On the sidelines of the Dhaka Art Summit, Adiba Raisa caught up with Pakistani artist, cultural writer, painter, and anti-nuclear weapon activist Salima Hashmi. The eldest daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, she has also served as professor and head of the National College of Arts.
AR: This is not your first time in Dhaka, is it?
SH: (smiling) No, it’s actually my fourth time. The first time I was here was back in 1994. But this is my first time for the Dhaka Art Summit.
AR: So what do you think of the Summit so far?
SH: have been slowly making through the exhibitions. I sat in front of the short film of Mani Kaul for a very long time. I was thinking that although the film depicts Myanmar, it is applicable to the entire region.
AR: That sense of hopelessness is there. Yes. We have seen that our tragedy has influenced the art a lot in Bangladesh. Pakistan has had its own share of tragedy. How much does that affect the art?
SH: Pakistan’s political history has been rather turbulent. It’s been very difficult and it continues to be. We are not in a state of calm. There is rising threat of terrorism and fundamentalism. Not just us, but the whole region is under the same threat. I strongly feel that our countries of this region should forget their differences and focus on the very major threats. But it seems that we get lost in our petty current differences and we don’t look at the danger that is looming above us. Pakistani artists are definitely addressing this in their work. Deep concerns about conflicts, gender issues and social injustices can be seen in their work. Life is what art grows out of.
AR: You were talking about history of art exchange in the panel discussion yesterday. Would you like to share your thoughts with our readers, please?
SH: Yes, I would like to talk about the memories I have. Mind you, my memories are old. I am 73 years old (laughs). But I still remember the exchange between what used to be two wings of the country. I remember the artists from both sides were constantly meeting and sharing their work. Not to mention the important influence of somebody with the stature of Zainul Abedin had on the educational institutions of Pakistan. Certainly as a young art student I have memories of his important presence at the National College of Art- as an examiner and as member of the Board of Governors. He used come and go, talk to the students and that was rather significant for us as growing artists.
AR: And you had a personal connection as well…
SH: But of course, we had a personal relation as well. He used to stay in our house while visiting. Apart from that, he was a person who was looked up to. There were also other artists who held their exhibitions there. Shafiuddin Ahmed, Murtaza Bashir, Mohammad Kibria…. So many artists we felt that their art tradition was so much stronger than the rest of then Pakistan. Having them around was a great learning experience. Many years later now, we once again feel the need of those exchanges now, which is not very easy. History has separated us. And there is evident trauma, which artists are in the best position to address, to discuss, to open a dialogue. Coming to Dhaka Art Summit, to see that creation and discussion of art is alive and thriving, makes me hopeful as an artist. Our students from Beaconhouse have found their way here. Ayesha Sultana and Shimul are very much involved in the Summit. So they are playing their role in the exact way we hoped for; that we have prepared them for in Lahore.
AR: How do you suggest this exchange should begin?
SH: To me the educational institutes are the strongest platform. I am hopeful that we will welcome more students from Bangladesh to Lahore and also Karachi. Students from there will come to Dhaka. They will rediscover the years before 1971 and research the artists who are pivotal and critical in art making from both wings. The lesson in history will provide the force to strengthen our art in both countries. We have a common shared history and this is very important for making new history. Artists are by nature very truthful and it will be interesting to see what comes out from their research of the past. We certainly need to have exhibitions of Pakistani artists here in Bangladesh and Bangladeshi artists in Pakistan. The artists are very very keen to organize residency, workshop, seminars and forums that are open to knowledge.
AR: That will definitely be helpful for the art of this region. I was wondering- Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as the subcontinent, has a shared history, roots and heritage. So what are the similarities and differences between the contemporary arts of these two countries?
SH: It’s very intriguing to look at the contemporary arts, especially the works put up for the Samdani Art Award. Thematically it might appear that the works are quite different because the people that you see and the environment that you see are quite different. Then you realize, despite the differences in themes, the concerns are very very similar. The concerns of looking at the daily lives of the people, the investigation into ecology, the investigation into gender, investigation into violence and conflict- all of these things are shared concerns of the young artists either side. Therefore it becomes more imperative for me that the sooner we begin the sharing and exchange, the more mutual enrichment will start.
AR: You are saying that the connection can grow despite the political tensions?
SH: More than ever. If you open the newspaper now, you’ll see the tension between our countries. It is crucial that artists collaborate and talk to one another. I believe that this is the only way to resolve conflict because the artist, writers, musicians look beyond the immediate tension and can see the bigger picture. As Tariq Ali once said, “Faiz has a third eye, with that he can look beyond.” I think all artists have that ability to look beyond the immediate. To me it seems important that those with common interest should now put a greater effort in building a connection. Current tensions- they come and go. But the conversions should not be interrupted. The conversions between poets, artists, writers and all the creative minds should go on.
AR: Your determination about building a bridge between the artists makes me hopeful too.
SH: This coming to the summit has made me more determined.
AR: At the Critical Writing Ensemble, you read letters from Faiz. Can we expect to be able to read is yet unpublished letters soon?
SH: His letters to his family members are in English and they are accessible. His letters from jail were translated into Urdu by himself. The original English versions were eaten by termites, apart from only 23. Now the challenge is to translate them back into English. Of course everybody is hesitant because Faiz had a particular diction and a particular language. Maybe if there is a translator who is more objective than the family- someone who is able to study Faiz’s way of writing- we will commission them to do so. We are trying the get the Faiz Foundation in Lahore to take up the massive job of publishing his unpublished letters. They will be largely in English. So they will accessible to a larger audience.
AR: Talking about the great poet. He was massive emblem for peace and humanity. How do you connect his works with the current turbulent Pakistan?
SH: I think I that people like poets and artists have a particular philosophy. In his case, he was a peace maker. He believed that there was responsibility for creative people to carry that message not just for the moment but all time. Now in these days, when we are embroiled in conflicts, not just in South Asia but the whole world, we need his words more than ever. His poetry sings urgently of today. Even when we look back to his works right before’71, it is evident that he saw the beginning of conflicts and he also saw that human beings would pay the ultimate price. Maybe that is why Faiz is still respected in Bangladesh. He was unwilling to accept the narrow definition of nationalism. He believed in people’s aspiration and he spoke out. That was a tough position to take but he took it nevertheless. He believed that was the right decision. It wasn’t the first time he went jail for what he believed in. Now he is read and respected by Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi alike. The reason is that he was bridge in the essence during the time of conflict. I think the poet cannot be a political leader but a poet must be a political thinker. And his messages urge people to think. The words he wrote are still very relevant these days.
AR: Do you believe art has any border?
SH: No I don’t. I believe art grows out of political and social conditions which is local. But I think that art reaches out and touches hearts beyond borders.
AR: What lovely words to end this conversation with. Once again, thank you so much.
SH: It was a great pleasure talking about the things I really care about.