British Asian Artist from a Past Multi-Faith Karachi- by Rani Singh
Asian Voice-Tuesday 12th July 2016 18:18 EDT
Farina Alam’s drawings are constructed of repetitive nib marks, intricate linear work, and text showing a landscape of birds, lizards and people, set against monochromatic backgrounds.
Drawing with language and visual metaphors, Farina Alam critiques complex cultures of a post-colonial nation state. The artist places words and symbols within a laboriously conceived graphic framework. A ”naqsha” or map is dotted out in diminutive quill points, which she refers to as a “made up” language of text and image as an homage to the lexicon approach of craftsmen and artists under censorship imposed by Pakistani military and clerical leaders.
In her solo exhibition titled “My Kolachi,” at Asia House, Alam showed how language used in the media highlights a relationship to an image. The feeding ground for her research is rooted in Pakistan and its chequered existence as a nation strained by a power battle between the army, the feudals, and Islamic fundamentalists. Google images, the printed word and visits to her home town of Karachi fuel the works on paper.
The project was influenced by Arab literary symbolism, local Pakistani craftsmanship and a play of words in Arabic, English and Urdu. She feels the undercurrent of national political anxiety remains central to her drawings.
Farina Alam has exhibited with John Martin of London, Koel Gallery, and London Print Studio. She participated in Master Drawings London, Arte Fiera Bologna 2009, and Multiplied contemporary editions fair at Christies 2014.
Born 1971 at the Holy Family Hospital in Karachi Pakistan, Alam has a 1996 BFA from the Indus School of Art and Architecture in Karachi Pakistan. She immigrated to England in 1998 where she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL and completed her Masters of Media in Fine Art in 2000. Alam currently lives and works in London.
Farina Alam’s parents were born in 1930s’ British India. Her father was a Punjabi, born and bred in Anarkali market, Lahore while her mother was born in Calcutta of Kashmiri- Gujarati descent.
She says, “My mother Saleem, grew up in a traditional, religious household where she and her sisters were educated but primarily raised for marriage and bearing children. My father, Aftab, was raised with the liberal middle class values of his journalist grandfather, Mahbub Alam, founder of the daily Paisa Akhbar newspaper. He pursued a career in civil engineering of ports and harbours in Karachi.”
Farina’s memory of Karachi in the late 70s was of a peaceful, cosmopolitan market city. The postcolonial port was an amalgam of Muslims from the sub-continent, Goan Catholics, Sikhs, Buddhist, Bahais, Parsees and Jews. She recalls, “As a child, I grew up in a culture that celebrated Eid, Naurose, Easter and Christmas through my parents’ multi-racial circle of friends. British culture permeated daily life during school days, through Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, a vigorously academic Cambridge syllabus, the school dress code, and English as the main language of instruction.”
But there were early challenges too.
“I remember the Karachi riots after Zia-ul Haq came to power due to the frequent closure of our school that was situated in hub of the old city. The radicalisation of Pakistan was visually manifest through the proliferation of mosques in every street corner, bearded turbaned maulvis, head scarves on women, and censorship of the media. As a young girl I watched bemused as kissing scenes in western programmes were artfully spliced by PTV clerics from our viewing pleasure. Sex was a dirty word and as young girls entering puberty we had the serious responsibility of hiding our growing breasts under layers of fabric from secondary school onwards. Fear of the student groups such as the Kalashnikov-festooned Jamaat-e Islamis affected what could be expressed openly in public forums, art schools and universities.”
Fast forward to the National College of Fine Art Lahore in the 90s, and a seismic event in Farina’s life. It was a turning point. “This was the first time in my sheltered middleclass upbringing that I was actually interacting with young people from starkly different and poorer backgrounds to mine. Now I was suddenly aware of the air-conditioned Honda civic car journey next to the carbon monoxide infused rickshaw rides taken by other college peers. I was just on the tip of an iceberg.”
Art was not a difficult choice for her. “Fortunately as a girl I was allowed to choose my specialism as long as I went to university-unlike my brothers who were pushed into engineering. My brothers and I were always inclined towards arts and history.”
“My Kolachi” by Farina Alam
article by Pamela Kember 14/05/15
Head of Arts & Learning
The Exhibitions Programme at Asia House, is dedicated to engaging in a dialogue with artists who take as their starting point a discourse on their transnational experiences, and who explore the implications which their visual practice has on a growing multi cultural, multi linguistic society. The concept of transnationalism, also refers to the increasing trans-border relations- that affect the migrant voice and one’s sense of identity and belonging as much as it is to engage with issues of national boundaries, nation states and post-colonial narratives.
Drawing upon her own engagement with language and visual metaphors, Farina Alam navigates the border-lines, contours and crevices that redefine the notion of a sense of place and belonging, and how this bears upon Pakistan as a post-colonial nation state.
Alam’s singular works on paper are probably her most complex to date, as they combine an intricate array of text and images to expose recurring themes of religion, politics and conceptions of identity. They also blur the usual hierarchy afford to the image over the written word, creating a myriad of literary quotations amidst the painted birds, animals, foliage and figures juxtaposed on a backdrop of textile patterns. Retrieving fragments of poems by European artists, interacting with Arabic calligraphy the artist brings a multiplicity of voices together, reconstructed to enter into a new dialogue with one another on the surface of the paper. The drawings are also host to a series of influences picked from Arab literary symbolism, local Pakistani craftsmanship and a play of words in Arabic, English and Urdu.
