Text | Mariam Qureshi

Issue 36

At a certain level art is a quest of the self- an activity which enables one to introspect and delve into ones inner self and ponder about the one’s self as an individual. But when an artist strives consistently to give a creative form to his personal introspection, his purpose for art making transcend to a higher purpose. For such an artist, art becomes a medium to address and reform or uproot flaws in society and mankind as a whole. Art for such a person is no longer a personal goal -it is a selfless act to contribute to a better surrounding at a collective level. Beauty and aesthetics in art then become secondary and the main purpose is to convey a message through a visual language. Artists that have transcended to serving a higher purpose through their art can be called social realist artists.

Although now almost all artists in Pakistan are addressing social concerns at some level or the other but after the inception of Pakistan there were a few very influential pioneering social realist artists. A R Nagori was a Pakistani painter known for his socio political themes. Nagori’s anti-militarism and anti-violence exhibition sponsored by the PNCA in 1986 was unceremoniously banned. He is considered to be a pioneer in protest paintings in Pakistan. Nagori’s earlier drawings were of gazelles resting under trees. Nagori himself maintains “artist must take artistic responsibility. Art should not only exist to entertain the senses but it should play a role in the improvement of our collective existence.” He adds “Dictatorship enhances the urge. I used to paint landscapes and figurative compositions of voluptuous belles. Initially I earned a reputation as a painter of attractive young ladies.”

He narrates the tales of how some “sensitive artists” promoted the dictator to win his favor. “I had my first brushing with dictatorship in 1964-65. (In the ‘80s) a painter made a portrait of Zia Ul Haq to present to the president and interestingly the dictator was depicted with red rosy cheeks and the artist was presented with the Pride of Performance award during Zia’s regime. Another presented Allah in calligraphy and he conveyed his spiritual dream in which Allama Iqbal had asked the artist to convey his greetings to the the “Mard e Momin” president for his Islamization policy in the republic.” Nagori’s three paintings of the king of spades, king of clubs and king of hearts depict the Pakistani dictators General Ayub Khan, General Zia Ul Haq and General Pervaiz Musharraf respectively. These depictions are phenomenally apt at various levels of associations. Nagori’s Lal Masjid series shows Burqa clad women attacking innocent women.

Salima Hashmi is another multifaceted personality who contributed to social concerns related to Pakistan through her creativity. She is an artist, cultural writer, painter and an anti-nuclear weapons activist. She is known for condemning the Pakistan and Indian nuclear program in 1995 in her art work. In an interview with Farida Batool in a reputed magazine she says that her artistic ideology “the human body is used as a sign to resist the atrocities of state, society and forces of bigotry. Female figures repeatedly appear in her art and they have a symbolic presence- particularly her works from 1977-1985. The depiction of the female body became a comment upon the Islamic military dictator’s dogma on reducing women to being lesser citizens and invisible entities.” Salima Hashmi maintains about her personal creative quest, “I consider my politics to be about indulging in a practice of intrinsic importance to humankind. I would like to see a lot of documentation of Pakistan art as books talk about a certain moment in the history. It may be very important for somebody in 50 years to look and see what kind of dialogue was occurring between various artists in certain given conditions.”

Ijaz Ul Hassan’s work of the ‘70s established a new trend in Pakistan painting. In the early period he took inspiration from print media, posters and cinema hoardings and all of these were used to express social concerns. A lot of his work was censored and removed from public exhibitions. In 1977 during general Zia’s regime he was one of the first activists to be arrested and put in solitary confinement in the Lahore Fort. He also painted during this period. His work was very symbolic and the images were all derived from nature. He explains “You look through a window from a confinement through sunny prospects- peering through the bars of the cell.” The painting is based on a vine girdling a tree. The entwining vine conveyed the feeling of togetherness and fulfillment. The painting talks about lilies and other natural elements express ideas and feelings ranging from pain to joy. As a critic aptly puts it, “His work does not conspire to explain the meaning of life but strengthen man’s resolve to live it.” Ijaz Ul Hassan talks about the motive behind his works, “I don’t paint the servitude and wretchedness of people, instead I paint their inherent strength.” In reference to his depiction of women- “There are two women in ‘Thah’. The one at the back is a woodcut while the other one in the foreground is a painted figure of a female film actress Firdous. I was trying to make a comment on the viewers by presenting two angles of view the consumer’s view and the creator and observer’s view.”

If ones looks in the past one can appreciate that the artist’s urge to rectify society has been a very important aspect in art since a very long time in history. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a French artist and is considered to be one of the pioneers of social realist art. His aim was to look at things objectively and he was heavily against romanticism. Truth and accuracy became the main aim. Romantic emotionalism and drama were avoided and often sordid elements were not modified. He challenged conventions by depicting un-idealized peasants and workers. He was imprisoned for 6 months in 1871 during the French revolution after the dictator Napoleon III. He was part of a commune that rejected the authority of the French government.

Honore Daumier was another French printmaker, caricaturist and sculptor of the 19th century whose works offer commentary on social and political life of France. He made caricatures of political figures and satires depicting the behavior of the aristocrats and the elites of society. His caricatures of the dictator at that time led to Daumier being imprisoned for 6 months. His famous caricatures depicting members of the legal profession were a very scathing satire.

Social realist artists of Germany, also known as expressionist painters, made a great impact on the art world through their social commentary. Max Beckman 1884-1950 was a German artist whose traumatic experience of World War I led to a dramatic transformation of his style from academically correct depiction to a distortion of both figures and space reflecting his altered vision of humanity. When Adolf Hitler came to power he disliked modern art and Beckmann left Germany. Many of Beckmann’s paintings express the agonies of Europe in first half of the 20th century. The paintings reflect the decadent glamour of Germany’s cabaret culture and the brutalities of the Nazis. He voiced universal themes of terror and redemption.

George Grosz (1893-1959) was a German artist known especially for his caricaturist drawings and paintings of the Berlin life in the 1920s. In 1918 Grosz joined the communist party of Germany. He was arrested during an uprising. He presents a grotesque vision of a militaristic system and dehumanized power. He was accused of insulting the army. In 1928 he was prosecuted for blasphemy after publishing anticlerical drawings. Such as one depicting prisoners under assault from a minister who vomits grenades upon them.

It goes to show that creativity cannot thrive under mental imprisonment. Despotism is the biggest assault on creativity and an artist is the most potent and effective soldier against despotism


‘Art under dictatorship’. (n.d). A.R Nagori. Retrieved from:

Nagori – Voice of Conscience. (Sep 20th, 2007). Retrieved from:
Salima Hashmi:Multiple Views.(n.d). Retrieved from:
In Conversation with Salima Hashmi. (updated on Nov, 02, 2015). Farida Batool. Retrieved from:
Profile- Painting in Pakistan. (n.d). Ijaz Ul Hassan. Retrieved from:
Gustave Courbet – Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from:….0…1ac.1.34.heirloom-hp..3.5.1970.Jdr1jObHPUQ
Honore Daumier-Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from:….0…1ac.1.34.heirloom-serp..20.8.1250.jDEe3kZzMyg
Max Beckmann-Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from: Grosz- Wikipedia the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from:

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