A few years earlier, The New York Times published a cartoon of a fortune teller looking at her crystal ball and saying to the man in front of her, “I can see the future, but I can’t read Chinese.” Many in Pakistan now read Chinese, children who attend privileged schools study Mandarin, so they can not only decipher the future, but also write it.
Forget the future or the past, China is present around the world – especially in Pakistan.
We source everything produced in the People’s Democratic Republic, from expensive Apple computer accessories to cheap plastic buckets. Traditionally, China was associated with two objects of our domestic domain: white sugar and porcelain pottery. Now we are surrounded by countless Chinese products. Religious items like prayer rugs and rosaries; artistic works, including oil paintings; prints and sculptures; clothing such as shirts, pants, scarves, jackets, long coats and electronic gadgets, decorative pieces, fashion items, make-up materials and toiletries; even the needles are imported from China.
The way this influx of goods shapes beliefs, daily routines and social structure worries Fatima Munir. In his new work, the effect of Chinese trade is visible. His mixed media works (from the solo exhibition at AAN Art Space and Museum, Karachi, March 24-April 23) can be read through multiple lenses.
One, the most apparent, is how one nation, a superpower, overshadows the cultural constructs and political rhetoric of another country. It also challenges religious restrictions and social relationships. Fatima Munir addresses this situation, but instead of taking an orthodox (read patriotic) stance, she ponders the inevitable. Diplomatic dominance, pandemic (Covid-19) and market economy are some of the factors that have shaken our society, languid in its glorious imaginary heritage. Munir deals with the current political landscape of the world, local and international, in which “a child’s chocolate is an illegal ‘dangerous’ substance banned in the United States while its war across the world is perfectly acceptable” (manifested in its work titled The Case of War 2). In his art, politics, history, economics, violence merge to portray a global scenario in which conflicts are not about occupying territories but about conquering markets and minds.
Today, it is the product that inhabits foreign soil more than a citizen. These items, in comparison and contrast with living beings, have fixed features, prescribed functions, predominant aesthetics, and unchanging age. This applies to industrial goods as well as Chinese clay soldiers. Munir reflects on this order of things through his assemblages. The men who served the army of the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, survived centuries in the terracotta corps. These clay figures – each distinct in their facial features – now serve another purpose, by becoming a historical metaphor, a cultural icon; and later as a commercial emblem (and tourist collection). Transformations of this kind are represented and commented on in a number of mixed works by Fatima Munir.
The archaic terracotta army, originally from China, is now made as a salable item and is found in the bric-a-brac shops around the world. The pandemic would have started from the city of Wuhan, or rather would have been reported there for the first time, and would have conquered the entire planet, altering lives, psyches, human interactions, work habits and public existence. . At Munir New start, empty Covid-19 vaccine vials become transparent white flowers joined to metal rods, inserted into delicate vases, which appear to be terracotta or stoneware, but made of fiberglass. Every detail of this mixed media sculpture suggests the recycling of objects as well as ideas, and how an object linked to a global calamity is converted into a decorative piece.
It indicates how misfortunes, disasters, disasters end up as commodities – whether physical or virtual, they are always marketable entities for public consumption. Munir’s work also highlights the converging pathways of culture and commerce, which can have a drastic effect on the conventional set of beliefs. In any case, culture and commerce have been inseparable twins throughout human history. Objects forged in ancient civilizations, for functional or commercial use, are now seen as signs of creative expression and beauty. Similarly, works created as works of art have monetary value and are sold, held and stored as a form/part of investment.
The phenomenon of art and the market, and of commercial and social norms is well illustrated in Trojan beer, a glass box containing the small terracotta replica of a solitary Chinese warrior amid Chinese drinks brewed in Pakistan. Fatima Munir encapsulates the former soldier in a glass vessel while depicting her nation’s invasion in culture, commerce and recreation.
It is the cartography of a new form of colonization, especially in relation to its Fauji Con, consisting of corn cereal wrappers framed with elaborate moldings (featuring black and white photographs of British military officers). With such works, Munir addresses two types of colonialism: overt and hidden. Linking the British Raj to the recent influx of Chinese goods. (English rule in India had its genesis in the conquests of a trading organization, the East India Company).
Alongside its content with political – and expansionist – connotations, Fatima Munir’s art deals with another debate, initiated by Walter Benjamin, around originality and mechanical reproduction. Interestingly, a person visiting the markets in Pakistan is faced with the question: “Do you want an original or a China?” – given that in the realm of business transactions, China is considered synonymous with replication.
Munir observes the popularity and celebration of mass-produced images, such as the Chinese terracotta soldier figurines that fill many mantelpieces around the world in their reduced and countless reproduced reincarnations. The question of originality, authenticity and identity has stirred the discourse on art since the dawn of modernism. Fatima Munir in her art distinguishes between the true and the false, between the real and the imposed, between the native and the imported. An artwork, Good bye Qaumbased on an ancient Chinese warrior dressed in a green tunic and white pants alludes to the colors of the Pakistani flag, in addition to echoing the image of Quaid-i-Azam, the Babaa-i-Quam (The father of the nation). It also suggests how history turns into merchandise, humans into emblems/icons, and reality into replicas.
The connection between a national symbol and a marketing identity/brand is further explored in works with terracotta soldier figurines placed in clear glass containers, like museum pieces or scientific specimens. If one probes the genealogy of these warriors, it is likely that each of them was modeled after a real soldier, and life-size – later downplayed and exported as small figurines; and is now part of Munir’s work to indicate how far reality travels and transforms.
Reality is perhaps the central question of Fatima Munir’s aesthetic. Because we are surrounded by an abundance of manufacturing, copies are sometimes considered originals and reproductions are authentic. A dichotomy as viable as having eggs in plastic containers (Everything is plastic), or traditional Chinese ceramics resting on a bed of straw, stored in a row of glass jars (The sacred path). Or, conventional Persian rugs (called Like the Persian) with their Made as Iran mark and the inscription For Export Quality, but assembled in China.
These and other works by Munir refer to how one crosses cultures, continents, times, politics – and global issues. These also allude to art and artifacts, since most of Munir’s artworks are installed and resemble museum objects in their appearance, execution, and meaning.
The exhibition rotates at AAN Art Space and Museum, Karachi, from
March 24 to April 23
The author is an art critic based in Lahore