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Art and representation: challenging the negative perception of Pashtuns one painting at a time

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Art and representation: challenging the negative perception of Pashtuns one painting at a time

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The portrayal of Pashtuns in mainstream media and art in Pakistan is both tinged by an undercurrent of racism, and a misunderstanding born out of disconnection from them. Pakistan’s involvement in the ‘War on Terror’ had a disproportionate impact on its Pashtun citizens, as the northern province of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was used as a base for the state’s activities in Afghanistan. An entire generation of Pashtun men was drafted into joining General Zia’s adventurism in neighbouring Afghanistan, which not only left them scarred but left the region vulnerable to extremism and further militarisation. Which is, unfortunately, exactly what happened and KP and its people were terrorised by the Taliban and suffered through multiple military operations. Although the situation in KP is more peaceful now, the result of so much pain and violence can clearly be seen not just in the people of the province but also in how they are seen by the rest of their countrymen.

Perceptions matter, especially when they inform the dominant narrative about a people. It doesn’t sound so dire when put like this, but think of what atrocities have occurred throughout history based on perceptions alone and it will become clear why it is important that a nuanced and truthful portrayal of Pashtuns is essential

Mainstream media and art only portrays Pashtuns as dangerous, gun toting tribesmen or as unintelligent goofs. And this caricaturization does a great disservice to the Pashtun people by boxing them in into stereotypes and subsequently limiting their opportunities in life. Perceptions matter, especially when they inform the dominant narrative about a people. It doesn’t sound so dire when put like this, but think of what atrocities have occurred throughout history based on perceptions alone and it will become clear why it is important that a nuanced and truthful portrayal of Pashtuns is essential. But, one Pashtun artist is challenging these stereotypes and illustrating a different side of Pashtuns through her work.

The burqa is meant to render you invisible but those defiant women in bright coloured burqas refused to blend into the background

Noormah Jamal

Noormah Jamal is a rising artist in the local art scene, and her thought provoking work has won her a genuine following that appreciates the counter narrative regarding Pashtuns she is trying to put forward. Her work is story based, inspired from the emotional baggage that Pashtuns carry.

Her colourful style belies the gravity of the subject that she is trying to address through her paintings. This dissonance is purposeful, as the artist herself says, “My work is colourful in order to draw people in, but my subjects never smile. This contrast is so that people notice it and start a conversation about the stark difference between the background and the subject, and why that is”.

Unsmiling subjects aren’t the only recurring motif in Noormah Jamal’s work, she also makes use of the burqa in her paintings. But she does so in a manner very different from the way it is commonly depicted in Pakistani art– as a symbol of oppression or as an edgy prop in pop culture–her use of the burqa visual is meant to symbolise a form of protection or a mask that one can choose to put in. This too ties in with her efforts to present a different side to Pashtuns and their culture. Noormah spent her childhood in Peshawar, and she recalls routinely “seeing women in flamboyant and colourful burqas”, and that image resonated with her as “the burqa is meant to render you invisible but those defiant women in bright coloured burqas refused to blend into the background”. She states that the Peshawar of her childhood looked very different from that way it is now, pashtun women clothed in black burqas were a rare sight as they preferred their own colorful iterations or simply a white chadar.

The artist’s father belongs to the Orakzai Agency, thus she has spent many a summer with him and her family in their village in the foothills of the Karagh Ghar mountains. She narrates that before the insurgency in the area women in her family’s village didn’t have to cover up in burqas as they do now, because the of the concept of ‘ujra’, wherein women only wore a white chadae atop their clothes when stepping out of the house as outsiders (particularly unknown men) weren’t allowed in the village proper.

The black burqa, in fact, was not a very common sight in Pakistan in general until the country’s rightward shift under General Zia-ul-Haq. And the increased usage of the burqa in KP can also trace its roots back to the rather violent and fundamentalist version of Islam that was used to indoctrinate young men, in the 70s and 80s, into fighting a ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan. This strand of Islam–Wahhabism– that was imported into Pakistan, particularly KP, has had a very detrimental effect on Pashtun culture. Much of the original culture of the Pashtuns has been warped by this. This is cause for concern as Pashtun cultural traditions are largely passed down orally.

Noormah states that, “in the past, Tapay (folk songs) also used to also be about intoxicants and merrymaking” or ” Pashto poetry, like Ghani Khan’s, used to also delve into serious introspection over religion”, but now all the songs are about “the loss of life or being killed by enemies”. What this indicates is that the Pashtuns weren’t always the hardline religious extremists they are now believed to be. And, the degradation of their native culture combined with their inaccurate, flat portrayal in art and media is threatening the Pashtun identity. They were a nomadic people thus they lack a written history and there is real danger that the young generation of Pashtuns will lose a large part of their culture.

In an effort to genuinely connect with her culture, Noormah Jamal has taken up learning how to read and write Pashto. She speaks the language fluently, but because she moved to Islamabad for her secondary education she is not completely proficient in the language. Moving out of Peshawar was what first alerted her to the negative perception of Pashtuns in the rest of the country. Her schooling in Islamabad was where she had her first brush with ethnic racism. Noormah says, “in Peshawar I was surrounded by other Pashtuns but after moving to Islamabad I realised that other people really know nothing about us”.

Ethnic discrimination and stereotyping is something Noormah also encountered while studying in the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore. This is what prompted her to highlight Pashtuns and their experiences in her work. In an effort to create something authentic she also moved back to Peshawar, after graduation, to learn Pashto inside out and immerse herself fully in the culture once again. However, her time in Lahore made her aware of not only the lack of representation of Pashtuns in art, but also the myriad of challenges that Pashtun artists face.

Getting into to a reputable college is only half the battle for Pashtun artists, as the local art scene is very cliquey.

NCA only reserves 5% of its seats for students from FATA and 10% for students from KP, whereas in contrast to that 20% are reserved for students from Sindh and 50% of seats are reserved for students from Punjab. This means that many students from KP and FATA have no avenue to pursue their artistic ambitions, as they are limited by the quota system. For instance, if a student from the tribal belt wanted to study fine art at NCA the competition would be intense as NCA only has one seat for students from FATA in the fine arts program.

Getting into to a reputable college is only half the battle for Pashtun artists, as the local art scene is very cliquey. Noormah states, “artists from marginalised communities tend to lose out because they don’t know people in the Pakistani art community as it is primarily based in Lahore or Karachi”. This has a detrimental effect on the commercial success of Pashtun artists, evidenced by the fact that very few Pashtun artists have found fame on the same level as non-pashtun artists.

Noormah believes that another reason behind the dearth of Pashtun artists is that, “traditionally Pashtuns have been more inclined to go into singing or poetry and not painting”, as the major avenue for artistic expression in Pashtun culture has been poetry and music.

The lack of opportunity for Pashtuns to join the arts definitely contributes to their underrepresentation in art and media. This combined with the negative stereotypes about the Pashtuns that persist to this day means that corrective measures are required. The work of Noormah Jamal and others like her is a small step in the right direction.

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