that anyone can determine the role of contemporary modern art in Pakistan. But it exists, it’s here, taken on its own terms and its own importance. It’s commenting on society and recording things, even when one’s doing it in a highly personal way.

Art education in Pakistan

Well, it exists of course at a high level at NCA, Indus Valley, the Fine Arts Department of University of the Punjab, Museums or at various Universities. It is also available at private organizations like Studios in Karachi, Hunarkada, BNU, Al-Khair University or it is under foreign assistance in working class schools. But I would say it’s a very informal activity, which is going on. Eighty per cent of our population doesn’t have access to all this. It doesn’t follow that they don’t have any art education. I think training in the visual arts is there in our culture; in fact it’s an inherent part. Decorating the brides, embroidery, making baskets and cushions, painting a wall or a mud-hut is being done in the society. This level of visual education or visual activity can’t be ignored. It provides a base for a certain way of looking at the world, and a certain way of expressing one’s feelings about that world.

Then what do you say about those marvelous moving objects of popular art—–painted trucks, buses, rickshaws or tongas and also cinema’s posters and traditional wrestling? It tells you something about our aesthetic style so popular in our culture. I think they’re very remarkable in the way that they express some of the fears and hopes that people harbour.

Art education doesn’t have to take place in a studio with a teacher. It can take place at many levels in many different ways. What’s taking place in the studio, I think, is very uneven. It’s very exciting and it’s very boring. I think syllabuses are antiquated. On the whole they lack any sense of purpose. In fact, they lack any sense of understanding of what they’re supposed to be doing. The quicker we recognize it the better it would be for the art education in Pakistan.

What she thought of art lovers

It is just as art lovers versus art buyers. All kinds of people buy art in Pakistan. Those who have money and have equipped their houses with chandeliers, carpets, curtains etc., now also want something on their walls. They start first with prints of John Constable’s works. And then to more or less similar works done by Pakistani artists. It’s the beginning of desire to have something on your walls in which you live. I think people at different levels themselves decide what they respond to, what strikes as true to them. There are many more people today who are aware of art and have a desire to understand art than there were ever before.

Her ambition for art

That it should remain committed. It should attempt to reveal facets of truth and it should always be moving forward. It shouldn’t attempt to revive the past but there should be an awareness of the past. That it should be full of humanism and a desire to enrich the lives of people. That’s my hope.

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