The Art of Nameless Violence

By Faisal DevjiApril 11, 2018

The Art of Nameless Violence
SINCE 9/11, major museums and galleries in North America and Europe have embarked upon an extraordinary buying spree of works by Muslim artists — or, in more secular parlance, artists from the Muslim world. And yet unlike the case of Islamic art, which almost invariably refers to pre-modern objects limning an apparently global civilization, these works are rarely, if ever, described as “Islamic,” and their makers just as infrequently called “Muslims.” This has to do not with the presence or absence of any “religious” markers in these productions, for such “secular” pieces can also be found in what is called “Islamic art,” but indicates perhaps a certain sense of discomfort with the category itself.

“Islamic art” refers to the material culture of rich and powerful states in the past, and is meant to reveal the sophistication of a stable and settled civilization. Even its late products, contemporaneous with the rise of European empires, can be seen as the final survivals of an earlier splendor. New art from the Muslim world, however, or at least that which enters the global market, tends to represent poverty and oppression, if not war, destruction, and chaos. And since it would be indelicate to refer to these works as “Islamic” or even “Muslim,” they must be differentiated in national terms in a gesture that accomplishes the exact opposite of what Islamic art does.

Precisely because such works of contemporary art are clearly about jihad movements, counter-terrorism, and the like, and are appreciated for this reason, they must never be named for what they are. Islamic art must remain the realm of historical glory, while contemporary works should speak to violence as a national phenomenon that cannot be given the name of Islam. In both cases, the aim of collectors and institutions may be the same — to extol an alternative history of Islam by dissociating it from contemporary violence. And this depends upon bringing together different regions under the banner of Islamic art, while dividing them into national units when dealing with modern politics.

In the process of collecting art from war-torn Muslim lands, Western museums and galleries have stimulated, if not quite created, new artistic cultures in such places together with markets for their products. Seen to comment upon and criticize the violence out of which it emerges, this art is also understood as the condensation of an experience that can be marketed as history both in the making and after the fact. Like wine, such art permits us to taste the present while speculating on its monetary value in the future, when it will literally become a way of experiencing past violence without ever having to invoke the names of its utterly stereotyped participants — Islam and the West.

Lebanon’s civil war, between 1975 and 1990, set the precedent for this market in the art that dare not speak its name. Artists like Walid Raad and Rabih Mroué took the civil war’s detritus, as well as its new technologies of violence, such as the car bomb, as their subject. While their commentaries on the war moved well beyond its Lebanese specificities to make of a city like Beirut the site of terrorism as an emergent and soon-to-be global condition, these artists also recognized how their work was constantly being pressed back into a national canon of aesthetic modernity. And, indeed, it is remarkable how, even today, the civil war remains a major subject not only of Lebanese art, but of popular politics and debate as well.

Without minimizing the trauma of Lebanon’s civil war and its sectarian legacies, the stereotyped invocations of its violence in laments for a lost or yet-to-be-attained national identity have come to serve as its substitute. Compared with many of its neighbors, Lebanon is a success story, and its messy politics of sectarian accommodation in the absence of a national state even provide a model for an alternative future there. Lebanese artists have long recognized the use made of war in nationalist laments, and are adept at subverting it in their work. Thus, the creation of “fake” artifacts and memorials of violence that gesture to the war as an aesthetic and intellectual object while refusing to lend it any authenticity as a species of war porn.

Today the market for such works of nameless violence seems to have been cornered by Pakistani artists. Like Lebanon, cultural and political debates in Pakistan are also defined by a crisis of national identity. For while the country was founded as a homeland for India’s Muslims in 1947, its Islamic character has never been worked out constitutionally, and Pakistan was itself divided in 1971 after its own civil war led to the creation of Bangladesh. Yet unlike in Lebanon, this genocidal war has tellingly never been a subject of public discussion or significant aesthetic production, with the far safer War on Terror instead becoming the focus of new Pakistani art as much as nationalism, both of which come together in such forms as anti-drone protests.

Pakistan enjoys a proximity to violence, while being stable enough to possess art schools and English-speaking artists to feed the global demand for violence. And unlike other countries in similar circumstances, Pakistan’s experience of conflict is not an obscure one, having to do with the global War on Terror itself. Only when it is linked to the West can war produce commodities for the global art market. If for Lebanese art it was Beirut and its lost cosmopolitanism that often became a global reference, for Pakistan it is not any place or history that is important, since these are unfamiliar to international buyers and audiences. Instead fetishized objects like veils, suicide vests, and plenty of blood are what dominate the scene.

Yet until 9/11 there existed no such category as “Pakistani art” on the global market. The only Pakistani artist known in the West was a young woman named Shahzia Sikander, whose work in the 1990s spoke to the emergence and contradictions of globalization after the Cold War. Like her compatriot, the first star of world music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, she didn’t represent a national culture but instead questioned it. While Khan did so by engaging with Western pop and classical Indian music, Sikander helped revive the tradition of Persian and Indian miniature painting, only to reshape it. Just as Khan’s work cannot be understood as Pakistani, defined as it was by labels like “world,” “fusion,” or “Sufi” music, Sikander’s art breached national boundaries rather than belonging within them.

Shahzia Sikander, “Reinventing the Dislocation,” 1989–’97. Vegetable color, dry pigment, watercolor, tea wash on paper, 13 by 9 1/4 inches.

