From Sharjah to Manchester, from Amsterdam to Kolkata, Aisha Khalid’s work presents a perspective on Pakistan that is not always visible from everyday headlines. Installations that appear at first glance to be painstakingly executed representations of her country’s artistry reveal themselves as discourses on gender, geopolitics, race – and more recently, spirituality, as in her latest work, Water Seeks the Thirsty. Using textiles, safety pins and Sufi music, it forms part of a new exhibition, Seeing & Perceiving, at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Ithra, in Dhahran. Contemplating Khalid’s larger-than-life artworks such as this one prompts the viewer to consider Pakistan’s ancient artistic heritage, its people and their position in the world, and the viewer’s own response to these questions.
“I feel making art is my power and I use it to spread my voice internationally,” Khalid says, discussing the way she works with GN Focus ahead of Pakistani Independence Day. “Pakistan is culturally a very rich country. When travelling within this country, every hundred kilometres you will see a change in language, food, textiles, embroideries, rugs, carpets and more,” she says.
In her work, she reinterprets the Mughal painting traditions of the early modern period, which she studied at the National College of Arts in Lahore alongside several other of the country’s neo-miniaturist artists. She then finished her master’s at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, exploring the connection between tradition and contemporary, between external and personal. “I am trained in a centuries-old technique of miniature painting, which is a traditional technique in this area that comes from Islamic art and culture. Now I am using it in very contemporary way, that make it unique and more acceptable, as well as showing my own signature and identity,” she says.
When working on site-specific installations or commissioned projects, as with the Ithra piece, she tries to relate her work with that area and its history or socio-politics. “And of course, it comes in my mind who will going to experience this work and where it going to be placed, exhibited or travelled,” she says. In the process, her work connects cultures and questions perceptions.
As one of her country’s most celebrated contemporary artists, Khalid exemplifies its cultural heft – and how this soft power can shape international perceptions of Pakistan.
Pakistan can achieve a great deal in building trade relations, image building and political influence if it is able to celebrate diversity of cultural identities, institutionalise arts, develop and modernise traditional music industry and patronise digital platforms
Harvard academic Joseph Nye popularised the concept of using soft power in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power as “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants… in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.” The term can also be expanded to mean using tools such as culture and political values to appeal and attract other nations. American cultural icons now dominate the global discourse, a prime example of soft power at work.
“Pakistan’s soft power includes arts, literature, heritage, media, diverse authentic cultural artefacts and digital platforms. The scope of arts like drama, telefilms, theatre, music and painting and digital platforms has widened substantially in Pakistan since independence,” Khadim Hussain, Provincial Culture Secretary of Awami National Party Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, tells GN Focus. He is the author of several books on culture, politics and society, including The Militant Discourse and Re-thinking Education.
“Pakistan can achieve a great deal in building trade relations, image building and political influence if it is able to celebrate diversity of cultural identities, institutionalise arts, develop and modernise traditional music industry and patronise digital platforms,” he says. “Pakistan can learn a great deal from India, Iran, Turkey, Australia, UK and the US to improve is soft power in the region and the wider world.”
In recent years, Pakistan has strengthened its soft power credentials by taking an ideological position on issues such as climate change. However, more remains to be done. The country currently ranks 63rd on Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index, down ten points from 2020. The index is based on a global survey of 75,000 respondents in over 100 countries worldwide.
Pakistan’s best scores were for the crucial metrics of Familiarity (45th) and Influence (47th), but its lowest score is for Reputation (102nd). Among the soft power pillars, Pakistan ranks between 80th and 90th for most, with International Relations (64th) a positive outlier, says Steven Thomson, Insight Director at Brand Finance. “Pakistan’s performance in the Global Soft Power Index 2021 leaves a lot of room for improvement, but the nation has some strong foundations to build on. The world is clearly familiar with Pakistan and aware of its influence on the global stage. However, soft power is cultivated in many fields beyond traditional diplomacy. A coherent nation brand strategy deployed in key international markets could help build up a better understanding of Pakistan’s national qualities and enhance perceptions of its activity in different arenas – from business to culture to science.”
We must derive our strength as a nation from the global heritage that Pakistan has.
Writer Razi Ahmed has helped bring attention to Pakistani literature in New York and London as well as in Lahore, in his role as Founder and CEO of the not-for-profit Lahore Literary Festival Society and jurist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He says Pakistan ought to celebrate the multiple pasts that underline its extraordinary pre-Islamic civilisation, at archaeological sites such as Mehrgarh, Moenjhodaro, Harappa as well as Buddhist heritage across Taxila and the Swat valley.
“We must derive our strength as a nation from the global heritage that Pakistan has,” he says. “In the contemporary landscape, while the Pakistani film, novel and visual language is gaining currency globally, a more concerted effort is required to make the same works widely available for the vast majority of the population that doesn’t have much access to public libraries, literary programs on television, and, more importantly, translations of international-bestsellers to Urdu and the regional languages. Literary festivals in Pakistan such as the LLF are making a dent in the chasm between citizens and cultural resources so that more and more of the populace embraces our culture —books on the Indus Civilisation, Sufism, Mughals and the poetry of Iqbal and Faiz — and also to see our sense of the place in the wider world through interactions between authors of different colour, race and culture.”
Hussain, too points to several possible routes forward. Besides tourism, he sees a role for Pakistani film and arts to help create positive perceptions of his country among international audiences. “Pakistan can develop a mechanism to send delegations of artists, poets, writers, musicians, dancers and actors to Central Asia, the Gulf and Europe to boost up its soft power,” Hussain says.
Wagma Feroz certainly understands the impact of showcasing her country to international audiences. Her short film, She Makes Everything Beautiful, tells the true story of Sonia, a Christian, who has found employment and acceptance in a multi-faith salon in Swat, Pakistan. In the film, the salon’s Muslim owner intentionally hires women from a religious minority background for whom employment can be hard to come by. “I could see satisfaction in the faces of the working women, and the efforts of the owner are worth appreciating."
Although associated with a brief and violent period under the Taliban, picture-postcard Swat, in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range, is home to verdant forests and alpine meadows and lakes and was a major centre of early Hinduism and Buddhism for nearly a thousand years under the ancient Gandhara Kingdom (1500-500BC). The valley is also home to Nobel prize winner Malala Yusufzai.
In July, the film took first place at the 2021 Religious Freedom Film Competition. The online event is sponsored by Empower Women Media, which helps promote gender equity, and the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, an organisation dedicated to spreading awareness of the positive power that faith and religious freedom on business and the economy. “The film creates an image of a society where women can work independently on the issues related to religious freedom and that also in a place that went through a deadly episode of extremism, where women’s lives were made extremely miserable,” Feroz says.
“I wanted to show a human image of Pakistan to the world,” Feroz says. “Through this story, I intended to let the international community know that there is a difference in the common people’s approaches and the one-religion state narrative. With the advancement in technology and media, thus leading to ease in the access to information, people are changing and so are their approaches. I hope that the international community will understand that Pakistani people in general are not a violent one, and the society has attained an enough momentum which will have very beautiful prospects in the near future.”
Feroz says making the film raised many challenges, both in terms of access to professional equipment and because the main subject hesitated to record her views because of potential negative reactions. “This mindset needs to be challenged and the third world countries need to invest in the human resource more. It is time to include these topics in the curriculum and to encourage healthy dialogues in [educational] institutions. The omnipotence of social media can’t be denied in this regard and states need to invest more in training the individuals to utilize these platforms. Only then, we can claim to have achieved the highest degree of social development.”