An avenue of expression for young, talented painters and artisans, Nairang Art Gallery has recently come under attack for perpetuating a liberal ideology.
The August 2 incident, regarding a police assault on the gallery’s female curator Amal Fatima, a recent graduate from National College of Arts (NCA), captured the attention of the nation. The local art community has condemned the incident and has shown solidarity in what is being looked at as an attack on the city’s creative space. “This is an attempt to spread fear so that the space for expression shrinks,” says former NCA principal Nazish Ataullah.
The art gallery, considered one of Lahore’s few prominent cultural hubs, has also become a hangout spot for local intelligentsia, writers, and artists. Some of the frequent visitors include Urdu writer Intezaar Hussain, human rights activist IA Rahman, politician Dr Mubashir Hasan, artists Quddus Mirza, Pirzada Najam, Arif Khan and Salima Hashmi.
“There is a streak of liberalism when one talks about Nairang,” says Nayyar Ali Dada, renowned architect and founder of the gallery. “However, I assume this is not a popular place in the eyes of the establishment.”
According to Dada, SHO of the Shadman police station, Rana Zulfiqar created a scene after a lady outside the gallery took some time to park her car. Following that, the police official barged into the gallery on the pretext that shisha was being served at the gallery. According to eye witnesses, the senior official first picked on a couple and questioned why they were sitting together, deeming their interaction ‘un-Islamic’. Later, he barged into a rehearsal of a Khattak dance performance and assaulted the female curator of the gallery, while also labelling her ‘fahash’.
Dada is shocked that the gallery, known for promoting a staunchly liberal and progressive atmosphere, has come under threat. “Artists in Ziaul Haq’s era were stifled, but the PPP is known for its liberal stance so it’s a little surprising.” However, he is quick to add that the “lower-stratum of society is changing and turning more and more towards extremism”.
Dada confirmed that two separate inquiries had been lodged, with one been handled by the chief minister and the other by the police. Dada added that the SHO has been captured and is being held as the main culprit, while it still remains to be seen what action is taken.
Waves of protest
The reaction to the news of the assault saw several protests in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. The spread of the news was aided by the social media which has seen several Facebook pages and Twitter chains create a buzz.
Political economist and activist Feryal Ali Gauhar, who also has been a regular at the Lahore Bachao Tehreek (LBT) at Nairang, says; “I don’t leave the house as often because women and minorities are increasingly marginalised,” says Gauhar.
Meanwhile, reputed artist Dr Ejaz Anwar also called for the need to rise against such an ideology that seeks to justify abusing a woman on the excuse of vulgarity. “The reaction has been very organised and that shows how serious the issue really is,” says Anwar. “I think it’s clear that this form of high-handedness has to be challenged.”
Quddus Mirza, a renowned artist and teacher, points out that this was an attack more on personal space than on the arts. “In principle, the police do not have a right to intrude like this and the incident deserves direct condemnation.” He also stresses that it’s important to ask whether the SHO was directing the aggression at the cafe or the art. “I think that they have mindset against male and females sitting together. Therefore, the incident is the epitome of human rights violation.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2011.