Poem for Zainab, 1994, Salima Hashmi
by Laila Kazmi
Jazbah Magazine: Women of Pakistan
“The objective of art is to give life a shape and though artists cannot change the world they can, through their work, give flight to imagination; they can give you the direction”
Pakistan has been blessed with her fair share of talented artists in many different fields including the art of painting. The works of painters like the legendary A. R. Chugtai and Sadequain are among the most respected and recognized around the world. However, historically, as has been the case in the West, there are few women painters who have acquired high acclaim. In the 1996 edition of his book, Painting in Pakistan, Ijaz-ul-Hassan beautifully presents the history of painting in Pakistan starting from the Mughal era and introduces the works of close to 100 painters from the region. Of the 59 artists whose works are discussed in detail dating pre-1980s, only seven are women. In contrast, among the 38 artists each of whom are introduced briefly in the last chapter as emerging artists of the late 70s-80s, there are 12 women. One of these women is Salima Hashmi whom, in the late 80s, Hassan considered a new-comer to the world of serious art.
Today, some fifteen years after Ijaz-ul-Hassan first wrote about her, Salima Hashmi is one of the most well-known artists of Pakistan. Besides being an accomplished painter, she taught at Pakistan's prestigious National College of Arts (NCA) for about thirty years and served as the Principle of NCA for four years. In 1999, Salima Hashmi received Pakistan's Pride of Performance award. Today she is the Dean of School of Visual Arts at the newly established Beaconhouse National University in Lahore and she also runs her own art gallery featuring works of young artists.
Salima Hashmi comes from a socially and politically active family. Her father was the legendary Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and her mother, the British-born Alys Faiz was a respected journalist and peace activist in Pakistan. One of two daughters, Salima was always active in the arts, performing in plays before taking on painting professionally.
Salima was about eight years old when Faiz Ahmed Faiz was imprisoned for his political views. She remembers visiting him in jail. Later, during the repressive years of General Zia-ul-Haq rule, Salima's father had to go into self-exile as a result of the harassment he faced by Zia's government. Therefore, Salima grew up in a politically charged atmosphere. Painting became her outlet.
The Zia period is considered one of Pakistan's most repressive era especially for women, implications of which are still prevalent in society today. Salima's work focuses on the suffering of women in a highly patriarchal society especially under Zia-ul-Haq's. Her paintings usually include abstract figures of women depicting their struggles. They are a reflection of Salima's thoughts and feelings regarding the political and social uncertainties under which people of Pakistan have lived.
Salima deplored the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan in 1998. In an interview with Humsafar magazine she talked about her series People Wept at Dawn which she says is in response to the nuclear tests. Salima expressed her frustration at the India and Pakistan nuclear test by saying, "It would be so much more fruitful if these energies could be used in producing food to eat, providing shelter, freedom from disease and education for all."
In 2007, Salima Hashmi published a book titled Unveiling the Visible: Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan. The book examines the lives and works of about 50 of Pakistan's women painters since independence. As Murataza Rizvi wrote in his review of Salima's book in Dawn, 09/2202, "She took to writing (the book) only because our writers had failed to document the history of Pakistan's women artists." Salima Hashmi spent a number of years doing research for the book and interviewing women artists.
Salima Hashmi has also been active in the human rights movement since the early 80s when she was one of the founding members Women's Action Forum, an organization dedicated to promoting women's rights though it has been criticized for being limited to the elite class of Pakistan.
These days Salima Hashmi is focused on mentoring and promoting the works of younger artists. She has curated art exhibitions showcasing works of Pakistani artists both in Pakistan and abroad. She has also been traveling internationally to promote the new art school Beaconhouse National University which has already attracted students from abroad.
This article is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.
Read Salima Hashmi's essay on the contribution of women artists to modern art in Pakistan here.