Can an artist remain dispassionate in an all-encompassing atmosphere of death?
Speaking at the Lahore Literary Festival in February, Orhan Pamuk talked about the theme of his upcoming novel: Nights of Plague. Neither the Turkish Nobel laureate, nor the audience realised then that the planet was already in the throes of a pandemic.
Pamuk may be writing his novel at a time when everyone is rereading books dealing with or describing epidemics: from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and Albert Camus’s The Plague, to Jose Saramago’s Blindness. One could include many other pieces of literature around the world on the subject, which must have been searched, printed and purchased to comprehend the reality of our times.
Interestingly, the authors of the three books mentioned above didn’t really experience an epidemic. Defoe was around five when the plague was ravaging London; Camus imagined an epidemic in the town of Oran (in Algeria which, like the writer’s birthplace, was then “an integral part of the French State); while Saramago’s story is a metaphor for all epidemics and human behaviour, reactions and instincts during a catastrophe.
One eagerly awaits Pamuk’s novel, because even though it is supposed to deal with a plague of the previous century, it is being written during the current pandemic. There may be overlaps, between then and now; since a creative individual is not a mere reporter or compiler of events, but transforms actuality into eternity. To do so, one needs a separation. One can talk about being thrown in the sea and one’s struggle for survival only after being rescued. One may be able to do so even more convincingly while sitting in one’s living a few years later.
Now that we are in the clutches of coronavirus disease, one wonders what will be the subjects of writers, artists and other creative professionals.
It seems that there are only two choices: either to escape into subjects which have nothing to do with the current crisis; or to confront the present problem and narrate it — in words, images and sounds.
Both choices are difficult and at the same time desirable. It is tempting to respond to whatever is taking place now. It is also a means of meeting your audiences’ expectations. The way the world changed had never been imagined or calculated prior to the pandemic. An extraordinary situation demands extraordinary reactions from creative individuals — whether they are writers, artists, musicians or dancers in self isolation. Machines and technologies have only highlighted the solitary mode of artistic work.
Yet, creative souls are connected with others, not only in their immediate neighbourhood, country or region, but all over the globe. They are linked through their words (often translated), visuals, voices, sounds and rhythms; that can reach places, far and foreign.
The real concern is: how to deal with the current situation in art in a way that it does not have a short journalistic life; and becomes more than what is projected in the repetitive news cycle. This is a difficult task because one has to be faithful at the same time to the responsibility to respond to the pandemic and the realization of coming centuries, when the pandemic would be no more than mere memory of one of the calamities during the second decade of the 21st Century. But it is not impossible.
On the question of how to express oneself in visual arts, there have been many examples in the past. Artists experiencing a crisis have created works which are relevant even today. Famine sketches of Zainul Abedin, made during the Bengal Famine of 1942-43, are still appreciated. He depicted “dead and dying men, women, and children on whose bodies carrion crows and vultures fed on the street of Calcutta” (Akbar Naqvi).
The real concern is: how to deal with the current situation in art in a way that it does not have a short journalistic life; and is something more than what is projected in the repetitive news cycle.
Perhaps the reason his work has withstood the test of time and passing of a specific incident is that Abedin was able to capture the essence of misery. You don’t see any reference to Calcutta; no buildings, no landmarks. Also it appears that the artist is not showing pity, or sentimentality, nor any comment. According to Bangladeshi writer and academic, Syed Ali Ahsan: “There was no suggestion of social criticism or satire in these sketches; they were a purely personal response to the spectacle of emaciated lying figures around him.”
Ahsan argues that Abedin “held aloof from political involvement and focused his artistic attention upon the representation of a given situation in a dispassionate and impartial manner”.
The issue then is: how can an artist remain dispassionate in an all-encompassing atmosphere of death? Probably art provides a tool to manage grief. It may be named escapism, but some artists refuse to mould their work in the face of disasters.
In our context, we have witnessed the Partition, the war of 1965, and the 1971 war that ended with the fall of Dhaka, numerous floods, and the earthquake of 2005, along with atrocities in Kashmir. However, one can hardly recall any major work by Pakistani artists on one of these themes.
Although Saadat Hasan Manto wrote stories about the carnage of 1947, and Intezar Hussain’s fiction carries references of the war and surrender of 1971, both these authors removed the layer of political views. Thus they were able to distance themselves from the popular or ruling narrative, and unearthed the human substance.
That distance can be achieved through various means — real or artistic. Ijazul Hassan painted some of the most convincing canvases on the Vietnam War, Thah, 1974, and The Mai Lai Massacre, 1974; and Salima Hashmi created works about the massacre of Palestinians refugee camps of Sabira and Shateela in Beirut in 1983.
Both artists were physically away, but were emotionally attached to those places. So they managed to produce paintings which, like Zainul Abedin’s drawings, remind viewers of specific atrocities, but are not limited to them. These invoke the structure of conflict, and tendencies that can cause such incidents.
Therefore, it is understandable why Pakistani artists have not attempted the subjects of Partition and the mass migration of 1947, wars of 1965 and 1971, or other disasters. Even though Jimmy Engineer made paintings on 1947 (Refugees Resting in the Shade, 1975-76, and Migration 1947, 1978), these works have more historic value, like Herbert Quain, a character from Borges story, admits that his work belongs “not to art, but to the mere history of art”!
One can speculate about the way the current situation would be translated into visual arts. Museums around the world are collecting objects that could document, and in future remind one of the pandemic. But one also needs a distance in time to reflect on the present circumstances in the pandemic. A duration in which our encounters and ordeals can be transformed into art and sublime symbols, because, as Alberto Manguel observes, “We may not share experiences, but we can share symbols”.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.