January 30, 2009 / 9:27 AM / 10 years ago

Artists explore creative tension of South Asia's split

KARACHI (Reuters Life!) - An art exhibition in the Pakistani city of Karachi is challenging crowds to take a fresh look at the roots of conflict with India by focusing on the subcontinent’s traumatic division.

Peoples look an exhibit during the "Lines of Control" exhibition in Karachi January 28, 2009. REUTERS/Athar Hussain

Named “Lines of Control,” after the ceasefire line separating the two countries’ armies in disputed Kashmir, the exhibition tackles a sensitive topic that has received little attention from the art world in the six decades since partition, curator Hammad Nasar told Reuters.

“The whole project is to look at the notion of partition as a productive space,” said Nasar.

“Productive in the way that it produces something, new nations, new histories, new identities and it also reconfigures memories.”

The continent was divided into Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India in 1947 at the end of British colonial rule.

The split triggered a wave of bloodletting. More than 15 million people fled from one side to the other, and nearly one million were killed in an explosion of sectarian hatred.

Soon after partition, India and the newly-created Pakistan fought their first war, over the Himalayan region of Kashmir.

They later fought two more, and the threat of conflict — perhaps next time with nuclear bombs — still looms.

Curator Nasar, co-founder of the London-based arts group Green Cardamom, which promotes South Asian and Middle Eastern art, said neither country has really come to terms with partition.

He hopes art can help bring acceptance and a change in understanding that, he said, could help bring peace.

“I think we need to get a bit better at learning to cope with partition because we still have not, certainly not in Pakistan, and what we’ve seen, not in India either,” said Nasar.


Thirteen artists, mostly from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, or with roots there, contributed paintings, photo-montages and video works for the show.

Ahsan Jamal, who is based in the Pakistani city of Lahore and grew up listening to his father’s tales of partition, has painted colorful, intricate miniatures of Pakistani and Indian faces called “For Office Use Only.”

Staring expressionless as if for an official passport-type portrait, the faces give no hint of what country they come from, but labels underneath state the nationality of each.

Other works highlight the religious justification that underpinned partition, with one showing a mosque and a man praying; next to an image of a woman praying in a Hindu temple.

Another Lahore-based artist, Rashid Rana, focused on the notion of imperial adventurism to explore the historical legacy the countries are still processing.

Viewed from afar, his piece “Off-shore accounts” looks like a view of a seascape with sailing ships, symbolizing the quest for inquiry which often resulted in imperial voyages.

But closer inspection reveals another scene and suggests another, more troubling, aspect of colonialism.

“Once you come close, you discover it’s not a seascape, it’s tons and tons of smaller images of garbage which I took from this field outside Lahore,” Rana told Reuters.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Planned long before the late November 2008 attacks in Mumbai triggered a new round of saber-rattling between the old rivals, the exhibition has already shown in Dubai, and will move to London in February, and later to India.

While tension over the Mumbai attacks spoilt plans for Indian artists to come to Karachi for the opening, Nasar remains philosophical about the chances for ties to improve.

“The relation between India and Pakistan always has its ebbs and flows,” he said.

Editing by Robert Birsel and Gillian Murdoch

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