As a Pakistani, Alam feels the undercurrent of national political anxiety remains central to her drawings. Hence, the title, My Kolachi, has a deep significance for the artist. A play on Mai Kolachi, the fishing woman after whom modern day Karachi is named and Alam’s hometown.
Engaged in this way, Alam places words and symbols within a laboriously conceived graphic framework. A “naqsha” or map is dotted out in diminutive quill points, which she refers to as a “made-up” language of text and image as homage to the lexicon approach of craftsmen and artists under censorship imposed by Pakistani military and clerical leaders. The artist is also presenting us with various conundrums, leaving us to reflect both the power of the written word, but also how the different language styles, (here in terms of fonts and calligraphy) can perform different functions in society and can illicit very different responses.
Alam’s long-term interest in how language used by mass media highlights an immediate relationship to an image, adds another layer to the impact of social communication, whether disseminating information, attitudes and beliefs. The feeding ground for her research is certainly rooted in Pakistan and its checkered existence as a nation strained by a power battle between the army, the feudal, and the Islamic fundamentalists, however some of her themes are more universally symbolic or iconic. In a country where many things are looked at from a political angle, language often highlights “ideologies” within the media and in turn can often control or regulate language’s use.
In recent years she has taken to using the tools of the internet and other modes of digital technology to fuel her work. Both with the knowledge that language of global communication systems act as a powerful weapon in exposing government policies, and can also raise threats to social stability – take for example, her precarious juxtaposing of the word “bomb” with “paradise” speaks eloquently of the potential fragility of our lives, during periods of sociopolitical instability or unrest, and may be associated with modern day terrorist threats as much as through the various information networks globally.
Interestingly, Alam’s images often contain branches or roots upon which words and images hang, or emerge almost rhizomic in character, reaching beyond trees and woodlands to construct new imaginary flowing landscapes. I’m reminded of the sociologist Manuel Castells’s understanding of self and of social identity which forms an opposing force to the ‘net’ where we encounter what he coined a ‘space of flows’ – global information networks – that may create our sense of belonging locally and globally, yet also shape our concept of memory, and at times, creating a sense of rootlessness but also one of social responsibility.
Pamela Kember, May 2015.
Farina Alam has exhibited with John Martin of London UK, Koel Gallery Karachi Pakistan and London Print Studio London UK. She has also participated in Master Drawings London 2008, Arte Fiera Bologna 2009, and a Multiplied Contemporary Editions Fair at Christies 2014.
Born 1971 in Karachi, Pakistan, Alam attained a BFA at the Indus School of Art and Architecture in Karachi Pakistan in 1996. She immigrated to England in 1998 where she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art UCL and completed her Masters of Media in Fine Art in 2000. Alam currently lives and works in London.
Two works inspired by life in Pakistan on sale at Benefit Auction
By Lucy Tomlinson
Two works generously donated by Pakistani artists Maha Ahmed and Farina Alam, both living in the UK, will be auctioned in June on paddle8.com to raise money to support Asia House’s ongoing arts programme.
Drawing with language and visual metaphors, highly established artist Farina Alam’s Crow Crow Crow (2014) is a work on paper which explores the notion of place and how it bears upon Pakistan as a post-colonial nation state. She uses Arabic, Urdu and English text to explore how concepts can be attained or lost in translation, her work being engaged with issues of boundaries and nationhood. Alam spent a large portion of her live living in Karachi, where social tension manifests through street art whereby anti-imperial slogans and jihadist propaganda is rife.
As a Pakistani, she feels the undercurrent of national political anxiety remains central to her drawings.
Farina Alam, Crow Crow Crow, 2014, pen and ink on Somerset paper, courtesy of the artist
In 2015, Asia House hosted the complete series of My Kolachi in a solo show of drawings by Alam. My Kolachiexpressed a series of influences picked from Arab literary symbolism, local Pakistani craftsmanship and a play of words across languages.
Born in 1971 in Pakistan, Alam now lives and works in London. She studied at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi then moving to the UK to study for an MFA in print at the Slade School of Fine Art.
Maha Ahmed’s work is also hugely influenced by her Pakistani roots. She has said that due to the insurgency of terrorism and deteriorating national security, Pakistanis today hide under a false pretence of safety. Through her work she aims to employ abstractions, directing emphasis on the mood and ambience in spaces.
With her paintings she encourages the audience to seek and look closer, in attempt to find solace in the little things. What at first may seem like a black space, on closer inspection, becomes a scene filled with life.
Emerging artist Maha Ahmed graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan. After receiving the prestigious Caspian Arts Foundation Scholarship, she completed her postgraduate degree in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins.
Ahmed uses a miniature painting technique, as seen in Untitled, which she learnt at the National College of Arts in Lahore. She has said that was intrigued by the sensitive nature of the tradition, which requires an immaculate level of skill and patience to be able to fully master the craft.
Miniature painting is amongst the richest cultural traditions that emerged at the time Mughals ruled the Indian Subcontinent. Akbar was the first Mughal patron of the arts. With Lahore as his principal residence, he commissioned numerous illustrated manuscripts that incorporate Persian, Indian and even European elements.
In April 2016 Asia House held an exhibition of Ahmed’s work, Maha Ahmed | A Seed Once Planted. She is represented by Display Gallery, London, where she will have her solo show A Mute Land in July 2016.
The Benefit Auction is being held to celebrate 20 years since Asia House was founded in 1996 and to raise funds for its ongoing programme of arts and cultural events.