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Not So “Silent”: Art, Political Expression and the Subtle Use of the Public Sphere in the Work of Pakistan’s Artivists

Samina Iqbal


During its 75 years of existence as a nation, Pakistan has experienced significant periods of drastic military rule. These circumstances have notably heightened political instability, contributing to intensifying the enduring conflict between left- and right-wing factions within the country. This turmoil has significantly affected the country’s social fabric, giving rise to a climate of inequality, disillusionment, and disorientation. The visual culture of Pakistan plainly reflects the country’s sociopolitical unease and turbulence. The notion of freedom of expression, in any form, is almost non-existent in this challenging environment. Within this oppressive atmosphere, visual artists operate a delicate balance between attempting to maintain the integrity of their aesthetic practices and not compromising their political expression. Any activism that addresses social and political inequalities or resists the status quo, even though performed moderately, often results in penalties, censorship, or even the destruction of their work. Nevertheless, certain artists persist in creating art that challenges and highlights social issues amid the prevailing oppression. My contribution here utilizes Jürgen Habermas’s Public Sphere theory to examine the discourse on art activism. It investigates how art has the potential to serve as a platform for criticism and resistance in Pakistan’s current political context.

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  • 1 Weiwei’s 2009 installation, entitled Remembering set up in Munich, was created by using 9,000 schoo (...)

1Activist art, also known as art activism, commonly revolves around tackling contemporary political, socioeconomic, or ecological issues. Its objective is to provoke a response and foster engagement, or to contribute to enhancing a social group (Avgitidou 2016:421). Lucy Lippard, an American critic and writer, defines activist art according to its function. For her, activism “is in a sense a form of expressionism, reaching out as well as in” (Lippard 1984:15). It is also commonly defined as a form of art rooted in the act of “doing” (Tate-Activist Art). An eminent illustration is found in the endeavors of the globally acclaimed contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He is renowned for his impactful contributions that address issues such as democracy, refugee crises, human rights violations, and freedom of expression, particularly in regions marked by conflict across the globe.1 Through thought-provoking and subversive installations, performances, documentaries, and video art, Weiwei draws attention to the ethical dilemmas and tragedies arising from power structures that callously neglect human rights (Cunningham 2023). While Weiwei’s works are exhibited in museum settings, their bold, controversial nature—directly criticizing and questioning undemocratic structures—propels them into the public sphere via social media. The goal of art activists is to generate works and situations that respond to, or draw attention to, social, political, and human injustices. In essence, artivism reacts to the growing breakdown of the modern social state (Groys 2014) and strives to highlight issues, such as socioeconomic and political decline, which might be overlooked for various reasons.

2In his influential work, “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” Jürgen Habermas explores the evolution of democracy in bourgeois political life between the 17th and the 20th centuries. He defines the “public sphere” as a space where private citizens can gather as a public entity, participating in debates concerning the overarching rules that govern relations within the essentially privatized but socially significant realms of commodity exchange and social labor (Habermas 1991). From his perspective, this space functions as a platform for individuals to partake in discussions, fostering dialogue between themselves and occasionally with public officials in order to address common concerns. For Habermas, the purpose of these gatherings goes beyond mere discourse; they empower the bourgeoisie to apply reason in delineating the distinctions between public and private domains, actively contributing to a deliberate evolution of the public sphere (Charles 2015: 1). Taking into account such considerations, it is meaningful to scrutinize the ideas with which artivists have overtly or subtly influenced the public sphere in order to give expression to pressing political and social issues faced by contemporary Pakistan society. This analysis will not only lead to an awareness of the variety of power maintaining social structures and the current uses of public space, but also the institutional norms that shape the public and the private in Pakistan.

3The selected artworks chosen to explore the very role of art activists and their “rapport” to space and to “the public” depart from conventional forms of art (such as painting, drawing, and sculpture), as they delve into sensitive subjects, providing perspectives and commentary on political life, power dynamics, and the violence of repression. Consequently, this form of political art becomes vulnerable to the diverse influences exerted by the political and cultural structures it aims to address. This raises a set of vital questions surrounding the discourse of art activism and its effectiveness. What potential does art activism carry in postcolonial societies such as Pakistan, where familiarity with fine arts practices may be limited among the general public? Can art activism play a role in raising awareness among common people, fostering a deeper understanding of dormant sociopolitical issues? Can subtler expressions of art activism attract the attention of diverse stakeholders, including institutions, organizations, and government bodies?

4These inquiries prompt a critical examination of the multiple dimensions of art activism, fostering contemplation on its reach, impact, and potential to influence various facets of society. Through a close look at chosen artworks and by framing the analysis according to Habermas’s theory of the Public Sphere, this essay provides a thorough and critical examination of both activist art and the discourse that encompasses it. It argues that, despite its nuances, particularly expressed in the aesthetic dimension of the artwork, artivism in Pakistan persists as a locus of political critique and resistance within the prevailing political landscape, which is marked by the predominant influence of the military.

5In his work entitled “Silent Voices” (2019), Qadir Jhatial, a young Pakistani artist originally from the Sind hinterland, captured images of himself holding an empty placard in front of various government institutes, mimicking the symbolic act of protest. This serves as an instance of what could be termed a “subtle” or nuanced form of activism. Numerous other artists in Pakistan have similarly, both covertly and overtly, challenged and questioned the prevailing social norms that have been passively accepted under the State’s influence. Over the course of nearly 75 years of independence, Pakistan has experienced martial law on four occasions, leading to the widespread and crosscutting influence of the military in society. This has perpetuated a culture of religious intolerance and a political landscape marked by hereditary power. Individuals daring to voice dissent against the establishment often face severe consequences, including being quietly labeled as missing persons. In such a climate, artists operate a precarious balance between individual expression and reflections aimed at raising questions beyond personal artistic discourse. Consequently, many of them choose to convey their observations of injustices and imposed ideologies in their immediate environment in a manner that is not overtly vociferous but still engages with the sensitivity of the issues.

