Artists make the world stop on a livid, grey day to appreciate a wishful stroke of bright yellow that reminds it of the sun, or a flower and makes it smile. They make the world pause to evoke what it is like to ponder, to experience, to empathize. They make the world believe, hope and continue to try; to live instead of just survive. Such is the power of the artist. And such and much more is the power that years of Pakistani arts has found in an artist, an educator and curator and a women’s rights activist who influenced the arts of Pakistan to strive and win. Sarah Zahid of Nigaah Art speaks to the incomparable and timeless Salima Hashmi about her extraordinary journey of passion, sacrifice, hope and love for her people and for the arts.
Q: For a celebrated artist like yourself, when exactly do you remember recognizing the artist in you and deciding ‘here is what I want to do with my life”?
Salima Hashmi: Oh my! That was a lifetime ago but alright we shall go there. I think it happened when I was finishing school. There was always a quench to paint and so I did and read as much as I could. Both these contributed to me deciding that it was indeed art that I wanted most for my life. Also, I was certain that I wanted to be a teacher. So after having finished school I joined Lahore College which was the only choice back in the day for someone who wanted to practice art. Around the same time though, fortunately NCA started and I immediately joined its design department becoming one of the 4 girls who were enrolled at the then-70 admitted students’ college.
Q: How did NCA compare to your later institutes of study like Bath and Rhode Island? Exactly how much did the ‘atmosphere’ differ?
Salima Hashmi: Well, it differed a great deal of course. But at that time, girls were not really sent abroad alone too often and of course I was used to things here and being looked after so NCA really prepared me- its atmosphere being really dissimilar from the world outside of it. I’m glad I had experienced NCA before going abroad because it taught me to be on my own and learn about the arts in a free spirited atmosphere. It equipped me in every way I needed it to.
Q: I find it bothersome that as a Pakistani, the children of our Country have absolutely no idea about our local artists. There is no knowledge imparted to them through their school education about the history of our artists and arts until they reach post-intermediate level and find themselves having to do all this research in case of an arts school entrance exam they intend to get past. How do you think we can correct this?
Salima Hashmi: Well to begin with, the entire curriculum has to be changed. You see, what our children are studying has nothing to do with us. It is not teaching them any appropriate form of “History” or “Geography” at all. They know nothing about this country. It was all a plotted idea to enforce a curriculum which washes away everything true and is drawn from scratch to align the manifesto of the ruling regime of the time- the one that intended to brainwash our children and the whole of our Country. It is the remnants of that dictatorship which we to this day experience. The terrorism, the intolerance, the divide. I’m sorry but I’m not afraid to say that it was that which brought our country down. They did everything by force, that which suited them. And to this day we are surviving its aftershocks.
Q: “Unveiling the visible: Lives and works of women artists from Pakistan” is amongst others, one of your treasured contributions. When exactly and how did the idea initiate and execute?
Salima Hashmi: Well it all started with the urge to do something for women. You see, post-partition when everybody was trying to contribute in their own ways to this new country we had just been given, the women were a part of everything. It was believed that they were doing only domestic work but actually, women were present in offices-prominent ones. Women in Pakistan, unlike any other country in the world were in noticeable positions in schools and colleges- there were female principals, heads of departments, deans, faculty members- they were everywhere and it was worth putting down into a document what a huge contribution they were making. This was at a time when nowhere in the world they were given that recognition- even in our neighboring country, they were appointed in textile departments- well for “textiles” had to do with “women”; not even in the US of A they were given such recognition. Therefore I started from 1947 and went up to 1997- to mark 50 years of arts in Pakistan contributed by female artists. I started from Anna Molka Ahmed, Naseem Kazi, Jamila Zaidi, going down to my students like Shazia Sikandar, Mehr Afroz, Adeela Suleman and more. It was just the realization that our culture and history were being wasted as no one was documenting it. I was certainly not a writer but the urge was too severe; I thought to myself “nobody is doing it so I should”.
Q: Your art works are known to be political in nature. Was this as a direct effect from the circumstances that prevailed during the years of your youth?
Salima Hashmi: Well of course that and everything else, youth, childhood and an entire life. You see, we were living in times that did not really belong to us. The 1970’s were one of the most political years the Country has seen and General Zia’s regime was not the best of times to live through for the arts and artists of any kind in particular. Apart from that, my mother was a journalist and father was a known poet and politically active person and was imprisoned for his political views when I was only 9 years old. Therefore my political conscience emerged from my parents as well as from the Country’s politically charged standing at the time when I was ‘becoming’. So yes to say my works have a political context and pretext would be accurate.
Q: You have a reputation for accepting works at your gallery ROHTAS which other Gallerists condone. What is the story behind your curatorship journey and the formation of Rohtas?
