Editor’s Note: This review was written directly following Iftikhar Dadi’s lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on April 12, 2011. It has been reprinted here in its original form.
On April 12, 2011, Professor Iftikhar Dadi delivered the inaugural lecture of the Colloquium on Modern and Contemporary Art from the Middle East and South Asia (MESA) at the Institute of Fine Arts. Dadi is a practicing artist and an associate professor in the Department of the History of Art at Cornell University, as well as the author of the recent Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (University of North Carolina Press, 2010). His lecture at the IFA, entitled “Between Global Media and the Urban Subaltern,” contained three parts: first, Dadi’s take on the rhetoric surrounding modern art in South Asia and the Middle East; second, an analysis of major artists involved in the development of modernism in this region; and third, a presentation of Dadi’s own artistic collaborations with his wife, Elizabeth Dadi.
Employing Andreas Huyssen’s conception of “modernism at large,” Dadi situated artists working in South Asia during the twentieth century within a transnational Muslim modernism rather than within nationally specific modernities. He further argued that this modernism was liberating despite its Eurocentrism, positively influencing artists working in South Asia and the Middle East because it allowed them to decolonialize Islamic art. Thus they could use the visual language of Islamic art to develop a new subjectivity that was intrinsically South Asian Muslim. Dadi first discussed well-known Pakistani artist Sadequain Naqqash (1930-1987), whose paintings draw upon the Islamic tradition of calligraphy. Naqqash simultaneously aligns his work with modernist movements such as Cubism, using abstracted letterforms that obstruct a strictly narrative reading of the text. Referencing the Mughal Empire, which ruled the Indian subcontinent from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, Dadi described another Pakistani artist, Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1899-1975), as “a Mughal artist working in a time of print culture.” Chugtai’s paintings make use of imagery similar to that of traditional Mughal miniatures, creating a subjectivity based on historical precursors as well as on the contemporary intellectual scene.