Slaughter by water | Shehr

The 76th year of Pakistan will be remembered for celebrations, exhibitions, shows, performances and achievements, but the anniversary will also be recalled for the flood that submerged a third of the country, displaced a huge number of people, wiped out houses, hotels and other structures, caused many deaths, spread diseases, and made millions lose their jobs, shops, cattle, farmlands and daily wages. The unprecedented flow of water took the entire population by surprise – those who were directly hit as well as those who watched the calamity on their screens and in print. This included artists.

There were reports that a miniature painter from Sindh, Safdar Ali Qureshi, had suffered due to high-water levels at his quarters, destroying his possessions and artworks and dislocating his wife and infant child. The lives of other visual artists were not directly disrupted by the biggest flood this country has ever had, however, one presumes that these creative individuals, like all citizens of the country, must have felt hopeless, helpless and useless in the wake of this calamity. Since artists are not trained or equipped to help rescue people, save their belongings, find their livestock and manage their food, health, and other necessities.

Architects and product designers can produce – and are producing – tents for protecting the dispossessed public from the rain, sun, and insects (probable epidemics); structures which may substitute for lost homes. But a painter, a sculptor, a video maker, a miniaturist, a printmaker, an installation or digital artist, a photographer, or a performance artist, could hardly contribute through his/her practice. Other professionals – such as lawyers, accountants, jewellers, teachers, actors, singers, authors, etc, – may also have faced this dilemma.

So what should a visual artist do? Keep busy in their studios, continue exhibiting with galleries and selling to collectors, anticipate positive reviews on their new body of work and feel powerful and proud of having successful solo shows while the miserable majority of their compatriots are reduced to elementary existence with bare basics and no means (those who managed to survive slaughter by water). One is also familiar with regular exhibitions being held at galleries, several art events, online sales and Zoom meetings during this time of disaster. Not unlike people visiting cinema halls, having expensive dishes at high-end restaurants, organising parties and get-togethers, purchasing luxuriant dresses, attending weddings and addressing political rallies when a huge section of the Pakistani population is dealing with the flood and its aftermath.

The crises creative people encounter is that if a large population of their country is not living under normal conditions how justified is their routine existence, particularly in the silence and solitude of the studio.

Life goes on, and it should, too. We cannot shut down everything else to focus on one problem, but when it comes to the arts, there lurks a streak of incredulity, since making art is understood as a self-indulgent activity, with no purpose, need, or use for the community. Even a cobbler participates by sewing shoes for those who go barefoot after their loss, a tailor drapes those who do not have another pair of clothes, a mason rebuilds dismantled houses, a cook feeds a large group of starving people, but artists who consider themselves conscientious beings, find themselves unable to benefit inhabitants of their country through their productions.

Except by auctioning their artworks; the proceeds can be added to flood relief funds. Donating the amount of one work from every exhibition may rehabilitate thousands. We are fortunate to have some stars in our art world, who if they decide, can generate huge sums through the sale of a single work – for the flood-affected community. One is sure that they, as individuals or collectively have been doing all this, and much more – like the entire nation. Still, a sense of guilt lurks mainly because art making is a peculiar pleasure.

An artist mostly works for him-/ herself, fully aware that these pieces would end up in private residences, corporate offices, government buildings and museums. Their function is aesthetic, intellectual and historic, but they cannot – directly serve the society. In normal situations, one hardly bothers about this aspect, but when night after night you see men and women struggling amid sheets of water, submerged settlements, kids under tents and survivors with their savings reduced to small bundles, you may doubt picking your brush, holding your chisel, operating your camera, moving your pencil, using your computer programmes.

Yet we never have remorse on spending a substantial amount on eating out, acquiring a highly valuable watch (which tells the same time as a Rs 450 worth watch does), or managing a long list of online shopping; because we operate in a world that was already formed – firmly, into haves and have-nots. But when the flood dismantles the order of things, the latent problem, like the water level, arises. The crisis a creative person encounters is if a large population of his/ her country is not living under normal conditions how justified his/ her routine existence is, particularly in the silence and solitude of the studio.

Not only the deluge, but these Hamletian confusions haunt artists during all moments of misery. In war too; in which you know that an army is fighting to preserve your sovereignty, enemy planes bombard civilian sites and soldiers are killed in combats, so what is the point of being glued to your creative business? Some have solved this conflict by moulding their works for the cause. Poets writing battle anthems, singers recording patriotic songs, painters projecting nationalist content on their canvases or preparing posters to project the country’s just side. Shakir Ali in 1965, answering a question (a camouflaged accusation) on drawing moon and flowers during the war between India and Pakistan, stated that he painted a moon that shone on the graves of his ancestors in the UP, and flowers that bloom on both sides of the border.

Not war, but in other disasters, such as the recent flood, one may speculate about the subject matter, or even the act of creating art, in a safely located, nicely designed, abundantly equipped studio, and ponder on the possibility of an artwork bringing greater awareness to the community/ issues only to realise what the Telugu critic and poet Nara recently wrote: “If a poet has the delusion that his poetry is meant to change society [when] the business of the poet is to write poetry.”


The writer is an art critic based in Lahore


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