  • 2 The selected artists are based in Lahore—a city famed for its centuries-old historical and literary (...)

Based on interviews with artists and in-depth analysis of selected pieces, this paper presents a comprehensive analysis of the work of Pakistani artists,2 and in particular those who explore transgression and challenge the unspoken but still influential boundaries in society and politics. To do this, it is crucial to provide a brief overview of the history of art activism in Pakistan.

Activism as an emerging form of art in contemporary Pakistan

6The term “art activism,” commonly used in the realm of contemporary art, represents a relatively new genre in Pakistan. This is particularly notable given the limited presence across the country of established institutes supporting conventional forms of visual arts, such as painting, printing, drawing, and sculpture. Consequently, the history of art activism in Pakistan is relatively brief, and only a handful of artists have ventured to engage and experiment with this form of expression. Among them are noteworthy figures from the older generation, such as Rasheed Aarain, Roohi Ahmed, Nilofer Akhmat, David Alesworth, Farida Batool and Salima Hashmi. The younger generation is also making strides in this domain, with artists like Hurmat ul Ain, Natashah Jozi, Sara Ahmed Mumtaz, and Rabiya Naseer actively contributing to the evolving landscape of art activism in Pakistan.

  • 3 In the early 20th century, Hugo Ball’s performance of the Cabaret Voltaire in a nightclub was a res (...)

7Without delving into the global history of art activism, often traced back to the Dadaist movement in the West,3 this paper sheds light on some of the forms that art activism has assumed in Pakistan’s recent history. Following its independence from the British Raj and separation from India in 1947, Pakistan saw its sociopolitical environment undergo significant change that played a pivotal role in shaping contemporary society. The death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan within the first three years of Pakistan’s independence prevented democracy from being established properly (Talbot 2015). The emergence of the Pakistani military-bureaucratic combine, coupled with perceived threats from India, led to the formation of a “garrison state,” in which the military became disproportionately powerful. This resulted in the shift of scarce resources from a “political economy of development” to a “political economy of defense” (Talbot 2015).

  • 4 See Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 5–13 and Ayesha (...)

8The political elites of the emerging nation have played a crucial role in linking nation-building to religion, giving rise to the ideology of establishing the nation as an Islamic Republic. Pakistan officially proclaimed itself an Islamic Republic in 1956 with the adoption and promulgation of the country’s first constitution. The ethnic heterogeneity and regional sub-nationalism weakened the Muslim League, the largest political party in Pakistan, providing an opportunity for civil-military bureaucracy to step in and assume the responsibility of governing the country (Lawrence 1984). Since its inception, Pakistani politics has been marked by divisive perspectives and interpretations of Islam and nationalism, proving to be profoundly problematic and arguably constituting the primary source of ideological uncertainty in the country (Shaikh 2009, 12). On this matter, the historian Ayesha Jalal argues that Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan as a “democratic state” and Iqbal’s idea of an Islamic state as a place of “spiritual democracy” were lost amidst confusion about national identity and state sovereignty (Jalal 2009). Consequently, the political turmoil, rooted in diverse and conflicting interpretations of Islam and nationalism, has negatively affected the social fabric of Pakistan, fostering an environment marked by disparities, disillusionment, and disorientation.4

9Pakistan’s visual culture reflects the social and political anxieties and upheavals associated with the country’s short history, while explaining the diverse ideological trends that have simultaneously flourished in Pakistan’s national art history. The first generation of fine artists, exemplified by Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1894–1975) and Haji Sharif (1889–1978), celebrated the glorious Muslim past by adhering to the ancient traditions of Indian miniature painting largely developed in this region of the world. This approach served as a means of denouncing the colonial legacy of European academic painting in India and sought to forge an art in keeping with the objectives of the creation of Pakistan.

  • 5 Araeen, is a prolific Pakistani-born, London-based writer and critical theorist, founder of “Third (...)
  • 6 Araeen had performed this work twice before: once in February 1970 in St. Katherine’s Docks, London (...)
  • 7 Statement from Aaraeen to Imam in 1974, Courtesy Ali Imam Archive.

10The Lahore Art Circle, created in 1952, consisted of eight artists (Shakir Ali, Sheikh Safdar Ali, Razzia Feroz, Ali Imam, Moyene Najmi, Ahmed Parvez, Miriam Shah and Anwar Jalal Shemza), largely challenged the traditional path. This movement represents the first in Pakistan to embrace modern abstract syntax and to come into line with 20th-century international modern art movements (Iqbal 2016). Indeed, during its formative years, Pakistani art represented a dynamic interplay between tradition and modernity, reflecting the concurrent social and political scenarios. In her 2015 interview with Jessica Holtaway entitled “Political Art in Pakistan,” Hashmi—artist, curator, educationist, and writer—emphasizes the close association of art, politics, and education in Pakistan. Hashmi asserts that “Art is always political and it cannot be dissociated from the circumstances in which it is made. Even when not professing to be political, it borrows from the political” (Holtaway 2005). This statement establishes the framework for understanding how Pakistani artists have been actively engaging with changing political, social and environmental contexts. An early example of such engagement is Rasheed Araeen’s5 performance piece entitled “Chakras” (Circles), created in 1974 at Jheel Park (Lake Park), at the Pakistan Employees Cooperative Housing Society (PECHS), a housing estate located in Karachi East district. This work was a re-enactment of his earlier environmental art piece, “Demonstration,” which was performed in London’s East End and in Paris (Dawn 1974).6 In his 1974 piece “Chakras,” Araeen invited both children and adults from the general public to toss 16 fluorescent orange-painted discs into the water at Jheel Park. When all the discs were in the water, he meticulously documented their movement with a camera over a period of two weeks. The spatial relationship between the discs underwent continuous change, revealing various patterns of movement influenced by natural water and wind currents. The uniform size of the discs was in keeping with the concept of equality, challenging hierarchies and allowing nature to determine the course of their movement. Araeen derived inspiration for this concept from observing pieces of wood and plastic drift along the River Thames in the East End. In a statement, sent in 1974 to Syed Ali Imam, the owner of Indus Gallery who facilitated Araeen’s performance piece, he posits: “I was able to transform the relations between equal elements to an environment in which the distances between the elements were governed by the natural forces.”7 In another statement related to his performance, Araeen expressed his opposition to the idea that art should be owned or be confined to a specific privileged class. He denounced the ownership of art by the elite and affirmed his commitment to art by stating:

