Iftikhar Dadi


On his book Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia

Cover Interview of March 26, 2012

The wide angle

I wrote this book keeping in mind a number of audiences. Scholars of modernism who remain narrow in their scope and clearly need to understand it in a genuinely global context, researchers in South Asia area studies who ought to incorporate cultural and artists developments much more in their analysis, students of Islamic Art who are perplexed when dealing with its encounter with modernity, and young artists from South Asia who do not understand their own history very well.  I have tried to avoid jargon and to provide enough of a context so that readers unfamiliar with the region and its history will find it useful.

Most of the artists I discuss are still largely unknown in the West, so part of the challenge has been to write in a manner that explicates their life and work without simplistic reduction.

At one level, this book is simply an intellectual history of the emergence of modernism in the art of Pakistan and South Asia during the twentieth century. But I begin with arguing that terms such as “art” and “modernism” are far from simple, and do not have stable meanings. The book thus also forays into a number of theoretical and postcolonial concerns that have broader relevance for the study of modern art in much of the world.

One issue is that modern art still commonly refers to a rather narrow range of meaning and scope.  It basically focuses on developments in Paris (Impressionism etc.) in the nineteenth century, and to selected Euro-American movements in the twentieth century (Cubism, Abstract Expressionism etc).  But if we understand modernity as a socially transformative condition that was in force across much of the world from the nineteenth century on, how are we to understand artistic practices that were associated with these momentous changes?

Another problem confronting the study of modernism is that of the universal versus the particular, which is mapped onto temporal change versus geographic particularity.  Cubism for example, is understood as a “universal” movement that decisively altered the trajectory of modernism.  But if one begins to look at what happened in specific geographic areas, such as parts of Asia or Africa, the impulse so far has been to write delimited studies of “national” or regional art histories.

Still another issue has been how the tradition/modernity has been framed as a binary and in opposition.  While modern art in the West is seen to grow out of developments internal to it, the modern art in the rest of world is viewed as break from its “traditions.”

My book attempts to provide another narrative to these larger methodological questions.

It views modernism as constituting a much larger set of practices in many sites through travel and exchange of people and ideas—what Andreas Huyssen has termed “modernism at large.” This is a productive way out of the center-periphery issues that still characterize the study of modern art.

And while acknowledging power differentials in legitimating new practices of modernism in imperial centers, I nevertheless understand modernism as a global aesthetic. This is not so surprising if we see modernism as a search for aesthetic forms beyond what was available in Europe. Movements such as Cubism do create a decisive break with European perspectival painting traditions, and become widely available and “legitimate” to many artists across the world, and in which numerous artists have participated in for several decades.

Finally, I argue that the tradition/modernity relation is far more complex than a simple binary in opposition. I understand “tradition” to be a complex assemblage of ideas and practices, and some of them provide paths for modernist exploration and development. Indeed, modernism cannot be fully understood unless its genealogy in “traditions” across the world is also accounted for.

Modern art in the region of South and West Asia and Africa therefore emerges via a complex negotiation with “tradition,” with a resonant and affirmative encounter with transnational modernism, and with the need to situate itself in relation to colonial and postcolonial impasses and possibilities.  In many cases, in the absence of developed art-historical methodologies and concepts, artists developed their practice with reference to other modalities of “tradition,” such as oral and written literatures.

Investigating artistic practices at the peripheries of canonical modernism demands careful and patient work, including an awareness of social and political history, languages and literatures, and other cultural conceptions the artists engaged with—in short, a writing of artistic practice that respects the formalist properties of the art, but also situates it with reference to the intellectual history of the time and the region, and along the artists’ experiences of physical and metaphorical travel. I have tried to do justice to these issues in my book.