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Pix in Pakistan

Photography as art or not — a pertinent question in the world of aesthetics

Pix in Pakistan
Untitled: Aar Par Project; Rashid Rana.

In a country where you see posters and advertisements selling ‘Islamic honey’, disputes and debates about prohibition are understandable. One such favourite debate is connected to image: about how making pictures of living beings is forbidden. There have been various interpretations and clarifications but there still is reluctance towards acquiring or displaying a work of art that contains a human figure.

The reaction is more negative towards sculpture than say painting, but it is almost neutral when it comes to photography. Yet one must not forget the strong reaction of Muslim clerics against the practice of photography when it was introduced in the colonial period. Now, while the doubts on painting or sculpting a human figure persist, the field of photography has ceased to be controversial at all. The clerics have no issue with having their pictures printed in newspapers or on flex posters that announce holy processions and posters promoting their parties.

Perhaps the change of heart in favour of photography, and not quite for painting or sculpture, is rooted in the difference of image-making in these genres. Thus, in common psyche, a photograph is considered the image ‘made’ by a machine, whereas it is the hand of an artist that is more pronounced in a painting or sculpture. Hence the trace of sin is unmistakeable.

In our houses too, the pictures of ancestors and other family members are placed without considering them to be in clash with religious codes. On the other hand, the reaction to ‘art’ is poles apart because an ordinary viewer is conscious of the ability and craft of an individual who constructs the replica of God’s creations. So the notion of prohibition is connected with the matter of intention and responsibility of a person who has the capacity of ‘reproducing’ living beings in or as art.

This difference that resides in the mind of our public and moral guides turns into a pertinent question in the world of aesthetics: Is photography an art form or not?

This question was the main point of discussion during the launch of the Pakistan issue of ‘PIX’, the photography magazine from India.

This was the main point of discussion during the launch of the Pakistan issue of ‘PIX’, the photography magazine from India (which included works of various artists like Amber Hammad, Mariam Ibraaz and others). As the status of photography was argued, an interesting aspect was highlighted by noted artist Salima Hashmi. She disclosed that Ustad Haji Sharif, the celebrated master of miniature painting, who trained a number of artists at the National College of Arts, was also practising photography in Patiala. After migrating to Pakistan, he chose miniature instead of photography due to the former’s better and brighter prospects.

It was surprising to know this side of local art history, because who knows what the recent past and course of miniature painting would have been, if the respected Ustad had preferred photography to miniature.

In a way the present revival, success and spread of miniature from Pakistan partially depended upon his decision. In fact having these two practices of image making in one person is not unusual, because both relate to recording important personages, places and events. Traditionally, the task of a miniature painting in a court was to preserve and document the ruler, his courtiers, courtesans, court, and activities such as military conquests, hunting and patronage of poets, musicians and dancers. Photography did this job more accurately and quickly.

Unveiling the visible; Amber Hammad.

Unveiling the visible; Amber Hammad.

There is another formal detail that connects photography with miniature. Before the invention of coloured pictures and computers, photographers used to correct/beautify their pictures by eliminating unnecessary marks/warts and adjusting eyebrows, hair etc., along with adding colours on black and white prints. By using a thin brush (made with squirrel hair and bought by miniaturists and photographers) and tints of colours (lifting pigments from a book with pages in varying hues) to create a more attractive or life-like resemblance was not too dissimilar from the technique of pardakhat (shading with thin brush strokes) in miniature painting.

The discourse on the distance between or the relation of photography and art is purely academic. It’s rather an out-dated debate because in France photographs (Daguerreotype) were shown in 1857 Salon next to paintings and sculptures. The photographs were included in 1917 Independent Artists exhibition held in New York too, a show in which Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was rejected! Thus from a period as early as that, the division between photography and painting, in terms of classifying one as art and not the other, did not exist so strongly. It still does not since major artists of our times have been using photography as their mode of expression, such as Gilbert & George, Cindy Sherman and Andeas Gursky, to name a few.

The difference between photography and art may be a hypothetical engagement for an artist trained in Pakistan who is taught about art works from other eras and areas. A student or young artist may imitate, learn and get inspired from the art of Renaissance, Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism, and other movements of contemporary art, but in reality he is influenced from photography, because all those works are transformed in the shape of small photographs printed in books of art history and art criticism. So the interaction and exposure of an artist here is restricted to reproductions of art works in imported publications.

However the question of photography being art or not has another dimension because in this age where everybody is carrying a mobile phone with inbuilt camera. Now everyone is an image-maker, hence an artist.

The debate also becomes irrelevant in a society whose major artist Rashid Rana employs the medium of photography for his works. When one sees his art in flesh (as was the case with his Retrospective at the Mohatta Palace Museum Karachi), one is not even aware that his medium is photography, because the power of the visual and the significance of content take a viewer away from the limitation, level, and message of the medium.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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