My concern here is to take my activity (you may call art), out in the open and to integrate it with the environment, which is not a sole property of one particular class. If we want that art should become an essential part of our life or that all the people should have access to it, it is essential that first the monopoly of one particular class to own and appreciate the work of art must be destroyed.
(Araeen, 1974)

11Araeen’s works question the ownership, affordability, classification, and qualification of art on a broader scale. Despite the apparent dedication to liberating art, and efforts to avoid direct political confrontation, his work did not receive a favorable response from the public in Karachi. For many, the artist’s message was deemed to be far from accessible, with some dismissing it as mere drama, while others criticized it for allegedly contaminating the natural environment (Dawn 1974). Without directly addressing political issues, the work symbolizes a form of protest—a voice that challenges the commodification of art for privileged classes. Indeed, this form of art creates a direct encounter with the masses, fostering strong connections through its accessibility beyond the confines of conventional artworks displayed in so-called “white cube” spaces. In artistic activism, activism does not fit neatly into traditional activism, nor does the resulting work embody typical artwork. Nevertheless, it is discernible and possesses the potential to subtly challenge power relations within its environment.

An oppressive State, tacitly implementing restrictions: 1970–1998

12From 1977 to 1988, a period that corresponds to the regime of General Zia ul Haq, the public authorities sought to secure Pakistan’s path as an Islamic state. This undertaking resulted in irreversible changes to the country’s social and political fabric. (Talbot 2015:216–219). In addition to imposing martial law and amending the Constitution, General Zia introduced penalties for activities such as drinking, gambling, theft, and adultery, all of which were considered “un-Islamic.” Most notably, he implemented the notorious Zina (adultery) ordinance, officially known as the “Offence of Zina (Enforcement of Hudood) Ordinance,” on February 10, 1979.8 According to this law: “A man and a woman are deemed to commit ‘Zina’ if they willingly engage in sexual intercourse without being married to each other.” The law did not differentiate between fornication and adultery, imposing death by stoning as the punishment to be carried out in a public place.9 The most disturbing aspect of this ordinance was that in the case of a woman being raped, the latter could not file a case with the police unless she had four adult male Muslim witnesses. These witnesses had to be recognized by the court as truthful individuals, to abstain from any major sins (kabair), and to provide evidence as eyewitnesses of the act of penetration. The requirement of four adult male witnesses to verify an act of rape was virtually impossible, leading victims to opt for silence in order to safeguard their families and their own lives. If a woman reported a rape with no witnesses, it was construed as an admission to consensual intercourse. The enforcement of this law sparked outrage among the public, particularly among women.

13Soon after the implementation of the law, men and women took to the streets in protest, and in response, the government applied aggressive measures such as Lathi Charge (beating with batons) and arrests (Fig.1). General Zia’s regime represents a somber chapter in Pakistan’s history, characterized by the curtailment of civil liberties, media censorship, and decrees that prescribed codes of dress, language, and public behavior. Music classes at the Arts Council were discouraged, and dance was no longer staged in public view. Intizar Hussain, a celebrated Pakistani writer of Urdu novels, short stories, poetry and nonfiction, recounted his experience during General Zia’s dictatorship and the implementation of strict religious policies in his short story “The House by the Gallows.” He states:

The news came that the dance class had been banned. The Islamists had been attacking the Arts Council. I was on the board and we had a meeting that week. “Why have you banned the dance class?” I asked the chairman. “We haven’t banned it,” he said. “We have moved the class to the basement, away from peering eyes.” The chairman paused. “Don’t write about that in your column. That would make us cancel the class.”
(Hussain 2010)

Figure 1: Women’s Protest against Hudood Ordinance, 12 Feb, 1979

Figure 1: Women’s Protest against Hudood Ordinance, 12 Feb, 1979

Image Courtesy: Salima Hashmi Archive, Asia Art Archive Hong Kong

14During General Zia’s era, literature, typically the primary vehicle for cultural communication, faced careful monitoring, and in particular the oral tradition of poetry recitation. Music, film, and theater were scrutinized and “cleansed” of “un-Islamic” elements. Anything deemed “obscene” in form or content was not tolerated in public or private life (Hashmi 2005:169). This period is characterized by stringent cultural censorship and an attempt to impose a particular interpretation of Islamic values on various forms of artistic expression. Due to the stifling dictatorship, Pakistan’s fine arts veered towards the Islamic State agenda in order to survive. Implicitly, patronage was withheld to discourage figurative painting and sculpture, and only portraits of dignitaries such as Quaid-e-Azam, President of Pakistan, and Head of the Armed Forces, were encouraged. Calligraphy became the most prominent visual art in painting and sculpture during this period (Hashmi 2005:169). The political climate under General Zia significantly influenced the artistic landscape, imposing restrictions on certain forms of artistic expression, while promoting those in keeping with the State agenda (Hashmi 2005:169).

