Postmodernism: Recent Developments in Art in Pakistan and Bangladesh

by Atteqa Ali
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2000

The first years of the twenty-first century have been a critical time for Bangladesh and Pakistan. Although the arts are thriving, the political climate is unstable. Bangladesh has yet to get on its feet. After Pakistan's fiftieth anniversary in 1997, many questions still loom. Are the principles upon which it was founded justified? Will there ever be full peace and stability in the region? Pakistan continues its struggle with India, now with the added threat of nuclear war. Through their sometimes political artwork, Bangladeshi and Pakistani artists contribute unique perspectives to the complex debates surrounding their countries.

Art schools are the centers of artistic activity in these young nations today. In Bangladesh, Shilpakala Academy and the Institute of Fine Arts at Dhaka University are the main schools where students can enroll in classes ranging from painting to theater. The National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore and Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi are the two major institutions in Pakistan that challenge ideas about what can be considered contemporary art, and particularly the position of postcolonial artists within this debate. New generations of artists in Bangladesh and Pakistan think critically about their society and its artistic heritage. They use a range of local methods and materials, from the jewel-like technique of miniature painting to elements of the vibrant mass culture. Yet these artists also embrace global modes, including abstract painting and video art.

In Lahore, Zahoor ul-Akhlaq brought postmodern ideas to the forefront in the 1970s and '80s. At NCA, he insisted on miniature painting's relevance and viability as a source for contemporary artists. His own paintings took elements from the miniature tradition and combined them with an abstract painterly style.

The Three Younger Sons Of Shah Jahan
Zahoor ul-Akhlaq (Pakistani, 1941–1999)
Estate of Zahoor ul-Akhlaq
Image © the artist's estate

Akhlaq studied at the National College of Arts under Shakir cAli and began teaching at the school immediately after he graduated. He also attended the Royal Academy in London, where his interest in miniature painting began. On a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, he was struck by a Mughal painting of Emperor Shah Jahan and his sons on horseback. He also saw the miniature painting collection at the British Museum. Akhlaq took images from and elements of miniatures and brought them to an abstract painterly realm, including a gridlike format developed by the American artist Jasper Johns.


But some artists from the next generation have reversed this practice and use miniature painting as a foundation for their contemporary images. One such artist is Shahzia Sikander. Her work is in dialogue with the tradition of miniature painting; she expands it by adding contemporary elements such as new artistic techniques or images dealing with current events. Bashir Ahmed taught her and others, including Ambreen Butt and Imran Qureshi, in the late 1980s and early '90s through a rigorous training in the craft of miniature painting.

Installation at Forum for Contemporary Art, St. Louis, 1998
Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani, born 1969)
Overall size: 12 x 45 ft.
Image courtesy of the artist and Forum for Contemporary Art, St. Louis

Sikander left Pakistan to attend graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1993. She remained in the United States and now lives in New York. Before she left Pakistan, she received her undergraduate degree at the National College of Arts, where she studied miniature painting. Like her predecessors in this long tradition, Sikander updates the centuries-old art form with the latest developments in art as well as current trends in fashion and jewelry.


Sikander and Butt are two of a number of Pakistani women at the forefront of artistic innovation; others include Alia Hasan-Khan, Naiza Khan, Huma Mulji, and Asma Mundrawala. Salima Hashmi, principal of NCA in the 1990s and currently a professor at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, has been very influential in the work of these and other younger women. In the 1980s, she continued to make artwork that dealt with political and feminist themes at a time when the military dictatorship curbed artistic expression.

Poem for Zainab, 1994
Salima Hashmi (Pakistani, born 1942)
Oil and collage on canvas, 20 x 30 in.
Image courtesy of Salima Hashmi

Hashmi is a renaissance woman involved in many different aspects of Pakistani society, from teaching to political activism. She has championed the work of younger artists and advocated for the rights of women. She has been a television actress, a professor and principal at the National College of Arts, a curator, an author of books, a gallery director, and a vocal political activist. Her social awareness came early as the daughter of one of Pakistan's greatest poets, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who was an outspoken leftist. Hashmi's works are collages that explore a number of social and cultural issues in addition to current events.


In Bangladesh, Runa Islam explores postmodern ideas in her art. Living and working in England, Islam develops cutting-edge videos on subjects ranging from the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder to the mechanics of vision.

Stare Out (Blink), 1998
Runa Islam (Bangladeshi, born 1970)
16mm film installation
White Cube Gallery, London
Image courtesy of the artist and White Cube Gallery
© Runa Islam

Before turning to the practice of art, Islam first studied it. She was an art history major researching the work of contemporary artists who use film as their medium. She now primarily makes films in which she considers presumably simple acts, yet intently observes and analyzes them. The young woman in Stare Out (Blink) does just that. In this film, Islam plays with the act of looking at artworks by reversing the direction of the gaze, which usually goes from the viewer to the image.


Shishir Bhattacharjee is known for his scathing political cartoons. More recently, he has made paintings in the style of Bengali film posters.

The Picture, 2004
Shishir Bhattacharjee (Bangladeshi, born 1960)
Mixed media on canvas; 135 X 135 cm
Image courtesy of the artist

Bhattacharjee's works of art were first seen in the 1980s, when he made paintings that were critical of the political establishment, but always in a satirical fashion. He continued this line of imagery, but changed the material and the mode of circulation. His political cartoons have appeared in daily newspapers in Bangladesh. During the past couple of years, he has produced paintings that appropriate images from Bengali film posters, but he alters these to serve his social and political messages.

Click here and here for more on contemporary art in Pakistan.

Click here and here for more on contemporary art in Bangladesh.

Read Naeem Mohaiemen's essay on Bangla artists here.

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