Salima Hashmi: During the Zia regime, the arts suffered largely. The only art forms that were allowed to be practiced were Calligraphy and that alone was what galleries were allowed to show. However, this is something I for one could not accept, therefore, in 1981 I decided to open a gallery in Islamabad with architect Naeem Pasha which was actually the first “Rohtas”. We established a gallery policy in reaction to the government’s restrictive imposition of showing landscape and calligraphy only in public venues. We decided our gallery would not accept any calligraphic or landscape works; So much so that at one point I told Mr. Gulgee straightforwardly “I’m sorry, but it’s our policy- no calligraphy!” and he looked at me with bewilderment thinking what is this girl saying?! So the idea was to continue making and showing art undercovers for the sake of its life. The inaugural show was reviewed and works by Anwar that were anti-army were written about. We found out before the intelligence arrived and I hung landscape paintings in place of those two works and thus they saw a refurbished version of the actual exhibition which returned to the walls after the visits over. Such was the very beginning of Rohtas. We got artists like Afshar Malik, Anwer Saeed, Zahoor to show their works. Then we convinced artists like Zubaida Agha who had sworn to not show any works in “Zia’s Country”, to show her works. Rahid Rana, Shazia Sikander, Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid began their careers with Rohtas. It was mostly about gaining the artists’ trust in us- our faith in them and vice versa. Since its commencement I have always welcomed works of art of all kinds- the “commercialism” of them does not exist for me. The whole idea always was to introduce “Pakistani art”, in particular such that was experimental and out of the box.
Q. As a teacher you taught at the NCA for 31 years and served as principal for four. It is widely agreed that you were most helpful and considerate in both these roles; how would you sum that experience of yours?
Salima Hashmi: Well... I always wanted to be a teacher. So I gave up my own art practice and dedicated myself to teaching for that brought a lot more joy and a much larger room for contribution in lives of those who were to become the tomorrow of this country. When I joined as a teacher, the General Zia regime was in its full bloom. Our courses were inspected, the classes were observed; the “Jamiat” kept a very close eye but I am glad that we were all like-minded people who might have had different agendas on their personal fronts but when it came to this prohibition against the arts and our liberation in general, we all stood in solidarity as one. In our classes to show, we taught what was considered eligible in accordance to the given orders yet underground, we kept it all alive... the drawing, the painting... It was a difficult time but we all stood next to each other and overcame it with strength and perseverance.
I just feel that the classroom extends beyond the classroom you see. When you teach, you reach out to the student formally in the class, teaching the certain area of subject but when you develop a bond with them, when you share your experiences with them, your experiences become for them larger than life. You help students in their times of need- that’s when you educate and not just teach.
Q: How would you say your father Faiz Sahib’s words have impacted your life and works?
Salima Hashmi: Well, to me he was my father. Yes he was Faiz Ahmed Faiz but for me he was somebody who he could only be to me. I think my whole being was an impact of who he was and what I learnt from him as his daughter. In particular how I have been with people, my social work, and my fight for justice, my lack of appreciation for anything “powerful” or of “status” – I learnt it from him and how he connected with people. I learnt of negotiating with the world from him; how he bore that immense love for people. His poetry was for the common man which is why it touched the nation. His heart and being belonged to the people of this country- they were always welcomed in his life. That’s what he taught me. Influential personnel did not in any way appeal to him-it was never their status or hierarchy which influenced him. He did not care for the big names or titles and thus I picked it from him. To be a commoner and to be the voice and facilitator of the commoner. Such were his values and nuance of his words and such became mine.
Q: Lastly, Pakistani art has flourished drastically over the past couple of years, what as an educator, curator and artist is your say on that?
Salima Hashmi: To begin with, our country or so to say those in power have never really credited the right people for their right efforts in the right time. Unfortunately artist of any kind in our country have suffered this loss. Same goes for visual artists and their endless contributions. Today, Pakistani art is experiencing its most celebrated time, yet ironically the celebration is taking place elsewhere, not within the country. You see, these artists are their own investors, nobody here is investing in them. They are giving their talent, their time- their all, but who is applauding them- venues abroad. For instance, look at Malala- the child who rose above it all and the media casually remarks “What has Malala done for us?” For the love of God! What sort of a question is that?! For one, she has shown us and the world together what hope is, what resolution is, what not giving up is! Yet again, abroad that star is recognized and given the sky to shine in while all here that is said is ‘what has she done’. This is what we do to our people. Artists might not physically change the world but they teach the world what it forgets most, to feel. People like Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid, Rashid Rana, Shazia Sikandar and so many rising new artists, they are our ambassadors- they have so much talents and same is the case with the rest of our people- we have it in us to really reach the mountains and I’m hopeful that we will! These are great times, let’s all continue the efforts and never give up. This is our Pakistan and we are going to make this land proud. “Barri zarkhez hai ye mitti...barri zarkhez hai ye mitti...”