15During this period, many male artists adhered to the tacitly implemented restriction on figure painting, shifting their focus to calligraphic or landscape painting. However, art historian Iftikhar Dadi suggests that the inclination of Pakistani artists toward calligraphy, coinciding with the international movement of calligraphic abstraction between 1955–1975 in former colonies, was driven by the desire to create a new aesthetic syntax of decolonization that would engage with metropolitan developments (Dadi, 2010). Nevertheless, it is important to note that Pakistan was rapidly moving towards Islamization during General Zia’s regime, as mentioned above. The political climate had a profound impact on the choices made by artists in their expressions.

Resisting repression: women’s activist manifesto as silent creation

  • 10 The state implemented a policy whereby young girls and women had to wear the Chaadar in public foru (...)
  • 11 The fifteen artists who signed the manifesto included: Abbasi Abidi, Meher Afroz, Talat Ahmad, Veed (...)

16Interestingly, women artists did not yield to such restrictions and steadfastly continued to paint and explore subjects that resonated with their artistic sensibilities. According to Hashmi, “Not a single woman took up calligraphy” (Hashmi 2005:169). The logical reason for this unnoticed freedom was that women artists were not on the government radar because they were not perceived as threatening, but benevolent. A diploma in Fine Arts was set up in 1940 at the Department of Fine Arts, University of Punjab, Lahore, with the intention of only drawing women into the department. The idea was to channel women away from studying other, important fields such as science and engineering, with the expectation that they would focus solely on cultivating taste and aesthetics for their future home design (Hashmi 2003). This unintended freedom allowed women artists to maintain a degree of autonomy and to pursue their artistic expressions. Themes such as Chador (covering) and Char diwari (four walls referring to home) started to appear more persistently in the works of women artists.10 In 1983, fifteen women artists from Lahore formulated and signed a two-page manifesto, calling on all women in any creative field to come together for the cause of women’s emancipation and freedom of expression for all (Hashmi 2005:170).11 The document was never publicly disclosed due to the prevailing political circumstances; however, the act of these women coming together was a symbolic gesture suggesting that women artists had become conscious of the political and social oppression imposed by the regime (Hashmi 1997:229).

17The women who signed this manifesto deliberately chose paper as a medium of expression, and this had dual significance for them. Firstly, it was a form of rebellion against the Euro-centric convention of oil on canvas, of reclaiming paper as the matrix and of reconnecting with the traditional medium of Indian painting before the colonization of India (Hashmi 2005:182). Secondly, it liberated women artists from the burdens and dependencies associated with using a medium that would require assistance from men to construct and stretch canvases. Paper allowed them to work independently and quietly with a lightweight medium that was easy to carry around and exhibit without drawing much attention from the establishment.

  • 12 Hashmi later complained to the then Minister of Culture, Arbab Niaz Muhammad. (As per the author’s (...)

18In short, the repressive political environment during General Zia’s regime promoted the intellectual growth of Pakistani women artists. Consequently, these women artists gained recognition and surpassed their male counterparts. The choice of medium empowered them to quietly create and produce works of art profoundly imbued with symbolism, actively engaging with the prevalent environment. However, in 1985, works by Salima Hashmi, Jamila Masud, and Jamil Naqsh were quietly removed from the 5th National Exhibition held at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts in Islamabad, because they were considered obscene and objectionable.12

The consequences of practicing art in oppressive times

  • 13 The Urdu newspaper Daily Mushriq (June 14, 1976) quoted it as a mysterious fire, and Imroz (June 14 (...)

19It is worth noting that some male artists, who persisted in their artistic practice during these oppressive times without conforming to the unspoken State agenda which discouraged figurative image making, suffered severe consequences. They were deprived of State patronage and in addition faced backlash from right-wing members of the public. This reflects the challenges and the risks artists faced for defying imposed restrictions and for continuing to express themselves in ways that went against the prevailing political climate (Hashmi 1997:233). In the aforementioned instance, the exhibition by the internationally renowned painter Syed Sadequain Naqvi, hosted at the Pakistan Arts Council Lahore in 1976 and showcasing 80 figurative paintings, became the target of right-wing activists. Shortly after the show’s opening, the right-wing Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam protested over what it considered to be obscene and immoral, which led to the bombing of the venue (Naqvi 2020). The day after, some newspapers reported that the fire was accidental, attributed to a malfunction of the electric circuit, while others claimed that a bomb blast destroyed a couple of paintings (Dadi 2010:264).13 Regardless of the cause, the incident conveyed a message of intolerance.

20Likewise, in 1990, Collin David, associate professor at the National College of Arts Lahore and a prolific painter, showcased nude artwork at a private viewing at his residence in an well-to-do area of Lahore. On the evening of the exhibition, ten young students, members of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba from Forman Christian College Lahore, forcibly entered David’s house armed with batons and revolvers. They attacked his guests, damaged David’s paintings on display in his basement studio, and, on their way out, damaged the cars parked outside his house (Mohsin 1991). This kind of hostile reaction toward fine art has been common in Pakistan. However, a third generation of contemporary visual artists is now disregarding the censorship and repression inflicted for decades on senior artists and has decided to bring their artistic expression to the public rather than limit it to their studios. These artists engage with the general public whose lives are directly affected by conflicting, confusing, and oppressive ideologies. Several young artists are now using performance art and art activism in public places—unfamiliar spaces—to comment on issues such as politics, gender inequalities, racial genocides, and so on.

