The planes in Sabina Haque’s drawings are rendered crudely, as if in a kid’s scrawl, and they look like bombers but also a little like crosses, or even swastikas: looking at them, I’m riveted, but my mind also wanders, making little connections with wayward yet pertinent thoughts. The drawings stand in for drones – pilotless robot planes, modern soldiers in the technology of war, outlines filled in with blood-red. Now and again the video I’m watching marks, in red-splattered letters, some of the people at the wrong end of the drone strikes:
“CHILDREN IN SCHOOL”
“A GRANDMOTHER IN HER GARDEN”
“A WEDDING PARTY”
In news stories and official government releases, such events are referred to as “collateral damage.” Here on the ground of Haque’s experience and art – she is Pakistani-American, grew up in Karachi, and returns for lengthy visits to Pakistan every year – nothing’s collateral about it. It’s life. And life cut short.
The video, called Remembrance, slowly fills in with the tagging of numbers, like a prisoner’s tally-marks on a cell wall to count the days, except these marks aren’t for days, they’re for bodies: one-two-three-four-slash, one-two-three-four-slash, one-two-three-four-slash, on and on and on. Haque did the original installation and performance that the video depicts last fall during Portland Open Studios, at her east side space in Troy Studios. Visitors came into the space, watched the performance, picked up chalk, and became part of it. “People made those marks,” she commented when we last talked in June.
I first met Haque about a year ago, during an organizational meeting for last year’s Open Studios, when artist and board president Robyn Williams asked me to give a talk. I met a lot of artists that day, many without gallery representation, and many with interesting stories. Haque struck me in conversation for her obvious intelligence and humor, and when I looked at her paintings online, I was taken by her luscious use of color and shape: dead-serious in intention, her paintings are also aesthetically pleasing, abstract but reminiscent of ritual, suffused with beauty. “They’re layered,” she told me. “If you spend time with them, they open up.”
In late May I caught an early-cut screening of Remembrance at the 5th Avenue Cinema’s Short Film Festival, and the layers began to open wide. We met again at the Starbucks on Southwest Jackson and Sixth, near Portland State University, where Haque teaches in the art department, part of her job being to teach art to kids in underserved public schools such as Cully and King – 10 schools in six years, helping kids create murals and digital stories. What she does is reclamation work, rethreading broken continuities, rescuing memories: “It’s about lost stories in our community.”
And sometimes, as in Remembrance, it’s about not forgetting stories that have been violently interrupted. Our Starbucks meeting was on Wednesday, June 11, the morning after the gun attack at Reynolds High School in suburban Portland that left two students dead: 14-year-old Emilio Hoffman, who happened to be in the school gym when the gunner walked in, and the gunner himself, a 15-year-old freshman who shot himself while barricaded in a school restroom. Haque’s art in Remembrance is specifically about U.S. drone attacks over the skies of Pakistan and other war-ravaged countries, but it’s hard not to draw parallels. From our schools to our war zones, we seem to have reverted to medieval rules of engagement, but with 21st century weapons. Since that time much additional high-profile violence has occurred, from the quick triggers of Ferguson, Mo., to the latest Palestinian/Israeli conflict, to the carnage of ISIS and its slaughtering of both journalists and civilians. How does art keep up with the world?
“It is a trauma that keeps repeating itself,” Haque commented. “This story is not about drones. It’s about the history of trauma. And of healing.”
Haque’s art is unusual in the Northwest not just because it straddles cultures but also because it so squarely confronts issues more often discussed, when they’re talked about at all, in op-ed analyses and serious political and current-events publications. She’s not alone in this. Artists like Matthew Dennison, Melody Owen, and Michael Brophy, for instance, immerse their work in environmental issues. Victor Maldonado’s campy Mexican wrestling masks take sly aim at ethnic and cultural attitudes. Bonnie Meltzer crochets and wires an art of outspoken opposition to coal trains and fracking, a soft subversion of the ordinary rules of conflict. And many photographers fuse fine art with cultural or political documentation: Carol Yarrow, Jim Lommasson, Joni Kabana, others.
But by accident and inclination, Haque’s art finds itself at a fulcrum point of world events. She was born in the United States, moved back to her father’s homeland of Pakistan when she was 1 year old, then moved back to the U.S. to attend college when she was 18. She’s lived in this country since then (she moved to Portland in 2006), but her father insisted she return to Pakistan for an extended visit every year, so she wouldn’t be cut off from her roots. Her father is Pakistani; her mother is American with Lutheran and Catholic background. Sabina married an Indian man from Mumbai, and their daughter is studying Japanese, so trips to Japan have been added to the family’s international itinerary. These multiple identities put her at odds with the devout fundamentalism of the world’s hot spots, but she likes to think the future looks more like the shifting reality of her own life. “The world is moving in this direction,” she said. “It just isn’t there yet.”
Haque, 40, regularly shows her work in Pakistan, and though she feels relatively safe, she stays mostly within a three-mile radius in Karachi. As an American and a woman leading a modern life, she puts herself at some risk. “I’m the ultimate insider/outsider,” she said. “I push boundaries. People have to look at both sides. That’s my role as an artist.”
