Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Modern Art in West and East Pakistan

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Pakistan became an independent state in 1947. Artists created works of art to promote the establishment of Pakistan as a modern country. This joyous occasion, however, was tempered by looming difficulties. The nation was located in two geographically distinct units separated by a thousand miles. The form of its government seemed uncertain—its founders had envisioned a democratic state in which all religions, including Islam, could be worshipped freely. However, because Pakistan was created as the homeland for South Asia's Muslim population, there was pressure to govern with Islamic law. In this tense political climate, writers critiqued and questioned the founding of the nation in stories, novels, and poems.

New on the world stage, Pakistani artists aimed to present themselves as modern according to international standards.


Cited Works of Art or Images (3)

  • Anna Molka Ahmed, Punjab Secretariat
  • Shakir Ali: Nude
  • Ismail Gulgee: Allah


Modern Painting in West Pakistan
New on the world stage, Pakistani artists aimed to present themselves as modern according to international standards. They adopted styles prevalent in Europe and the United States, but they also experimented with indigenous traditions to see how these could fit into the modern world.

The first artist in Pakistan to have an exhibition of modern paintings was a woman—Zubeida Agha (1922–1997). Trained in both Pakistan and Europe, Agha developed an approach to painting that reflected her education and experience. Her images of landscapes and people are simplified forms made with a variety of vibrant colors reminiscent of both Fauvism and Rajput miniatures.

In the 1950s, Shakir cAli (1916–1975), fresh from Europe, taught and later became principal of the National College of Arts. He brought back with him knowledge about Cézanne and Cubism, which offered new ways of interpreting the natural world in art. cAli's simplified and heavily outlined images of people, animals, and objects reflect a familiarity with Primitivism, a style developed in Europe yet influenced by Eastern art. Anna Molka Ahmed (1917–1994), coming from London to Lahore with her husband, also experienced the art world in both Pakistan and Europe. Her paintings are suggestive of French Impressionism in her use of thick, impasto brushstrokes to present life in Pakistan.

Shakir cAli, along with Gulgee (born 1926) and Sadequain (1930–1987; 1980.3.2), was also interested in local practices, in particular Islamic calligraphy. These artists experimented with calligraphy in paintings that placed centuries-old texts into modern formats. Gulgee's calligraphy paintings are abstract and gestural interpretations of Arabic and Urdu letters. His sweeping layers of paint explore the formal qualities of oil paint while they make references to Islamic design elements. Ranging in styles, Sadequain's representations of calligraphy include anthropomorphic letters that are angular and sharp, similar to his figurative works of the poor and downtrodden. In other calligraphic images, Sadequain transformed text into objects.

Modern Painting in East Pakistan
Zainul Abedin (1914–1976) is considered the pioneer of modernism in East Pakistan. Formally, in paintings and drawings, he relied on the Kalighat folk art made in Bengal as well as the art of earlier Indian painters, including Jamini Roy (1887–1972) and Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951). But in his choice of topics such as famine and working-class life, his subject matter is more socially aware than the work of these earlier artists.

Atteqa Ali
Independent Curator

Punjab Secretariat
Anna Molka Ahmed (Russian/Polish, 1917–1994)
Image courtesy of Pakistan National Council on the Arts
Pakistan National Council on the Arts
Seated Nude in Blue, 1970
Shakir cAli (Pakistani, 1916–1975)
Oil on canvas; 35 x 54 in.
Image courtesy of Shakir cAli Museum, Lahore
Shakir cAli Museum

Often considered the first important modern artist in Pakistan, Shakir cAli adopted European avant-garde styles as vehicles for diverse subject matter. Even his calligraphy, an Eastern practice, is placed in the context of Western painting. However, he had access to and used many different resources, from the ancient Indian paintings in the Ajanta caves and religious art of the Jains to Chola bronzes and Mughal miniatures, in addition to paintings by Matisse and Picasso.

Allah, 1999
Gulgee (Ismail Gulgee) (Pakistani, born 1926)
Oil on silver leaf and canvas; 29 9/16 x 35 1/2 in. (76 x 91 cm)
Image courtesy of the artist

Ismail Gulgee, known simply as his last name, has produced numerous works using the different names of Allah. This is one such work. The thickly applied paint on this canvas spells out Allah in Arabic letters. In these textural works, Gulgee brings the Islamic calligraphy tradition to the modern practice of action painting such as that developed by the American artist Jackson Pollock, whose paintings were made by the movement of the artist dripping paint on to a large canvas lying on the floor. To many of his calligraphy paintings Gulgee adds gold and silver paint, reminiscent of the use of these precious materials in old manuscripts.