21For example, Ayesha Jatoi, a young artist from the National College of Arts Lahore who trained as a miniaturist, launched in 2006 her work “Clothesline” as part of a public art workshop. This performance explores the intersection of private and public realms, scrutinizing the utilization of public spaces and the exhibition of public monuments as a means through which a nation reveals glimpses of its psyche. One busy afternoon, during the rush hour, Jatoi laid out damp garments dyed red on a nonfunctional fighter jet situated on the public square known as “China Chowk” (China Square) in Lahore (Figures 2 and 3). This fighter jet was used in the 1971 war against East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), resulting in a bloody public massacre that led to the founding of Bangladesh. Within twenty minutes of Jatoi carrying out this performance, an intelligence officer intercepted her and tried to question her, enquiring about the meaning of her act of desecrating a public monument. Jatoi was able to flee the site rapidly, without having to answer the officer. Her act carried multiple layers of meaning.

Figure 2: Ayesha Jatoi, Clothesline, 2006

Figure 2: Ayesha Jatoi, Clothesline, 2006

Image Courtesy: Artist

Figure 3: Ayesha Jatoi, Clothesline, 2006

Figure 3: Ayesha Jatoi, Clothesline, 2006

Image Courtesy: Artist

  • 14 The narrative of wars with India is presented in patriotic, not historical, terms. See K. K. Aziz, (...)

22In Pakistan’s conservative society where privacy, honor, and shame are intensely guarded, the way laundry is displayed on a clothesline hanging on the terraces, roofs, and verandas of houses, visible from outside, offers passersby a glimpse into the lives of the residents/household. For Jatoi, this exhibition of laundry serves as a means of speculating about the residents—whether they be young, old, men, women, or children. The act of observing or “spying” on laundry drying outside the house provides a critique of public spaces and monuments as avenues through which a nation communicates its ideology. This sharply contrasts with the way the Pakistani government, largely influenced by its army, celebrates the nation. It often sets up missiles and fighter planes at various crossroads to commemorate the heroic role the Pakistan army played in various wars. It is important to note that the history of Pakistan, as taught in public schools, is often contentious and somewhat fabricated, with tales of the Pakistan army’s victories over neighboring India.14 The dominant narrative defies and rejects the hundreds of years of shared history, claiming India the enemy. Via her act, Jatoi draws a stark contrast between the act of love (washing someone’s laundry—caring for someone) and the public barbarism of war and killing. According to the statement she gave to Indian journalist Nonikha Singh (2016): “It is Macbethian in a sense that the blood of those killed should still be on our collective conscience.” Her red-dyed clothes also become a symbol of violence and a metaphor for bodies. For Jatoi, the fighter jet, seen as a tribute to the violence of the Pakistani government, serves as a symbol of “the nation’s dirty laundry,” reflecting her perspective that it is not a source of pride (Singh 2016). In a previous piece of work (2008), Jatoi had used a billboard in the most populous marketplaces on the busiest streets of Lahore, near Hazrat Data Gunj Buksh’s tomb, to draw attention to women’s place in public spaces in Pakistan’s patriarchal society. She rented the billboard for ten days and displayed on it a question written in Urdu, “Aap ko abhi kitni aurtain nazar aa rahi hain? (How many women can you see right now?), pointing to the gender disparity in Lahore’s public places, where there are few women shoppers in the densely populated, male-dominated marketplaces, which is in no way representative of the size of Pakistan’s female population.

23Despite having one of the world’s most male-dominated societies, characterized by extremely a high rate of sexual violence, and extremely gendered public spaces, Pakistan has never boasted a broad-based feminist movement (Akhtar 2022:117). Under such circumstances, Jatoi’s artivism is a small effort to at least point out the structural disparities in the country, and the context of social violence that dominates Pakistan. When situating this artistic expression within Habermas’s public sphere, it is important to consider the extent to which it represents the views of the masses. Furthermore, one has to analyze the way it is understood by the people, the target of the discourse. The effectiveness of art in conveying its message and in resonating with the intended audience proves crucial in evaluating its impact within the broader public sphere.

Women’s action forum and acts of silence as activism

  • 15 The Lal Masjid and its adjoining male and female seminaries comprise over 7,000 students and report (...)
  • 16 The Daily Times reported that the government gave the Lal Masjid administration an ultimatum to su (...)

24The fourth period of martial law imposed by General Pervez Musharraf’s government in October 1999 led to a growing phenomenon of Talibanization in the northern areas of Pakistan. During this period, the influence of extremist ideologies and the activities of militant groups flourished, especially in regions bordering Afghanistan. The surge in Talibanization involved the imposition of strict interpretations of Islamic law and the establishment of parallel justice systems in certain areas. This period saw heightened conflicts, with implications for both national and regional security. The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) headed by Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi became the center of a controversy in 2007. Male and female students affiliated with the Seminaries Mosque, and operating as vigilantes, were implicated in a series of incidents. They set about abducting police officers and other individuals whom they perceived to be engaged in “immoral” acts, such as prostitution. In April 2007, Lal Masjid clerics and administration threatened to launch a wave of suicide attacks should the Pakistani government attempt to dismantle a court set up in the Lal Masjid to enforce Shariʿa law (Amnesty International 2007).15 Finally, on July 3, violence flared up between the police, the Lal Masjid administration and students. Students of Jamia Hafsa and Jamia Faridia seminaries, affiliated with Lal Masjid, attempted to occupy a government building nearby and stole several guns from the police guarding the building. The police reportedly responded with tear gas, while students inside the mosque retaliated by opening fire. Over the ensuing three days, the security forces strived to take control of the mosque and to bring an end to the sporadic exchanges of gunfire, grenades, and mortars with the students inside the mosque (Hashmi 2015). As this was taking place in Islamabad, various political parties became deeply concerned about the situation, realizing that the environment of extremism and Talibanization was spreading rapidly through cities. The violence was seen as the result of radical Islam, not just in the lawless tribal areas described by American intelligence officials as an ongoing sanctuary for Al-Qaeda, but also in the capital itself, in a mosque-cum-school compound that until recently received the blessings of the state.16 As a result, political parties started mobilizing anti-terrorist protests in different cities of Pakistan.

