To see an imagining of the 12th-century Persian poet Farid-ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds as a five-panel monochrome in one of UK’s finest Museums – the Ashmolean in Oxford – lends another dimension to the birds in flight. Artist Ali Kazim situates them in his exhibition and deliberately leaves the panel unframed, to emphasise the freedom their flight signifies and also underline that there is a sense of fellowship conveyed in the journey being undertaken together by thousands of birds. In the poem, the birds are in flight, without any ‘leader’, in search of the mythic Persian bird, Simurgh. To be able to sweep in literature, history and objects from South Asia and beyond into his work and convey a sense of where we stand now as a civilisation, with quietude and subtlety, is a hallmark of Kazim’s pieces.
This first South Asian artist-in-residence at Oxford University has generated interest with his work and solo exhibition at the Ashmolean. Suspended in Time comprises 23 pieces, including those made while at his residency with Oxford’s Classical Art Research Centre between 2019 and 2021. These find place alongside objects from the Ashmolean’s collections, which have inspired Kazim’s work.
A Story of What Unites the Region, Despite All
Ali Kazim, a 43-year-old Associate Professor at the National College of Arts in Lahore, has a body of work that has been on display in solo as well as group exhibitions globally, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the British Museum, and the V&A. A product of Slade School in London after his stint at the Lahore College, where he is now back to teach, Kazim’s somewhat unusual way of interpreting his immediate surroundings, possibilities and the region has particular relevance today as the Indian sub-continent marks 75 years of its independence from the British.
With so much that now tears its constituent nations apart, Kazim dares to tell the story about what, often unacknowledged, unites the region; the Harappan civilisation and Buddhism find a special place in his work.
So, what drew him to Harappa, in a country not keen on dwelling much on its pre-Islamic past? Kazim hails from the village Pattoki in Punjab, just over 100 kilometres from Harappa, and scenes from there have always stayed at the back of his mind. Harappa informed his sense of drawing portraits and landscapes, which have earned him rich praise. “As early as 2002, I was struck by the small bust of the Priest-King found here, the braided hair, the Dravidian features, the beard and the amulet reflecting the trends then. Like when you suddenly see the light and the sight ahead of you appears clear, I felt something click when I saw that bust and it influenced me deeply when it came to working on portraits. As far as landscapes go, people draw water, trees and other features, but for me, as an artist, I still recall going there in 2012 after finishing with Art College. Surrounded by beautiful red shards of pottery, it was almost like a barren, Martian landscape. I found some pottery with the thumbprint of the potter still on it. I almost sensed a spiritual connection and experienced a sense of time travel when I touched that thumbprint. So, Harappa inspired me in both portraiture and with landscapes too.”
Why Harappa Was Ignored Post-Independence
Gandhara, in the northwest of undivided India, including Afghanistan, also embodied Greek and Roman influences from 300 BCE, converging with the spread of Buddhism in South Asia, enabling a new form, a Classical-Buddhist artistic tradition, to grow. Inspiration from the remains of the time in Pakistan, the starving Buddha and the impressive collection at the Ashmolean of stone sculptures of the Buddha, scenes of his life and other objects of Buddhist worship inspired Kazim to work with terracotta and clay. In his work titled Votive Offerings, he has forty small modern sculptures that evoke the old casket, all done in the traditional red earth colours of Gandhara.
Kazim thinks that while the colonials discovered and did preserve the artefacts well, post-independence, Harappa got short shrift as Pakistan was on a new journey of its own identity, its struggles and the desire to create a new narrative. The inability of India and Pakistan to move collectively on its shared past was due to the relative absence of collective research.
Another series, Ruins, draws from his experience of Harappan pottery thousands of years ago. This too, is a monochrome watercolour, where he imagines the Harappa hills. The paintings comprise pieces of broken pottery and are a meditation on the connection between art, objects and what they can say eloquently about time and mortality. Like Ozymandias, is it all that would eventually remain of large civilisations in future, too?
'We Don't Want Our Neighbour To Go Through That Phase'
Kazim has found acclaim internationally; his first exhibition in India was in Mumbai in 2013, and he has spent time thinking about why the art of the world outside the Anglo-Saxon gets far less space in museums. He has concluded that now it is for Asian and African artists to relentlessly push ahead and create works that would compel mainstream museums to showcase their work. The option, says Kazim, quoting the well-known, 1955-born Black artist Kerry James Marshall, “is to either stand with a placard outside galleries and museums insisting they show more of non-White Art, or to work hard, be prolific and create powerful work that no gallery can afford to ignore. I prefer the latter route. We need to up the quality of the art and literature around it.”
On speculative fiction and sci-fi emerging from South Asia, critics say that it consistently features a dystopic world, which, sadly, feels more contemporary than futuristic. How well are artists of the sub-continent going about the business of imagining new, collective futures in turbulent times? Kazim is unsure if all artists can be nudged in the direction to imagine futures that speak to the entire region, as “everyone has their own lens and eye and there are varying artistic sensibilities”.
What does he think of news from across the border in India these days? “Ten years ago, things seemed very different there. Now, watching videos and scenes about what is going on, I feel saddened. It is something we have gone through here. Hence, we worry much more. It is easy to take the route of violence towards your own countrymen, but very difficult to change hearts, minds and societies back after that. Hum nahi chaahte ki hamara hum-saaya ab us daur se guzre. Hum us daur ko khatm karte karte ghis chuke hain (We don’t want our neighbour to go through that phase. We are exhausted just trying to overcome that phase).”
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)