It's a time when many Pakistanis are clutching guns and detonators instead of books. However, for a defiant group, their hands brandish paintbrushes — their preferred weapon of choice.

In a society punctuated by gun-wielding zealots, being political is beyond dangerous. However, craven these creators are not: they boldly push the boundaries to explore issues adding ugliness to the once beautiful Pakistan.

Flirting with danger

Noted miniature painter Saira Wasim uses sardonic themes to highlight the apparent normality of exploiting the poor, the tradition of killing women in the name of family honour, extremism, jihad and American hegemony. "My work offers a voice against ignorance and prejudice. It's a humble plea for social justice, respect and tolerance," she says. "I'm just responding to the time I live in. Many people in the past have done with the pen what I am doing with the brush," she adds.

This time that Wasim speaks of can be unsafe for artists in Pakistan. Her work has been defined as un-Islamic, a statement able to incite a hate-fuelled witch-hunt. "I've been warned many times. Sometimes I get emails threatening and warning me that I'll be punished on the Day of Judgment. They say it's a very big sin what I'm painting and that I must stop immediately."

Wasim now resides in America with her family, but it's not just due to these death threats: persecution is not limited to artists in Pakistan. "The main reason I moved abroad is because of religious persecution and discrimination. I belong to the Ahmadi Muslim sect, which was declared non-Islamic in the constitution of Pakistan in 1974. Since then, Ahmadis have faced very serious religious and political attacks by extremist Muslims. Every year hundreds of Ahmadis are murdered in target killings and suicide attacks in our mosques, and many extremist organisations are behind these attacks," she says, adding that while those in power have done nothing to stop this, Pakistan is still her beloved country.

What makes Wasim's work unique is her creation of serenity while depicting lacerating events. In Honour Killing, Wasim beautifully portrays the helplessness of the women who are murdered by their families. Another painting titled Silent Voices depicts the violation that baby girls from poor families face.

Wasim has gained international acclaim. She has participated in numerous events across America, England and Pakistan. She was one of several artists to participate in Hanging Fire, the first US exhibition on contemporary Pakistani art. Her work has also been showcased in the Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Asian Art Museum.

Imran Qureshi, another Hanging Fire participant, received the top prize at this year's Sharjah Biennial for his installation Blessings Upon the Land of My Love, which depicts the bloody aftermath of a suicide bombing. These deadly blasts happen in such abundance in Pakistan it's possible for one to become desensitised. However, Qureshi manages to hit a nerve with vivid imagery, which he describes as a sea of blood.

Speaking to media about his award-winning work, Qureshi said that even during dark times good can be found. "There are so many suicide attacks in Pakistan and the idea behind my installation was to show how a landscape is changed in a second. People entering this space first just saw blood and were horrified, but when you walk over it [the paint] you see imagery of flowers and foliage. It represents that you can take something else [positive] from a negative thing," he says.

Qureshi is well known for miniature paintings, which highlight themes of post-9/11 segregation by religion, xenophobia, nuclearisation and tackles societal narrow-mindedness that results in Islamophobic assumptions.

His work has been exhibited in America, the UAE, Hong Kong, the UK, India and Pakistan.

Symbolic statements

Taliban-centric themes are taboo in Pakistan, but Waseem Ahmed colours over this limitation with his miniature paintings. He delivers scathing visual commentary through depictions of mullah figures, shrouded women, spiritual paradise, imagery of blood, fear and conflict.

The colours he uses are symbolic: muddy browns with blood-like saturation represent the earth, green gardens represent heaven. Ahmed's art has been showcased in museums and galleries across the world including Australia, Japan, the UK, Greece, France, Nepal, Pakistan and India.

Rashid Rana, Pakistan's master of photomontage, questions through his work culturally constructed perceptions, the objectification of women, and the struggles of contemporary society. He brilliantly marries conflicting elements: images of beauty with the macabre, spirituality with obscenity, serenity with aggression. This play of opposites can also be found in Pakistan; the modernity of Karachi, the deep-rooted traditions, the natural beauty and tranquillity of the countryside, and the decay caused by the Taliban's violent regime.

