[Part 2] A Commitment to Creativity: The Online Aesthetics of Feminist Labour

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Commitment to Creativity. Illustration by MINELLE.V. for GenderIT.

This two-part series critically explores the interrelation between art and politics in the online manifestations of Pakistan’s feminist movement. You can read the first part here.

ART IN THE SERVICE OF REVOLUTION

The dominant visual culture of social media platforms excels at the proliferation of the ‘vibe’ of feelgood political activism. It is incredibly easy now to feign political correctness, perform support for issues of grave concern, and even show a little bit of empathy for marginalised communities, in the pursuit of more social capital in online spaces. Talk is cheap. Political action, however, requires time, labour and collective organising. 

 The fact that politics invariably has an aesthetic dimension shows that art does not exist in itself. Art must be critical of liberal individual ideology, and stem beyond online cultural capital, to play a lasting role in movement building work. It must center feminist goals, instead of depoliticising them. For this to happen, political accountability must be intrinsic to any revolutionary artistic project. Art that is linked to feminism must eschew superficial, market-based alignment that is more likely to make a feminist feel good and virtuous rather than lead her to the political action that feminism is meant to encourage.

Political movements often lead to a fascinating array of artistic experiments to give birth to a new cultural vision. They create a schism between art and conformist ideas related to state and popular ideology. And yet sometimes art can easily subsume important political voices by drawing others to its commercial appeal. We often see this happen when well-meaning charity initiatives prioritise the efforts and goodwill of privileged artists over the cause they are supporting. Art, constructed for and by a consuming vision, can only fashion an identity; but it cannot remake a world. 

Art seems like a luxury, instead of a necessity, when one is stuck in the rut of capitalism, even though it has the potential to transform our relationship with the world and time. It is important to articulate these imaginative possibilities by considering art that is not made in the arms of power. As underscored by Nida Mushtaq, “The written language is a modern and inaccessible format that can be exclusionary. Street art makes a city come alive. So many of us who live in Islamabad are migrants; the sterile walls we see do not reflect our multivariate realities.”

Even when art is oppositional, capitalism has an uncanny knack of appropriating it. The intrinsic value of art for movements remains in its ability to reflect political and economic realities, while speaking truth to power. For that, it must value outcome over process, instead of being complicit in injustice by promoting aesthetics for the sake of self-promotional gains.

Art as a Collective Undertaking

Art in the service of progressive political movements exists for communities that are fighting for freedom, rather than their own individualistic interests. It exists for the realisation of collective liberation, not for special entitlements. It does not privilege an artist over the wellbeing of communities, nor exist for their popularity to rise.  It is a concrete, experiential manifestation of the vulnerability that connects the artist to the communities she organises for.

Isma Gul Hasan, an illustrator who worked on the visual graphics for Aurat Azadi March in 2021, looks back: “It was a very collective experience. I don’t think whatever artwork I made was an individual practice. It felt like all of us were making it together. I was the one translating the voices into visuals, and there were multiple voices. I was entrusted with an important visual, and I trusted the feedback I received and the people I was surrounded by. There was a lot of love shared during the process.” Isma notes that a lot of the people who used the poster for journals and articles tried to individualise the voices behind it, “This was in no way an individual undertaking” – hence, politics was at the centre, not the art. The poster Isma made was of Baloch women, who are often ignored by urban centres in feminist struggles for liberation.

Isma Gul Husan’s poster for Aurat Azadi March (Islamabad), 2021

Art and Erasure

Political art has been a crucial part of leftist politics in Pakistan. The colour red denotes how art became political through interactions with left-wing activism. I have witnessed ‘surkha’ (red) aesthetics being criticised often for causing discomfort, despite red being the symbol of a proletarian revolution. To me, the colours of the left are a conscious choice employed by an artist, as she frees her hand from the shackles of capitalism while decommodifying her art. Art must refuse to be placed where power wants it placed.

Art installation by Aurat March Lahore lambasts unethical journalism and the sensationalised and insensitive coverage of the feminist movement. 

The artistic labour that people do in the service of movements is an act of love and comradery. There is no compensation for this work; artists who work actively with movements organise as planners and architects of an ongoing revolution. They redefine art as a constructive act, while disengaging their political labour from their careers. Being an organiser usually means realising that our work pays us back in the form of community, purpose and the hope for a better future. Moreover, artists have a degree of autonomy over their work on their digital pages, where spatial control over revolutionary art also becomes the basis for its virtual extensity. The internet provides the space where maximum control over materials electronically conjoins with the maximum distributive power of art.

Sara Kazmi, a progressive political worker based in Lahore, recently began sharing protest songs and poems, primarily from Punjab, on her Instagram account, Mein Beqaid (Me, Uncaged). For Sara, the account functions, first and foremost, as an accessiblھ online archive, with text, translation and musical rendering for other protest singers, performers and activists to draw upon. She adds, “In my research and singing, I have been inspired by cross-border dialogue, particularly in relation to the Indo-Pak border, but more largely in the context of Global South cultures of protest performance. The Instagram page is an attempt to foster those South-South connections and solidarities in the digital sphere, the only space available for South Asians and those governed by repressive border regimes to speak to each other."

