‘Uncompromising’ is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Sabir Nazar. In a land where even the most uncompromising critical voices have to make compromises, his political cartoons over the years show few signs of being ‘toned down’ in any way. I am sure that when the cultural history of our current era in Pakistan will one day be written, his cartoons will be counted amongst some of the most scathing critiques of the powerful in Pakistan: state or non-state.
Over the past few weeks I found myself wondering what would take this artist of steely nerve and razor-sharp wit to the walls of Lahore’s Gadaffi stadium. It was clear from the photos that he was working on a series of murals at this iconic public place. To me it all seemed a rather Diego Rivera-esque project for contemporary Pakistan. And his explanation merely confirmed my image.
Nazar says his work is about promoting the image as a legitimate form of expression in the mainstream Islamic world
“Public spaces for artists have been shrinking throughout the country. My aim has been to take art to the people!” he put it very simply. And of course, in a country that has been wracked by all kinds of horrific violence over the past few years, his theme was, to use his own words ‘democracy, peace and harmony’.
But the veteran artist was not flying solo here. He was supported in this work by six young artists from Pakistan. On what grounds did he pick his young team?
“We conducted a workshop and some dozen or more students attended,” he tells me. Renowned painter and art critic Mian Ijaz-ul-Hassan joined him in engaging with the students at the workshop.
With his characteristic bluntness, Nazar observes:
“Students here tend to come up with stereotypical images – flags, Jinnah caps and so on!” One imagines he would have told them to think about some of the larger issues confronting Pakistan today rather than such hackneyed motifs – questions of democratisation, the ravages of terrorism and so on.
But he is also quite understanding of the milieu that these young people come from.
“Look, young people want to say something positive. They don’t want to be fixated on the kind of conversation that focuses on the darker aspects of life in Pakistan.” He adds that he believes much of the urban youth’s support for the PTI and its politics stems from this very desire among the youth – regardless of the words of caution from critics of that political project.
At the end of the day Nazar was looking to “provide young people with constructive outlets rather than destructive ones” – as he himself put it.
He tells me about his work with the Interactive Resource C entre (IRC), an initiative that hopes to use art-based activities to promote social change, active since 2000. He speaks of the inspiration he draws from the work of radical Brazilian educator and thinker, Paolo Freire.
I ask him what the main idea behind his work in Pakistan is. The reply comes quick and confident – it is about the power of the image. More specifically, he explains:
“My work is about promoting the image as a legitimate form of expression in the mainstream Islamic world.”
I am intrigued, and we launch into a discussion about the historical role of the image in the world’s two great monotheistic and Abrahamic religions – Christianity and Islam. We discuss the differing attitudes towards images and icons between the various denominations of Christianity and the various sects and schools of thought in Islam. Through it all, it becomes obvious to me that Sabir Nazar sees the image as a mighty force: for control and domination when deployed by states and clergy, for emancipation when released from the shackles imposed on it by the same states and clergy.
Sabir Nazar is no stranger to a society where there is intense suspicion of the subversive power of imagery – and those who can wield it. He recalls working in his native Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, in the 1990s, when devout and zealous individuals would come up to him and tell him that his work was not permissible in their faith. Above all, they would tell him, it is a ‘zanana’ (feminine) thing to do – as if that would clinch their argument!
Today, attitudes may be somewhat different, at least in the urban centres of Karachi and Lahore, but the barriers to bringing art to the people remain. Sabir Nazar talks of the problems with art galleries and the associated art scene. For one, he believes, they are something of a closed club – mostly of service to established artists rather than those swimming against the tide. For the masses, the prohibitive costs combine with the generally patrician outlook of these spaces to keep them (for the most part) deprived of access to art.
Sabir Nazar talks of his upcoming projects. One will take him to Islamabad, where he will be working with the Lok Virsa cultural organisation. He wants to look at our civilisational journey outside the narrow bounds of official dogma, which begins our story with the arrival of Muhammad bin Qasim to Sindh in the 8th century AD.
“We want to encourage a more expansive view of our heritage!” says Sabir Nazar.