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Making Art from Pakistan’s Chaos

By Aatish Taseer

June 27, 2016

A drain, clogged with pink plastic bags and filled with black water, separates Bahar Colony, a Christian neighbourhood, from the rest of this city. On one side is the Arfa Software Technology Park, a soaring modern complex of steel and green glass. On the other, the broken facades of low-lying brick houses are hung with rags. A sign reads: “Faith Gospel Assemblies, Lahore.”

This is the landscape of Julius John Alam’s reality — and his imagination. Mr. Alam, the 26-year-old son of a tailor, is part of Pakistan’s Christian community, some two million in a country of more than 180 million. But he is also part of something bigger: He represents the tremendous artistic energy that has come to Pakistan, even as — and perhaps because — its traumas have multiplied. A few weeks before I was to meet Mr. Alam in New York, where he is studying at the Parsons School of Design, a bomb went off on Easter Day at a park in Lahore, killing more than 70 people, many of them women and children celebrating the holiday.

“The themes I deal with are influenced by my lived experiences as a Christian,” he told me. The Christian experience is one of trauma in a country whose catalogue of calamities includes terrorism, religious extremism, crime, coups and sectarian strife. This chaos has nurtured a dazzling array of artists whose work is on display in the great cities of the world.

“The confusion is a kind of blessing because there is no consensus,” Quddus Mirza, another artist, told me one hot morning in Lahore. “India has this thing about Indianness. Here, there is no identity.” It was a strange thing to say: Pakistan, founded in 1947 as a homeland for India’s Muslims, once had a very strong identity. But it has been discredited, at first through successive military coups that undermined civilian governments, and later through terrorism, insurgency and the vanishing writ of the state from great sections of the country.

We sat in Mr. Mirza’s office at the National College of Arts, where he is the head of the fine arts department. The beautiful red-brick building, in the heart of colonial Lahore, has served as an incubator — “an island of freedom,” Mr. Mirza calls it — for artists like Mr. Alam.

The National College of Arts has been a vessel for a combustible mixture of individual personality and tradition. It has achieved what Nadezhda Mandelstam, the Russian memoirist and the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, describes in “Hope Abandoned” as “the flash point in art,” which “comes through contact between what has been accumulated (or concentrated in the bloodstream) over the ages and something occurring at a single passing moment.” This has the power to “spark off new ideas and words never before spoken.”

On the day of my visit, I ran into one of the National College of Art’s most famous alumni. Imran Qureshi’s paintings have been shown at the greatest museums of the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Barbican Art Gallery in London. It’s a National College of Arts tradition that former students, no matter how famous, return to teach, and when I saw him, Mr. Qureshi was on his way to class.

He told me a story from his student years, when a class was dismissed because everyone showed their work on identical 20-inch-by-30-inch pieces of white paper. “We’re all individuals,” the teacher told them, “we all have our own style.” The class was sent away and asked to come back with materials that better reflected their individuality. Mr. Qureshi returned with old Urdu newspapers, carrying headlines of violence and unrest, on which he set to work in charcoal.

Pakistani art is unsettling. One of Mr. Qureshi’s most famous paintings depicts trees splashed with blood. And Mr. Alam’s work has a similar darkness. “The Curtain of the Temple Tore Into Two,” a white metal bathtub filled with black enamel paint, represents the sewer separating the Christians of Bahar Colony from the rest of the city. Next to it, like a tombstone, is a symbol of muted rage and anguish: a lurid red Christmas tree.

Mr. Alam had seen very little art before he began to produce it himself. There were many like him at the college, and this was part of what gave their art its power and vitality. His main influence, barring a few examples of Christian calendar art, was life itself. “During summer nights, when we would sleep on the roofs, and there would be long hours of blackouts, and the way everything would be reduced to shapes and shadows,” he said, casting his mind back to Bahar Colony. “I never thought of myself as an artist at that time, but those were the themes I returned to when I began to see myself as an artist.”

Two experiences stand out in Mr. Alam’s mind. He remembers a few years ago when the Lahore Development Authority demolished a number of Christian houses. That, he said, made him aware of what he calls the “infrastructure of power.” He came to recognize the drain as a “social divider.” The other incident came in 2014, when a mob burned alive a young Christian couple in a town not far from Lahore. Mr. Alam’s wife, like the woman burned alive, was pregnant at the time, and it brought the horror of it very near.

Upheaval is known to do good things for art. Certainly Mandelstam, who lived through the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, and whose husband, Osip — the greatest Russian poet of the last century — died in a labour camp, would have understood what is occurring in Pakistan today. She would have known that for societies faced with dehumanizing levels of distress, the defiance of artists like Mr. Alam and the redemptive power of art, more generally, cease to be romantic notions. They become a form of survival.

Aatish Taseer is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Way Things Were,” and a contributing opinion writer.