In search of Cultural Identity – Art exhibition at Hunerkada

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A thought-provoking exhibition of drawings, followed by a video presentation was held at Hunerkada Art Gallery on Saturday. The latest art exhibition by Asma Arshad Mahmood, a Toronto-based artist, portrays her effort to connect the dots of identity with lines of culture and origin. Complicated subjects such as politics, religion and history emerge as the voice and images of her work.

Canadian High Commissioner Ross Hynes graced the occasion, while Jamal Shah, the Chairman of the Hunerkada College was also present at the opening day of the exhibition. Canadian High Commissioner Ross Hynes appreciated the artist’s effort and said that promotion of artworks and cultural exchange could help strengthen bilateral relations between Pakistan and Canada.

Asma’s recent exhibition depicts search of her own identity as a Muslim woman in post 9/11 world. Speaking at the occasion, Asma Arshad, the artist explained that her current work is inspired by “issues of time, desire, feminism and cultural identity and the mechanics of immigration in 21st century.”

The artist has used images, metaphors, and traditional techniques to evoke the ideas of migration, integration, rejection and assimilation. “My intention was to address the current difficult issues of identity facing my community by creating a faux traditional painting style that borrows from historical and classical miniature paintings.” The artist believes that rigid religious and political beliefs have sharply bisected the identities of people like her, who try to balance life in contemporary society.

In one painting, the misguided suicide bomber is heading into his mission thinking of fornication with promised virgins. “I see this painting alluding to the mass media fascination with the idea of Jihaad.” But in fact, by representing Islam as a culture of extremists, ordinary Muslims have been deprived a voice, not only in the foreign countries but also in their native lands. “They are denied a political identity” she added quoting Edward Said.

Her recent work centered on ‘Shalwar’, a unisex traditional garment, which are worn with long shirts. Asma views the attire’s design as “representative of the conflicting values that exist in my Pakistani Muslim community and my own status as a Muslim Canadian of Pakistani origin.” She relates it to the complex sexual, social and political representation of South Asian communities and also to religion and secularism or democracy and theocracy. “I have used the garment to cipher the origin of various taboos and dogmatic beliefs in Indian subcontinent.” The topic has relevance for the larger Canadian community as they are currently at war with Afghanistan, a Muslim country where these symbols and signs are a daily reality, she observed. Her artwork attempts to connect the dots of identity with lines of culture and origin. “As far as the garment goes, I feel most comfortable in Shalwar but it does not represent my ideas about my identity” she said smilingly.

Asma plays an important role in activism through arts on various levels in Canadian Diaspora. She has exhibited her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum and Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. She has also served on the Board of Directors for SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Collective) and community editorial board of Toronto Star. At present she serves on the board of annual arts festival at Harbourfront, heads Canadian Community Arts Initiative, chairs ArtCity in Toronto and acts as Project Director for Cre8iv80 Studio.

Born in Lahore, Asma completed her initial education in arts in Islamabad under the guidance of noted artist Mansoor Rahi. She trained as a ceramic and pottery artist in Bogota, Colombia after she moved there in 1985. After returning to Pakistan in 1991, she was accepted as apprentice by Raja Changez Sultan to develop her figurative artwork. She extensively exhibited her figurative paintings that had distinct influence of Changez. She moved to Canada in 1999 and has been exploring the contemporary practice of installation and multi-media art besides painting. She is also the Festival Director for Mosaic, the South Asian Heritage Festival of Mississauga.

Published in Pakistan Observer (16 Oct. 2011)

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