In her recent post on revolutionary music, Sara reflects:

“Too often, I have encountered a dismissive attitude towards ‘political art’, i.e. art that is produced self-consciously in the service of a revolutionary movement or ideal. It is pejoratively labelled crude, simplistic, propagandist and lacking in aesthetics often on both sides of the political spectrum, left and right.

I find this hardly to be the case and love singing protest music: it has its own aesthetic, its own repository of symbols, images, and melodies that has had a huge impact on the arts as a whole. For example, the Progressive Writers’ Association, an anticolonial, left-leaning collective of writers and artists engaged in revolutionising North Indian art through the use of socialist realism, Marxist aesthetics, and literary experiments remains to this day the single most influential cultural movement of the region, producing the likes of Manto, Faiz, Chugtai, and Premchand."

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Sara Kazmi (@mein.beqaid)

It is high time we contextualise and declass the arts, and recognise the place of the protest symbols in our cultural history. Declassing the arts also entails being mindful of, and not only devoting ourselves to, the optics of feminism, so we can extend our solidarity to others beyond tokenism.

In recent times, the feminist movement in Pakistan has witnessed a pushback from transgender people against the erasure of khwaja siras: the moorat. Khwaja siras across Pakistan have questioned the silence of cisgender women over the growing spate of violence against them, and criticised the invisible hierarchies of grief that exist online. 

We must ask ourselves this, over and over: who makes it to the language of feminist resistance? Feminist work online can very easily lead to erasure when it fails to highlight and condemn attacks against transgender people in Pakistan, be it in the form of beela attacks, normalised violence, or a larger sinister plan courtesy of far-right factions. We must reflect on our own skewed priorities, and ask ourselves which losses are mourned and deemed worthy of discussions, by us, through tweet threads, hashtags and placards, and which aren’t.

 

Sindh Moorat March (logo for the Sindh Transgender March)

 

Mural of Mehrub Moiz Awan, trans rights activist, made by Akeli Larkiyan. Islamabad

 

Posters made for Trans Justice Vigil, Islamabad. April 2022

Sara Kazmi, the political worker from Lahore, tells me, “Progressive movements are engaged in alternative world-making, their organising is geared towards imagining and sustaining utopian possibilities and the work of forging revolutionary culture and consciousness is key to this end.” This is why art, as a powerful tool for imagination and expression, is so important for movements of the left. Similar to Amna, Sara also believes that art has, unfortunately, not always received the importance it deserves, largely because of top-down notions of organising and activism in left-leaning and progressive circles. “‘Cultural work' is seen as distinct from and an appendage to political work, rather than a necessary, co-constitutive component of revolutionary organising.”

Feminism has never been more widely proclaimed than it is now. It has also never been more hated. Aesthetics have played a noticeable role in people’s perception of, and reaction to, the movement in Pakistan. The response to the placards and protests on display at the Aurat (Azadi) Marches have included concerted disinformation campaigns in the form of doctored images, misleading videos and inflammatory commentary, and threats of actual violence. Now right-wing hardliners in Pakistan are railing against transgender people simply because they are more visible in online spaces, and therefore an easy target.

Art as Political Introspection

The visibility of feminist art and creativity provide a concerted pushback against the negation of gendered oppression in Pakistan. However, since the individual is writ large in online spaces, questions of performative and insincere politics cannot be avoided. Images of ‘empowerment’ are interspersed with the relentless advertising of brands that have learnt how to subtly coopt feminist messages. Simultaneously, feminist posters have become popular online, and bring a lot of visibility to illustrators who speak a certain design language that caters to the sensibilities of people with class privilege and exposure. There is no art or artist that is wholly unproblematic or disengaged with systemic oppression. The hard work is in performing and creating works and artistic communities that acknowledge these complications, and provide the people harmed by them art that speaks to their social experiences. Earnest but depoliticised catchphrases such as “the future is female” or “girls just want to have fun-damental rights”, will only lead to the cooptation of dissidence, with a self-serving feminism popularised by girlbosses, beauty companies and fashion brands claiming to be more in touch with history than they actually are. 

Art and expression, feminist or otherwise, can’t only denote a self-interested thought process, with the perfunctory labels used for them defeating the need for further introspection. The homogeneity of artistic content in digital spaces needs to be disrupted, so we can bring in a mix of voices and faces from different backgrounds, instead of only catering to the privileged creators and consumers of lifestyle-oriented social media platforms. What is required from artists is class solidarity, so that their art makes an actual difference in the lives of people who are fighting for a more equitable world, to prove that their practice is not fancy, capitalist and in close proximity with the ruling classes.

The internet is an expanded field of art; not without inherent hierarchies but certainly borderless. Art as an inherent tactic of social movements helps us transcend the repression, loneliness, and despair of everyday life under authoritarian rule. It is beautifully dialectical, as it lays bare the brutality of everyday life in an authoritarian state, and that same instance, asserts life, creativity, and humanity. An artistic praxis is therefore foundational, and a beacon of hope, for organising any political movement against authoritarianism, patriarchy, imperialism, and capitalism.

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