Agency of the Diasporic Muslim in Contemporary Pakistani Art - By Zohreen Murtaza

In recent decades there has been an increase in what Arjun Appadurai calls “a global cultural flow” of goods, people, ideas and images.[i] Other theorists such as Mike Featherstone also talk about how global culture is not just about homogeneity, but it is also about the diversity, variety and richness of popular and local discourses, codes and practices which resist and play-back systematicity and order.[ii]

This is particularly important when discussing Pakistani contemporary art because in recent years, it has been pigeon holed and bound within the constraints of certain labels constructed by the international art market. These may have emerged out of the aftermath of 9/11 or when the global art market began conflating certain icons and motifs in their art works as the only metonyms as Pakistan’s militancy problem and threat of Talibanization overshadowed global contemporary discourse after 9/11. This approach reduces artistic production from Pakistan to a monolithic theme, one that encourages confrontation between two clichéd words in themselves, “the East and West”.

There are other diverse and exciting narratives being explored by Pakistani and transnational artists that consider this binary model redundant and embrace Featherstone’s ideas; they suggest a new conceptualization of how globalization is producing hybrid material cultures and that in order to appreciate the nuances of these discourses “foreign eyes must turn local”[iii] as Madeline Clements puts it or perhaps “Glocal[iv] as Robertson explains. The focus of these artists negates the narrative discussed earlier in the article that features the ambivalence of the Muslim/cleric or terrorist. Instead it explores the emergence of a global Muslim diaspora and how their aesthetic preferences and consumption habits are imbricated in a constant mediation between modernity, migration and religion, a discourse that has become even more relevant after 9/11 when Muslims were forced to reevaluate their place in their host countries.

The art practice of Saba Khan and Hamra Abbas delves into these concerns and is underscored by the idea that to become a modern “global Muslim”, apart from education one must consume “Islamic goods” even if it means that a product might be ordinary and simply say or use the word “Islamic”; in doing so, they attempt to resist the hegemony of western brands and assert their identity, but ironically it still leads them down the path of commodification and western imperialism. These ideas have also been discussed by Ammara Maqsood amongst other writers. [v]

Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi work together and are based in USA. Their artistic concerns are diverse and for this article, I discuss specific works that use popular culture to talk about consumption, commodification and aesthetics. Their sculpture titled “Magic Carpet” shows a patterned rug covered with hundreds of lights. It is shown “hovering” over a map of New York City.


Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadi, MAGIC CARPET, 2005


Installation in the New York Panorama room at the Queens Museum of Art, New York

Mixed media (aluminum, digital print, approx. 500 light bulbs)