Drone art: Death on a canvas

A generation of Pakistani artists focuses on expressing life under daily violence.

Khan's The Streets are Rising is one of many works of art dealing with violence in Pakistan [Naiza Khan]

Karachi, Pakistan – Violence is part of daily life in Pakistan, where TV stations regularly ambush viewers with news on the latest bombings, and where sirens and screeching ambulances are often heard racing through the streets after attacks.

These things no longer surprise anyone, nor does the constant sight of flashing television bulletins reporting how many have died after the latest drone strike. This is not to say that Pakistan’s 192 million people are apathetic – but most have found ways to block out the violence.

Yet some Pakistani artists have not been able to tune out the din of drone-strike deaths, and have instead chosen to address the issue head-on in their work. This art has urgency, a sense of purpose with specific intent: To be part of the dialogue on national identity and the future of the country.

Al Jazeera spoke with four prominent artists whose work chronicles drone attacks and the effects of violence on the Pakistani psyche.

Naiza H Khan, 45

Khan, trained at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, has shepherded a generation of rising artists. Her works have been shown at the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, and was the 2013 Prince Claus Laureate, an award that honours outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development.

Al Jazeera: As a long-time artist and curator in Pakistan, how do you feel the artscape has evolved?

Khan: I have a short span of 20 years as observer and participant of this art scene, and over this period I have seen the “artscape” become  stronger,  more confident and a more ambitious generation of artists emerging from art schools. I see two strands of artists emerging from the schools here, those who are more interested in the market and those who are interested in ideas. I don’t think these two strands are mutually exclusive, but it is always a tough balance for an artist to resist the pressure of the market place, especially when they are establishing their credentials.

What is still missing, are more alternative platforms for showcasing art, mediating contemporary works with a wider audience, creating critical debate around issues that concern us as artists living at this time, and how history, politics and tradition impact our work.

Al Jazeera: In your last curation, The Rising Tide – which was a retrospective of artists from 1990-2010 – there was a clear split between art made from 1990-2001, and from 2001-2010. Did Pakistani artists’ voices change as a result of the events of 2001?

Khan: The Rising Tide was not a retrospective, although in so many peoples’ mind, it seems this way, perhaps because there have not been many large-scale exhibitions of contemporary art in recent years in Karachi.

The splitting of these two decades was inevitable because of 9/11. This event was not the central focus around which the curatorial premise was developed, but a kind of historical marker… This date was also not necessarily the pivotal turning point in artists’ careers, but it was a date that has significance when we consider the shift in our larger political and social discourse. Having said that, there is no doubt that this shift did impact the way artists now think about themselves, their role as image makers in this changing society, and the reality they face… as it did writers and musicians, for that matter.

Imran Qureshi, 41

An artist from Lahore formally trained in miniature painting, Qureshi burst out of his tiny canvases and onto the rooftop of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has also had exhibits in Berlin and at the MACRO museum in Rome. He was Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” in 2013.

Al Jazeera: Your work, starting from the exploration of the miniature and its amplification ended up on the Metropolitan Museum of Art rooftop. How do you see the evolution of your work?

Qureshi: I was formally trained as a traditional miniature artist, from 1990-1993, and I entered a field where the future seemed bleak, and I was told there’s nothing more in miniatures to do. I went with my gut instinct and pursued the challenge of exploring miniatures, and I took it upon myself as a specialisation.

Making the MET rooftop was not such a huge shift. There was this variety of mediums that I kept in day-to-day life, from teaching to learning, and it has allowed me to be an experimental artist. The more variety you keep, the better art you make.

Al Jazeera: European expressionism emerged as a response to World War I. Do you see any similarity between the expressionism of the Pakistani artist today as a response to society today?

Qureshi: The hostile environment that we live in, and how the media has made it accessible, brings us closer to the commotion… which we didn’t have before. I think all of these makes a work vibrant… And truly, art was the only thing left to show the world, and make our voice heard from Pakistan.

Like in Iran, cinema and contemporary art responded to the suppression, and made a place in the world, and responded to being in constraints. And as a result, the outside world is surprised.

Abdullah M.I. Syed, 39

Syed, a Karachi native, divides his time between his hometown and Sydney, Australia. Syed is a versatile mixed media artist who expresses strong political statements in his art. His work has been exhibited in the US, Pakistan and Australia. He submitted answers to Al Jazeera’s questions by e-mail.

Al Jazeera: With your installation Flying Rug of Drones, what did you want your audience to walk away with?

Syed: Firstly, I want the audience to walk away with an aesthetic experience that is filled with a sense of thrill and mystery and taps into our anxieties, fears, shared memories and trauma.

Without being didactic, it is the work that “aesthetically” and perhaps “poetically” talks about the history of destruction, menace of war and a wish to be free. Secondly, through such experiences, the work poses many questions such as: What is the true anatomy, construction, need and use of drones (weapon vs. surveillance)? What type of war are we in? And how is using these drones (operated by someone from a remote location who is not engaged in a direct human experience of war) different to an imagining and fantasising of a world (similar to a video game) that can easily be destroyed?

Thirdly, I want viewers to tap into their own understanding, knowledge and experience as an entry point to engage with the work. It is interesting to note that President G. W. Bush ordered drone strikes in 2005, but it was only when Pakistan agreed to the use of Shamsi airbase for the strikes in 2008 that the devastation revealed itself.

The destruction and the deaths of civilians have only recently been acknowledged by the US government (in May 2013), after almost a decade of this “Drone War”. Under the presidency of Barack Obama, drone attacks have been increased under the “war on terror” rhetoric that was initiated by Bush.

Aamir Habib, 34

Habib, a young rising artist who worked in a gun-making factory as a child, was influenced by his proximity to the Afghan border during his youth – where, he said, he accepted warfare as being as natural as breathing.

Al Jazeera: Your entire body of art has very obvious political statements. Why that is the only subject matter you’ve chosen to concentrate on?

Habib: People may read lots of books to understand the psyche, the emotion of life under war. But for me, experiencing life will always give you the raw understanding that no book can ever teach you. The society, the life I’m living, the awareness I have because of news, I reckon we are possibily one of the most news-aware societies as we are constantly ambushed with information. I’m simply taking that information, and translating it into the medium, the language of expression that I can express in.

And the drone attacks, the sectarian violence, the bomb blasts: They have a deep impact on me, which comes out in my art. And also because the basic issues that we in Pakistan are still stuck in, like basic food supplies, and wages to live day-by-day. After 65 years of existence, this should have been something of the past… my issues should’ve been different, but in 65 years, our problems are the same: Foreign intervention, sectarian divide, jihad, mujahids, what has changed in the last few decades? It’s all the same – just revolved, not evolved.
Drones and their existence… I see it as a territorial war. Who’s allies with whom: This is an intelligence war with vested interests, and common people have paid the price. This goes back to where I belong, what I’ve seen in my childhood.

Follow Alia on Twitter: @AliaChughtai

Source: Al Jazeera