Although the New York–based Sikander is an important artist whose work continues to address global issues like neoliberalism or the way Middle Eastern oil has redefined regional demography and culture, she has been written out of the new canon of Pakistani art. As a product of the War on Terror, of course, the category of “Pakistani art” is no less global than hers, but valued by institutional buyers and private collectors outside the country in terms of nationality as a market niche. National identity, in other words, has become a creation of the global art market. Like Lebanon in this respect, it is the absence of a national identity that has allowed art to become its replacement in Pakistan.

Shahzia Sikander, “Parallax,” 2016–’17

It is the problem of nationality in times of war rather than the global character of its violence that tends to define the internationally feted Pakistani artist today, with those who focus on other subjects left aside. Talented though many of these artists are, their work is constrained by such definitions, and so dominated by visual clichés from the War on Terror like the burka or full-body veil. So the important Pakistani artist Rashid Rana lovingly pieces it together in a mosaic made up of fragments from other images — here bits of pornography in a rather too easy gesture of reversal. Of course, not all Pakistani art deals with war, terrorism, and Islam, though an extraordinary amount of it does, but without being permitted to call itself either “Islamic” or even “global.”

Only when they invoke traditional forms referencing the lost glories of Islamic art can these artists move beyond their nationality in a strictly choreographed movement. The art privileged in the global market is defined by Islamic art’s nostalgia for an apparently more “civilized” past on the one hand, and the nameless violence of an unachieved nationality on the other. Magnetized between these two poles, artists can only abandon one for the other, and at most serve both by a heavy deployment of irony in which present-day violence is juxtaposed with Islam’s vanished past. Apart from Sikander, whose work is seen by some of her compatriots as betraying a national aesthetic while refusing to be defined as “Islamic,” Pakistani artists like Bani Abidi also remain outside the narrow magnetic field defined by Islamic art and contemporary violence.

Bani Abidi, “The Address,” 2007, Diasec-C Print

Rejecting the all too predictable irony of the artists magnetized by this field, Abidi’s photographs and films engage with national culture by allowing us to see it in surprising new ways that are both humorous and affectionate, while remaining unburdened by the nostalgia for Islamic art as much as the duty to mourn violence by prettifying it. Similarly, the abstract artist Unver Shafi falls out of this magnetic field by default, since he makes little effort to link his painting to the aniconic forms of Islamic art and refuses to employ any visual clichés to signal either this past or the violence of the present — while nevertheless half-suggesting human and other forms.

Unver Shafi, Undocumented Bust, 2017, 72 inches by 60 inches, Oil on canvas

By contrast, the work of another celebrated artist, Imran Qureshi, trades in both the ironic mode and the aestheticization of violence. Unsurprisingly, Qureshi’s work dealing with what I am calling nameless violence is dominated by the color red, which is arranged into forms that create a resemblance between flowers and blotches, spatters and pools of blood. Characterized by such conceptually obvious, if visually beautiful, juxtapositions, this self-consciously “contemporary” art is lent value in curiously old-fashioned ways, generally by the artisanal emphasis on technical skill and monotonous labor.

The works of such artists are defined by labor-intensive practices such as those going into the making of Rana’s mosaics, which are composed of thousands of miniatures that on close inspection turn out to be taken from news images of sectarian killing, garbage, and other negatively national tropes. This kind of detailing serves as the equivalent of that excessive embroidery that also marks high fashion in countries like India and Pakistan. In both industries, value is added to products by the plentiful availability of cheap labor, for it is often traditional artisans who fill in the artist’s — or couturier’s — concept by their painstaking handiwork.

The modernity of this art is therefore superficial at best, depending as it often does on semi-feudal relations with artisanal labor — rather than the industrial production that characterizes the work of their peers elsewhere. And like fashion designers, these artists regularly run what can only be described as sweatshops, since unlike the ateliers of the aristocratic past, their workers are never apprentices, only laborers. And given the historic dominance of Muslims in many artisanal occupations, in India as much as Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is their thoroughly traditional, if invisible, presence in modern artwork that represents its most Islamic characteristic — which unlike the artist’s subject matter has nothing to do with war.

However, it is not simply their non-modern laboriousness, reliance upon an erased history of caste specialization, and stereotyped content that impoverishes these works of art. The worst thing about the market in nameless violence is that it only promotes good international salesmen, which is to say upper-middle-class and English-speaking artists from metropolitan centers.

Unlike the more diverse culture industry of neighboring India, where important artists come from different class and educational backgrounds, the art scene in Pakistan is dominated by a closely related coterie of producers, curators, and critics who may even be said to constitute a cartel in which no aesthetic argument or antagonism is permitted. It is a group that very much mirrors the Pakistani establishment from which it tends to be drawn. This is a world in which all disagreements are personal and no artist will defy the cartel, so that it is only product differentiation and not intellectual differences that separates the work of one from another.

Given the long-standing relations between artists and patronage defined by power and violence, there is nothing particularly new or even wrong with art having become a vehicle for profits made from war. But without the dynamism and diversity of genuine debate, the aesthetic hothouses created by foundations, museums, galleries, collectors, and even development NGOs in such countries and abroad can only nurture sterility. Yet if all this were only true of Pakistan it wouldn’t be particularly interesting. The Pakistani case is important to the art market because it provides the model for investment and value-creation in other warzones, soon likely to include Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

At the moment, it seems as if only Muslim countries in whose wars the West is involved can produce artists for the global market, with modern Iranian or Turkish art, for example, still very little heeded despite its quality and plentiful existence. Perhaps one way in which these countries might start producing artists for a global market is if, Allah forbid, they are plunged into war.


Faisal Devji teaches history at Oxford University.

LARB Contributor

Faisal Devji is professor of Indian History and fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Harvard University Press, 2012) and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Harvard University Press, 2013).


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