Agent of change: Can art heal wounds of our nation?
LAHORE at the turbulent crossroads where Pakistan finds itself today, there is more reason than ever to keep the struggle going. Art, music and theatre too have become sources of resistance – not just because of the changes they can bring to the world around us, but because of the way they change our relationship with it from within. In that sense, an artist has much in common with an activist. Both constantly work with new and different forms of media to get their message across; to give form to their voice and to question the injustices of the status quo. And surely the most deserving of our activism, through art or otherwise, are those living on the periphery of our society – discriminated and persecuted for no crime of their own are the ethnic, religious and gendered minorities in Pakistan who live under the constant fear of a system that only knows how to oppress and never empower.
It is against this backdrop that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr, brother of poet and author Fatima Bhutto, seeks to build bridges with the oppressed minorities of Pakistan through his art and photography. His most recent curatorial project: a unique travelling exhibition, ironically titled ‘Is Saye Ke Parcham Talay’, travelled from Lahore to Karachi — on its way creating spaces for difficult but necessary conversations to be had within the art community and beyond. The Lahore part of the show was curated by Abdullah Qureshi from Gallery 39K. One of the most powerful works came as part of a campaign against the unfettered use of the death penalty in Pakistan, ever since its reinstatement. The desolate artwork and repentant Arabic calligraphy created by prisoners on death row begs the question of whether Pakistan’s counter-terrorism strategy is in fact backed up a police-judiciary complex that can truly guarantee a fair standard of justice? If not, then is it rational to trust a system that is unable or unwilling to protect what it must?
When asked what resistance through art means to him, Zulfikar said, “Resistance to me is when the body and mind refuse to cooperate with an established system that it sees as unjust. When the body is unable to resist then the mind (and to some the heart) must continue to resist. When your thoughts, ideas and feelings remain free but you are enslaved in every other way, then the oppressor never truly wins.” It wasn’t until the exhibition reached the streets of Karachi, that Zulfikar and Abdullah’s pilot project really came to life, thanks to their choice of using non-conventional public spaces to display art. One of the works by Ayesha Bilal was a product of active interaction with Christians – the worst victims of manipulation and abuse that blasphemy laws in Pakistan are blatantly and so incredibly open to. Her project gave a chance for individual voices to be heard, through brief letters, in a place where the average Christian has only the life of a toilet cleaner to look forward to.
Zulfikar’s own representation of Hindus who have inhabited the inner parts of Sindh for several centuries has been a conspicuous focus of his artwork from his undergraduate years to date. “Pakistani (South Asian) society has used craft and music as a form of resistance for nearly a millennium, if not longer. Sufi music, the poems of Bulleh Shah and Shah Inayat are full of strong messages of social upheaval, revolution and resistance,” he added. The underlying diabolic between those who form the majority and minority, is something the young artist wants the public to understand in order to see through the power structures that continue to shape our collective destiny. For Zulfikar, these divisions only serve to shift our attention away from the glaring, and often, incontrovertible truth – that we are all essentially one, heading towards the same destination, hopelessly looking for a way to end war and establish peace within and outside our own communities. By challenging the notion that art belongs within the walled confines of urban art galleries, Zulfikar has been advocating this use of art to trigger conversation on themes that have unfortunately been tabooed by a culture of silence. For him, “spaces of dialogue and discussion are very important but they must also constantly be reinvented as they can easily be co-opted by disruptive elements and one must stay vigilant to maintain such areas of conversation”.