British Asian Artist from a Past Multi-Faith Karachi

Tuesday 12th July 2016 18:18 EDT

Farina Alam’s drawings are constructed of repetitive nib marks, intricate linear work, and text showing a landscape of birds, lizards and people, set against monochromatic backgrounds.

Drawing with language and visual metaphors, Farina Alam critiques complex cultures of a post-colonial nation state. The artist places words and symbols within a laboriously conceived graphic framework.  A ”naqsha” or map is dotted out in diminutive quill points, which she refers to as a “made up” language of text and image as an homage to the lexicon approach of craftsmen and artists under censorship imposed by Pakistani military and clerical leaders.

In her solo exhibition titled “My Kolachi,” at Asia House, Alam showed how language used in the media highlights a relationship to an image. The feeding ground for her research is rooted in Pakistan and its chequered existence as a nation strained by a power battle between the army, the feudals, and Islamic fundamentalists.  Google images, the printed word and visits to her home town of Karachi fuel the works on paper.

The project was influenced by Arab literary symbolism, local Pakistani craftsmanship and a play of words in Arabic, English and Urdu. She feels the undercurrent of national political anxiety remains central to her drawings.

Farina Alam has exhibited with John Martin of London, Koel Gallery, and London Print Studio. She participated in Master Drawings London, Arte Fiera Bologna 2009, and Multiplied contemporary editions fair at Christies 2014.

Born 1971 at the Holy Family Hospital in Karachi Pakistan, Alam has a 1996 BFA from the Indus School of Art and Architecture in Karachi Pakistan.  She immigrated to England in 1998 where she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL and completed her Masters of Media in Fine Art in 2000. Alam currently lives and works in London.

Farina Alam’s parents were born in 1930s’ British India. Her father was a Punjabi, born and bred in Anarkali market, Lahore while her mother was born in Calcutta of Kashmiri- Gujarati descent.

She says, “My mother Saleem, grew up in a traditional, religious household where she and her sisters were educated but primarily raised for marriage and bearing children. My father, Aftab, was raised with the liberal middle class values of his journalist grandfather, Mahbub Alam, founder of the daily Paisa Akhbar newspaper. He pursued a career in civil engineering of ports and harbours in Karachi.” 

Farina’s memory of Karachi in the late 70s was of a peaceful, cosmopolitan market city. The postcolonial port was an amalgam of Muslims from the sub-continent, Goan Catholics, Sikhs, Buddhist, Bahais, Parsees and Jews. She recalls, “As a child, I grew up in a culture that celebrated Eid, Naurose, Easter and Christmas through my parents’ multi-racial circle of friends. British culture permeated daily life during school days, through Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, a vigorously academic Cambridge syllabus, the school dress code, and English as the main language of instruction.”

But there were early challenges too.  

“I remember the Karachi riots after Zia-ul Haq came to power due to the frequent closure of our school that was situated in hub of the old city. The radicalisation of Pakistan was visually manifest through the proliferation of mosques in every street corner, bearded turbaned maulvis, head scarves on women, and censorship of the media. As a young girl I watched bemused as kissing scenes in western programmes were artfully spliced by PTV clerics from our viewing pleasure. Sex was a dirty word and as young girls entering puberty we had the serious responsibility of hiding our growing breasts under layers of fabric from secondary school onwards. Fear of the student groups such as the Kalashnikov-festooned Jamaat-e Islamis affected what could be expressed openly in public forums, art schools and universities.”

Fast forward to the National College of Fine Art Lahore in the 90s, and a seismic event in Farina’s life. It was a turning point. “This was the first time in my sheltered middleclass upbringing that I was actually interacting with young people from starkly different and poorer backgrounds to mine. Now I was suddenly aware of the air-conditioned Honda civic car journey next to the carbon monoxide infused rickshaw rides taken by other college peers. I was just on the tip of an iceberg.”

Art was not a difficult choice for her. “Fortunately as a girl I was allowed to choose my specialism as long as I went to university-unlike my brothers who were pushed into engineering.  My brothers and I were always inclined towards arts and history.”

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