Cultural montage

By arranging a collection of tiny photos to create a greater image, Rana examines universal dissonance and media's role in the misinterpretation of world events, culture and religion. At first glance, the viewer finds a picture, perhaps of a landscape or film star, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the picture comprises numerous still photographs, representing another story.

In Rana's Red Carpet series, traditional silk rugs are depicted using tiny stills of bloody scenes taken from a slaughterhouse. Desperately Seeking Paradise — a large installation of a Kaba-esque metal cube — is adorned with skyscrapers composed of minuscule pictures of Lahore's dilapidated buildings.

The images used are crucial as they affect the connection his work has with audiences, particularly from South Asia, he says. "Around the mid-nineties, I decided to change the way I was working and intentionally turn it into something that would be relatable to a much wider audience. It was then that I started to incorporate images of billboards, sign hoardings, things I felt more people connected with because they had been surrounded by them for most of their lives. I succeeded in achieving a relatively wider audience for my work, therefore whenever I exhibited my works in Pakistan and India I got a very good response," says Rana.

"My greatest achievement is that I make art that works at different levels. It appeals to a wider audience, even offering something to cynics. At a time when my country is continuously in negative news, I help through my work to establish — to some extent — that there is much more to Pakistan than bombs and beards," he explains.

Rana's work includes paintings, video installation and photography. His work has been exhibited in India, Pakistan, the UAE, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, the UK, America and New Zealand.

Top prices

Imran Qureshi's miniature painting titled The Artist's Younger Brother exceeded expectations, selling at $18,213 (about Dh66,898) at a Christie's auction in London. The estimated selling range for the gouache on wasli paper had been between $8,000 and $12,000. Rashid Rana's Dis-location 3, a Diasec-mounted chromogenic print, went for $124,209 at Christie's in London, beating the estimated $86,000-$115,000 bracket. His most impressive sale, however, was in 2008 when Red Carpet-1, sold for more than $623,000 at auction at Sotheby's, New York. It was the highest amount ever received for a Pakistani artwork. One of Waseem Ahmed's untitled paintings, a gouache on wasli, was auctioned at Christie's Hong Kong for $5,649, well above the $3,000 estimated range.

Spotlight on Pakistani master artists by Faisal Khan/Gulf News Report

In Pakistan’s brief history, it has managed to produce some excellent artists. Whilst several Pakistani artists’ work is highly sought after, there are a select few who are revered. Often collectors turn down exorbitant offers just because they are just unable to part with the work of these artists. Some prominent Pakistani artists whose work has received immense critical acclaim are:

Sadequain (1930-1987) — Master painter and calligrapher, Sadequain’s work is instantly recognisable. His grotesque, morbid and distorted human figures and bold, iconic calligraphy are treasured possessions in several homes and grace many murals in landmarks across Pakistan. Sadequain has received numerous accolades for his work and was recently posthumously celebrated in a massive coffee-table book titled The Holy Sinner: Sadequain. Sadequain’s masterpieces include murals painted at the Mangla Dam and the Head Office of the State Bank of Pakistan. He has also painted the ceiling of the main entrance of the Lahore Museum. Sadequain’s work is frequently exhibited at famous auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and often sells for more than $50,000 (about Dh183,640).

Chughtai (1899-1975) — Abdur Rahman Chughtai was widely considered one of Pakistan’s most influential artists. He created a style of art — Chughtai-style — that is still popular today by several local artists. Known for painting women in a distinct Mughal style with oriental features, his paintings often appear to resemble magnified miniatures. Chughtai’s work has been captured in several books and his art is on display in museums around the world. Clean lines and vivid colours, especially on oil paintings, are his signature strokes. His work is available on online auction houses, with some worth more than $75,000.

Jamil Naqsh (1938-present) — The only living grandmaster and perhaps the most eccentric of all Pakistani artists, Jamil Naqsh is a master of modern art. Best known for painting nude women and pigeons, Naqsh has also paid homage to Picasso by employing strong cubist elements in his paintings. Currently residing in London, his work is very popular in England and is frequently on display in several galleries. His work can be viewed at and his paintings often fetch more than $70,000.