SOAS University of London


Arts and the Islamic World and Asia House present

12 April -18 June 2000

Artists working in the 1950s had the difficult task of determining whether to work in relation to dominant international trends, or to develop their own indigenous heritage - a dilemma shared by many creative artists across the globe in the post-colonial era.

Although the world's most extensive ancient urban culture lies within Pakistan's borders in the Indus Valley, in many quarters only the relatively recent, Islamic tradition was held to be of immediate relevance.

The exhibition opens with the watercolours of Rahman Chugtai (1897-1975), an internationally famous figure whose overtly Islamic art has earned him the position of founder of the National School, although his work has only marginally influenced subsequent generations. Chugtai uses line and colour in a highly contrived way; the amorous content of his work evokes both the spirit of Persian poetry and the visual language of Beardsley, Rackham or Lautrec.


A number of important artists emerged in the 1960s:

Shakir Ali (1916-1975) was the first Pakistani Principal of the National College of Arts in Lahore and the 'leader' of Pakistani modernism, having studied painting with André Lhote in Paris and textile design in Czechoslovakia.

Ahmed Parvez (1926-1979) lived and worked in Britain from 1955-64. His exuberant paintings hover on the borders of abstraction and figuration, expressing the dichotomy of his position as an exotic outsider in Britain, and as a westernised modernist on his return to Pakistan.

Zainul Abedin (1917-1976) in East Pakistan produced powerful images of rural poverty; while Zubeida Aga (1922-1997), a courageous female pioneer, developed a personal language of colourful abstraction.

Sadequain (1930–1987), consciously modelling himself on Picasso, produced vast murals and cycles of paintings, casting the artist in every guise from hero to abject victim. In Paris, 1960-62, his work created a sensation, wittily turning cubist fragmentation into narrative.

Ismail Gulgee's (b.1926) large calligraphic panel in the exhibition was historic for both the artist and for Pakistan. Made for the 1974 Arab summit in Lahore, it marked Pakistan's new interest in the Islamic world rather than alliances with the USSR or the US, and secured Gulgee's international reputation.

Jamil Naqsh (b.1939) trained under one of Pakistan's leading miniature painters. His surfaces retain the textured sensuality of traditional court painting; whilst his women, unmistakably modern, engage the viewer with wide, shameless eyes.

1970s & 1980s

After the separation of Bangladesh in the 1970s there was a period of renewed vigour and commitment under the relatively liberal Bhutto regime. This is seen in the work of Ijaz ul Hassan (b.1940) and the social commentary of Salima Hashmi (b.1942).

Zahoor ul Aklahq (1941-99), in contrast, explored the possibilities of the Mughal manuscript page, often enlarging it to monumental proportions. He linked word and image, figure and ground, in an exploration of national culture whose resonance is still felt today.

Despite the creation of the national Council of Arts by Zulfiqar Bhutto, the artistic presence in the country was fragmentary. Under General Zia ul Haq, it became almost an underground activity with calligraphy and landscape virtually the only publicly sanctioned forms. Some exhibitions of nudes were attacked, others closed early, or viewed only privately. Tacit self-censorship was an inevitable consequence; and it was under martial law in the 1980s that the role and status of women became a particularly pressing concern for artists.


Pakistan's artists of the 1990s are determined and resilient. Many of them complete their training in Europe or America and find that contact with Western methods and values adds strength to their work There remains, however, a profound tension - sometimes hostile and sometimes creative - between liberal Western influences and traditional Islamic culture, especially since the theme of the body concerns a number of artists.

Quddus Mirza (b.1961) studied at the Royal College of Art, gaining a reputation for his irreverent reworking of themes from familiar miniatures, covering the canvas in a flurry of energetic brushwork and blazing colours.

Unver Shafi, (b. 1961) one of the most talented painters of the younger generation, has recently forsaken his lively, metropolitan, cartoon-inspired reflections of city life for more abstract forms derived from the human body.

Anwar Saeed, (b.1955) who uses Christian, Hindu and Buddhist iconography, has an exhilarating capacity to grasp unfamiliar imagery to serve his own ends. His scantily clad figures wear masks, presenting a veneer of respectability, but cannot disguise the nakedness of the true person.

Shahid Sajjad (b.1936) is a sculptor in wood. His carved figures are a form which in itself lies at the very margin of acceptability in an Islamic culture.


The aim of Asia House is to promote greater understanding of Asian cultures and economies. Launched in London in 1996, Asia House runs a dynamic cultural programme for the general public and for a growing number of individual members. The Asia House corporate programme is supported by 60 leading multinationals. A fine building has been acquired in central London which will have extensive facilities including an auditorium and gallery. It will become the home for a wide range of Asian cultural activities, making it "Asia's House" in London.

Arts and the Islamic World aims to promote a critical study and appreciation of Islamic art, culture, history, and civilisation through publications, conferences, exhibitions and seminars. Over the years it has developed into one of Britain's leading international publications dealing with the art and culture of Islamic countries and communities world wide. 34 volumes have been published, all of which are available on CD-Rom.


American Express Bank Ltd.
- Private Bank (regulated by The Securities and Futures Authority)
As a global organisation, American Express Bank Ltd. is keen to support efforts that seek to extend cultural understanding and awareness. American Express Bank Ltd. is therefore delighted to participate in this prestigious and unique exhibition. For an organisation with a presence in Pakistan for over fifty years, the company sees this exhibition as an important development in promoting Pakistan's cultural heritage.

Shell Pakistan Limited
With annual sales approaching US $1 billion, Shell Pakistan Limited is one of the leading private sector companies in Pakistan. It has a strong brand name and a 100 year history in the region. In its centenary year, the company is proud to sponsor this exhibition on fifty years of painting and sculpture from Pakistan.