  • 17 Batool completed her PhD in Media and Film Studies in 2015 at the School of Oriental and African St (...)
  • 18 Batool shared this anecdote during a telephone interview with the author on May 5, 2022.

25In Lahore, the Women Action Forum took the lead in organizing protests in collaboration with small businesses and various political parties. Farida Batool’s 2007 untitled work was part of these public protests held on the Mall Road in Lahore. (Fig. 4 and 5).17 During the protest, Batool, along with five of her students, used spray paint and stencils to paint slogans such as “taliban naa manzoor” (Taliban not accepted) and “aman + rawadari = hamara Pakistan” (peace + tolerance = Our Pakistan) on roads. Using stencils, she spray-painted pictures of Kalashnikov rifles and hand grenades on the road and then crossed them out as a sign of revolt, her idea being that after the march, the graffiti would remain for people to see over the next few days. And as she did all this, her fellow protestors praised her act because they had never seen anything like it before. However, a journalist interrupted, suggesting that this activism could be perceived as disrespectful to the country since she had written “Pakistan” on the road on which people would walk.18 This daring act of art activism on the part of Batool, an alumna of the National College of Arts Lahore where she is now head of the Cultural Studies program, has spanned two decades and inspired many of her students. The artist also initiated the Awami Art Collective, a public art collective that includes artists, academics, and journalists. The group uses art installations and performances in public spaces to engage with the masses, promoting peaceful protests and the appreciation of diversity in the country, while drawing attention to social and cultural issues.

Figure 4: Farida Batool, Untitled, 2007

Figure 4: Farida Batool, Untitled, 2007

Image Courtesy: Artist

Figure 5: Farida Batool, Untitled, 2007

Figure 5: Farida Batool, Untitled, 2007

Image Courtesy: Artist

26Jhatial’s “Silent Voices” was created during his graduate studies at Beaconhouse National University Lahore. During this project, Jhatial photographed himself holding an empty placard in front of key government institutes in Lahore, including those associated with legislation, justice, and other public places. His silent protest extended to various landmarks such as Parliament House, the High Court, Lahore Museum, Quaid-e-Azam Library, a church, old bookshops, public monuments, Lunger Khana (free food stalls), as well as to public offices such as the Press Club—the largest association of journalists, academics, and businessmen—, the General Post Office, and even to traffic signals on busy roads (Fig. 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10).

Figure 6: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Figure 6: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Image Courtesy: Artist

Figure 7: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Figure 7: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Image Courtesy: Artist

Figure 8: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Figure 8: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Image Courtesy: Artist

Figure 9: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Figure 9: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Image Courtesy: Artist

Figure 10: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Figure 10: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019

Image Courtesy: Artist

  • 19 Author’s interview with Jhatial on March 30, 2022, at a coffee house in Lahore.

27The artist strategically chose a total of 99 sites, taking 150 photographs over a period of four months. His deliberately planned this route of activism, adhering to the standard route used by various political parties and individuals seeking justice. The route starts at the Lahore Press Club and proceeds to the Punjab Assembly. Jhatial said that this route is commonly used for protests, and he aimed to experience and engage with this regular path of activism.19 His act of silent protest brandishing an empty placard was often rather bewildering for common bystanders, who would approach him with various questions and comments. Some would ask the meaning behind his action, whether there was something written on the placard that had faded or they would inquire about the issue he was addressing. Comments in Punjabi, such as “Ae pagal ae” (He is crazy) or “Ae tussi ki kr rhay ho?” (What are you doing?), were also made out of curiosity. However, for law-enforcement agencies, Jhatial’s presence in front of sensitive locations such as Parliament House, the High Court, and the Press Club was perceived as alarming. Consequently, he was often intercepted and removed from the scene by patrol officers within a few minutes of his arrival. Jhatial reflects on human communication, stating: “We as humans use all kinds of forms to communicate, including body gestures, text, voices, signs, and symbols (Jhatial 2022).” Jhatial views his act as an expression of voicelessness under political and social oppression. He sees the gesture of standing quietly, coupled with the blank placard, as a form of profound, loud silence that transcends the limitations of slogans or words. Without being explicitly directed towards a specific issue, his act becomes more meaningful and applicable to multiple issues, representing a silent threat of revolt by the oppressed. The deliberate selection of each site for his act reflects careful consideration aimed at highlighting the role and significance of these locations and institutions. For instance, standing silently in front of the High Court symbolizes concerns about judicial practices where verdicts may not always be in keeping with justice. The silence of the blank placard in front of the Punjab Assembly questions the effectiveness of law-making bodies in regulating the lives of citizens, while no doubt being detached from the realities faced by the working class. Jhatial shares his experience of standing in front of the Punjab Assembly:

When I reached the Punjab Assembly there was a special police force in plain clothes monitoring activities around the building for security purposes. They stopped me and asked my photographers and myself what we were doing. I told them I am protesting just like any other common person would. To which they told me that when someone plans to hold a protest, they inform us in advance about the time and duration of the protest. This was quite an awakening experience and information for me realizing that even to protest, one has to get approval from the authorities.
(Jathial, interview with author, 2022)

Jhatial’s choice of the Bazaar as one of the sites for his activism, where thousands of books are spread chaotically on dirty floors, highlights a lack of regard for the value of the knowledge contained in these books. The pricing of these books is determined by their weight and the quality of foreign press printing rather than the content itself.

