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)

78 x 42 x 12 inch

According to the Dadis, it is meant to epitomize the hopes and aspirations of migrants as they arrive in the country. The “rug” in size and shape resembles a prayer mat. The pattern depicts a natural setting with foliage and palm trees that may tie its origin to a landscape perhaps in the Arab world. On the other hand, the cinque arch is visible in Indian architecture, perhaps Mughal, while depictions of such vases are notable in frescoes, inlay and Mughal miniature paintings. The iconography on the prayer mat in itself suggests overlapping regional histories and aesthetics that might reference the Global South and when placed spatially in the sky, hovering above a map of one of the world’s most powerful financial hubs, New York, it becomes representative of perhaps an agency that is not normally accorded to the migrant/Muslim in narratives produced by Pakistani or transnational artists.

Hamra Abbas uses the prayer rug as a motif to comment on the commodification of religion; size, colour and multiple reproductions of the same carpet are presented and viewed on an online shopping website, in this case amazon.

Hamra Abbas, One Rug, Any Colour, 2016

In "Fear of Small Numbers", Appadurai comments on the nexus between globalization and information technologies which produces “new, mysterious and almost magical forms of wealth generated by electronic finance markets”,[vi] but the question is do these new modes of transmission give agency to consumers by providing them with infinite choice so that consumers feel the product has been designed specifically for them as Muslims as depicted by Abbas and her carpets or do they lend them the illusion of agency? For instance, buying preferences could easily be surveilled by governments and racial profiling/stereotypical assumptions could be made on the basis of these networks.

In her Barakah Gifts series, Abbas takes gift shop objects found near the two holy mosques, enlarges their scale and transforms them into shiny, impersonal monuments dedicated to the triumph of capitalism. This highlights for example how commodification and religion are now tied together with status and material culture; to take home a memento is to assert the superiority of one’s piety and place in society.

Hamra Abbas, Barakah Gifts II – Penholder, 2016

Hamra Abbas, Barakah Gifts – Water Bottle, 2016

Some of Saba Khan’s works explore the effects of “Arabization” of Pakistani society; influences she attributes to the arrival and resettlement of migrants who had previously left for the Middle East.[vii]

Saba Khan, The Mirror, crystals and acrylic on Hahnemühle paper, 7.5 x 9.5 in2014

Khan uses low cost materials such as cheaply produced crystals and beads to create a portrait of a woman in abaya and hijab. Both the mirror behind her and her face are blank. Since orthodox Islam condemns the depiction of the human figure and encourages women to cover their bodies, Khan presents a selfie portrait that allows the subject to exercise her agency as an individual; it also serves as a double metaphor. The woman “shows off” her religious piety as well as her sense of style in the form of adopting the latest “Islamic” fashion. Or does it serve as a reminder of how commodification serves as a false veneer that can nullify it all?

These artists locate their discourse in the production a distinct material culture that gives agency to the migrant/diasporic Muslim, but it also reveals dilemmas about identity and belonging.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- REFERENCES [i] Appadurai, Modernity at Large Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 33. [ii] Mike Featherstone, GLOBAL CULTURE Nationalism, Globalization And Modernity A Theory, Culture & Society Special Issue, ebook (repr., New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990), 2. [iii] Madeline, Clements. Reframing Violence Transforming Impressions, ebook, 2006, 47. [iv] Roland Robertson, Glocalization: Time- Space And Homogeniety And Heterogeneity, ebook (repr., Sage Publications Limited, 1995), 28-29. [v] Ammara Maqsood, The New Pakistani Middle Class (repr., Harvard University Press, 2017), 118-123. [vi] Arjun Appadurai, Fear Of Small Numbers (repr., Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2006), 37. [vii] "In The Studio: Saba Khan Saba Khan, Issue 104", Blog, Image, accessed 6 July 2021,

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