  • 20 It is now integrated into the National College of Arts Lahore, where its main hall is used for show (...)

28Another strategically chosen site is the Lahore City Heritage Museum, located in a century-old colonial building on the The Mall next to Lahore Museum. Formerly known as Tollinton Market, and, despite having been saved from demolition thanks to public concern, this building ironically has restricted access to the general public. These choices are intended to draw attention to issues related to knowledge, heritage, and public access.20

29Jhatial’s choice of the Press Club in Lahore as a site for his silent protest with an empty placard carries significant meaning. The Press Club is a key location for common people and small business owners to hold protests, using media coverage as leverage to draw attention to their issues and to reach the authorities. Jhatial’s act of standing with an empty placard in this vicinity suggests numerous unresolved social and political issues that may or may not find a voice. Rather than using explicit slogans and written words that might direct attention to an individual issue, Jhatial’s silent protest offers profound and multiple interpretations, juxtaposing itself with other protests that utilize text and speech yet struggle to garner the necessary attention. The irony lies in the silent placard that reinforces the voice of all the protests still struggling to adequately address their issues. In this way, as Jhatial points out, silence becomes a powerful scream. His extensive work, spanning 99 locations, delves into various sensitive issues, including class discrimination, the role of the legislature, religious discrimination, and numerous social concerns. Each protest site implicitly highlights underlying issues stemming from corrupt systems, a lack of law and order, social injustices, and civic ignorance. Despite the depth and relevance of his work, Jhatial has faced challenges in displaying the documentation of his activism in Pakistan. Strict censorship and the sensitive nature of his art have limited its public showing. The significance and impact of Jhatial’s work lie in its ability to address and focus attention on multifaceted societal issues through a unique form of silent protest. It is commendable that Jhatial is actively engaged in documenting protests from various regions and combines physical visits and online research to compile a comprehensive corpus of work. The decision to present this collection as an “installation” further reinforces his commitment to providing a platform for the diverse voices within these protests. The emphasis on having a voice, even if expressed silently, reflects the power of artistic expression in fostering dialogue and awareness around critical societal issues. It is conceivable that the upcoming exhibition may secure a suitable venue to amplify these voices and to contribute significantly to the broader discourse on activism and social change.


30According to Lippard, art activism does not conform to a specific visual appearance; instead, it is often characterized by individual styles and aesthetics that are closely interconnected with the social structures they engage with (1984). With its intricate layers of understanding and representation of dormant social and political issues, such artistic expression challenges the power structures, fostering synergy between art, activism, and the public. Whether another art form could offer more direct engagement with difficult and thought-provoking issues is another question. In a postcolonial nation that has to contend with political and social turmoil, art activism persists as a niche sector, often assuming the role of a “hidden transcript,” to borrow James Scott’s terminology (Scott 1993), or, in the words of Asef Bayat, resembling “quiet encroachment of the ordinary.” (Bayat 2009). Nonetheless, it maintains its value in contexts where censorship is a prevailing challenge. Despite a relatively short history of art activism in Pakistan, visual artists operate a delicate balance, while striving not to compromise their expression and integrity within established societal norms. When their activism addresses social and political inequalities, or challenges the status quo, their work faces penalties, censorship, and, at times, even destruction.

31For Jatoi, the viewer plays a crucial role in completing artwork. Jatoi contends that the years of dictatorship and art restrictions have heightened artists’ sensitivity (Singh 2016). Batool emphasizes the need to raise public awareness about their environment, while Jhatial aims to amplify the significance of social and political issues through his silent, voiceless protests, seeking the attention of the authorities. Although Habermas’s ideas regarding the public sphere, democracy, bourgeois engagement, and equal access may appear to be far removed from the Pakistan context, the concept of the public sphere requires the process of decolonization to function effectively in the Global South, especially where any intervention in the public sphere is inherently subversive. In such a context, art activism mobilizes and occupies this space subtly and subversively in order to both conceal and highlight the power structures it seeks to dismantle. The Pakistani Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz captures this sentiment eloquently in his verse:

Halqa kiye baithe raho ek shama’ ko yaaroN
kuchh roshni baaqi to hai, har chand ki kam hai
Let us keep vigil around the light, my friends,
There is still life in the embers, dimmed though it may be.

32From the 1970s to the present day, Pakistani artists have continued to explore and experiment creative avenues to maintain and showcase showcase resilience and integrity in the face of oppressive political systems and unjust social structures. Through small-scale artistic expressions, whose discourse may seem uncertain to some and fragmented enough to appear to be unable to confront prevailing powers, the artivists’ ambition to contribute to robust artistic and political statements reflects the inherent strength of a social aspiration directed toward emancipation.

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1 Weiwei’s 2009 installation, entitled Remembering set up in Munich, was created by using 9,000 schoolchildren’s colored backpacks arranged along a wall to commemorate the death of the Chinese children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. 2010 sculptural installation featured 100,000 hand-painted porcelain Sunflower Seeds made by 1,600 Chinese artisans. Visitors were invited to walk over the fragile sculptural installationa metaphor for the downtrodden Chinese populace. In 2010, Weiwei used 14,000 lifejackets for an installation around the columns of the Berlin concert hall, Konzerthaus. These lifejackets were collected from the Greek island of Lesbos, during the height of the Syrian Civil War when hundreds of asylum seekers arrived each day on their way to Europe after braving a perilous sea journey from Turkey. The installation was made to draw attention to the refugee crisis and was a tribute to the individuals who perished during the crossing.

2 The selected artists are based in Lahore—a city famed for its centuries-old historical and literary significance. Since colonial times Lahore has, like Paris, been a thriving center of art and culture thanks to the National College of Arts (one of the four art schools established by the British Raj in 1875 and modeled after South Kensington College London) and many other educational institutions. It is a city of gardens and historical monuments. Students and artists from all over Pakistan set up residence in Lahore to study and to establish their artistic careers, such as Jhatial.

3 In the early 20th century, Hugo Ball’s performance of the Cabaret Voltaire in a nightclub was a response to the devastation of the First World War. The press release published by the nightclub stated that the group aims to create a center for artistic entertainment. The idea of the cabaret will be that guest artists will come and give musical performances and readings at the daily meetings. The young artists of Zurich, whatever their orientation, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds. Zurich, February 2, 1916. Performance Art, accessed on June 15, 2021.

4 See Farzana Shaikh, Making Sense of Pakistan, Columbia University Press, 2009, pp. 5–13 and Ayesha Jalal, “Rustled Silences: The Past in Pakistan’s Present,” Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Yale University Press, 2009 pp. 31–37.

5 Araeen, is a prolific Pakistani-born, London-based writer and critical theorist, founder of “Third Text’”—a leading critical international contemporary journal focusing on the globalization of cultural practices and postcolonial theory in art.

6 Araeen had performed this work twice before: once in February 1970 in St. Katherine’s Docks, London, then in October 1970, in the River Seine, Paris. It was previously entitled Demonstration, an environmental artwork. Ali Imam, a modernist artist and curator of Indus Gallery, convinced Araeen to re-enact the performance in Karachi. “Environmental Art” show at Jheel Park, 2 April, 1974, Dawn.

7 Statement from Aaraeen to Imam in 1974, Courtesy Ali Imam Archive.

8 Shaikh, “Making Sense of Pakistan,” 2009, p. 216.

9 For details of the law see:, accessed on March 20, 2022.

10 The state implemented a policy whereby young girls and women had to wear the Chaadar in public forums, educational institutions and the media, and this became a focal point for women artists.

11 The fifteen artists who signed the manifesto included: Abbasi Abidi, Meher Afroz, Talat Ahmad, Veeda Ahmed, Sheherzade Alam, Riffat Alvi, Mamoona Bashir, Salima Hashmi, Birgis Iqbal, Zubeida Javed, Jalees Nagee, Lala Rukh, Nahid Rasa, Qudsia Nisar, and Rabia Zuberi. The facsimile of the manifesto is reproduced in Hashmi (2002:193–95), Unveiling the Visible: Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan, Action Aid Pakistan, Islamabad.

12 Hashmi later complained to the then Minister of Culture, Arbab Niaz Muhammad. (As per the author’s interview with the artist by telephone on July 10, 2020).

13 The Urdu newspaper Daily Mushriq (June 14, 1976) quoted it as a mysterious fire, and Imroz (June 14, 1976 paper) said that the fire was due to a short circuit. Note that Sadequain was seen to adapt to the new political environment of General Zia’s regime, though he remained a nonconformist in his private life.

14 The narrative of wars with India is presented in patriotic, not historical, terms. See K. K. Aziz, “The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan, Vanguard Books Pvt. Ltd. Lahore 1993, p. 17.

15 The Lal Masjid and its adjoining male and female seminaries comprise over 7,000 students and reportedly taught a radical interpretation of Islam. “Pakistan: authorities must protect and respect human rights in bringing an end to violent confrontation” Amnesty International, Public Statement., published on July 6, 2007.

16 The Daily Times reported that the government gave the Lal Masjid administration an ultimatum to surrender and to vacate the mosque and its associated seminaries. The government also reportedly called on the mosque administration to turn over to the authorities, students accused of attacking security personnel.” Excerpt from Amnesty International’s 2007 Public Statement.

17 Batool completed her PhD in Media and Film Studies in 2015 at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, after finishing an MA in Art History and Theory in 2003 at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Australia.

18 Batool shared this anecdote during a telephone interview with the author on May 5, 2022.

19 Author’s interview with Jhatial on March 30, 2022, at a coffee house in Lahore.

20 It is now integrated into the National College of Arts Lahore, where its main hall is used for showcasing students’ doctoral work.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Women’s Protest against Hudood Ordinance, 12 Feb, 1979
Credits Image Courtesy: Salima Hashmi Archive, Asia Art Archive Hong Kong
File image/jpeg, 309k
Title Figure 2: Ayesha Jatoi, Clothesline, 2006
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 924k
Title Figure 3: Ayesha Jatoi, Clothesline, 2006
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 679k
Title Figure 4: Farida Batool, Untitled, 2007
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 1.3M
Title Figure 5: Farida Batool, Untitled, 2007
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
Title Figure 6: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
Title Figure 7: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
Title Figure 8: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 662k
Title Figure 9: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 780k
Title Figure 10: Qadir Jhatial, Silent Voices, 2019
Credits Image Courtesy: Artist
File image/jpeg, 1.2M
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Electronic reference

Samina Iqbal, “Not So “Silent”: Art, Political Expression and the Subtle Use of the Public Sphere in the Work of Pakistan’s Artivists”South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 25 June 2024, connection on 18 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Samina Iqbal

Lahore School of Economics

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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