The post-9/11 war that led directly to drone flights over Pakistan is, in fact, only a continuation of a cycle of violence that runs long and is rooted deep. You can trace it in modern history at least to the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. In a massive population swap, roughly 14.5 million people crossed borders before or after the partition to get to the country where their own religion held the majority. “My grandmother left with nothing in the middle of the night,” Haque said, traveling by boat cart to Bombay.
And there was plenty of violence. GlobalSecurity.org’s military analysis sums it up: “The death toll of this terrible episode remains very much contested. Hundreds of thousands of people died, as Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, Muslims to Pakistan, and many others were caught in a chaotic transition. A consensus figure of 500,000 is often used, but the sources closer to the truth give figures that range from 200,000 to 360,000 dead. By other estimates, Partition resulted in as many as 1.5 million deaths. The word genocide did not come to the minds of observers at the time, though there were genocidal aspects to what finally developed. … Though some guns and bombs were available, the predominant methods used were cutting and axing of people to bits or burning them alive.” Also, many, many rapes are said to have occurred.
Today, more sophisticated weaponry and a sharp rise in population makes the situation possibly even more volatile. Two million people live in the slums outside Karachi, Haque told me. The number may be much higher. With a population approaching 24 million, Karachi is now the third-largest city in the world, and seventh-largest metropolitan area. Growth in the city has been explosive: from 9.8 million in 1998 to 21.2 million in 2011. Five million people lived in the slums in 2000, and that number has grown.
And violence has been on the upswing. A Geo.tv report from 2013 says 2012 was Karachi’s deadliest year in at least two decades, with roughly 2,000 people killed for ethnic or political reasons. In a precarious political environment, precise numbers are hard to come by. The Citizens-Police Liaison Commission put the number of violent deaths at 2,124. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 1,800 people died in targeted killings in the first nine months of 2012 – 700 more than in all of 2011, which had been the most violent year since the statistic began to be kept almost 20 years ago. Geo.tv gave this perspective:
“Karachi has all the ingredients of an explosive cocktail – gang warfare, land grabbings, drugs, Islamist extremism, political rivalries, ethnic tensions, extreme poverty and a mushrooming population owing to migration.”
In spite of the extreme volatility in her homeland, Haque’s art is engaged but not rhetorical. It insists on dealing with urgent issues, but with a reportorial eye toward the fragile normality that is being threatened and warped by an atmosphere of civil disruption. Her art has sorrow, but also beauty. It explores trauma, but not with Sue Coe’s anger, or the anguish of Käthe Kollwitz or Egon Schiele. Haque exposes jangling nerves, and insists on witnessing and remembrance, but she also suffuses her art with tradition, ceremony, beauty. Her statements are less about war and violence than about the effects of war and violence, the trauma they rain on individual lives. And her art suggests a belief in the importance of beauty and ceremony, in flexibility and suggestion. “I’m deconstructing political art, actually,” she told me. “I can’t see anything in black and white, because that’s not who I am.”
Her approach to art, she stressed, is “not polemic. It’s inserting. Reinserting the personal.” That’s true not just with her finished pieces on drones, but often with her process as well: doing community work, you have to collaborate. Her work has moved over the years from product toward process, toward inclusion and storytelling. And she has stories to tell; stories about the powerless, stories about seeing with a multiplicity of views – something, she says, that her abstract-expressionist art school instructors at Boston University, where she earned her MFA in 1998, didn’t much understand or appreciate.
The stories ripple out, not just her own specific stories, but stories that viewers of her work are reminded of from their own personal stores. Looking at Remembrance, I thought about the stories of mothers in Iowa who helped tip the balance of public opinion away from the war in Vietnam by asserting its personal cost. And I thought of the “Not One More” mantra about shootings in American schools, which so far has had no obvious effect, but as time goes on, who knows? Does violence stop only when those in its path assert their right to peace? Art seems helpless in the face of extreme human aggression and misunderstanding. And yet, it can change hearts and minds, and for that reason zealots fear it: witness the desecration of museums and millennia-old statues and cultural sites in the war zones of the Middle East and Asia.
Haque talks about other artists whose work she appreciates. William Kentridge, with his South African roots, another culture haunted by conflict. David Hockney, with his theatrical sense. “There is a sense of ritual and spirituality in my work. I can’t get it out,” she says. “I’m a symbolist. All of my work, when you look at it, I manipulate symbols.” The figures in her installation include rangoli, or infinity hoops, that suggest renewal and meditation, and come out of ancient, probably pre-Islamic, culture. Remembrance calls on the tradition of holi festivals, spring festivals of color, festivals of love. Of Hindu origin, they’ve become popular with non-Hindus across much of Asia, marking a time of mending past mistakes, of ending conflicts, of forgetting and forgiving. And her work has a conceptual and stylistic rigor that fit well with the impulses of contemporary western art.
Moving into performance and learning about video have taken her further into the personal. To prepare for making the video version of Remembrance she took an animation class from one of the country’s best animators, Rose Bond. “I’m so glad I went down the rabbit hole” of video, she said.
In the larger picture of ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle East and Asia, American drones and the “collateral damage” that inevitably accompanies them plays a small but significant role. “Any technology, humans can use for good or bad,” Haque remarked. “It’s about, who are we? What are our moral choices? I’m more interested in what we’re doing with drones. And more importantly, what allows us to use these things in that way in that part of the world.” The stability of personal life is undone from many directions, and the markers keep going up on the walls. One-two-three-slash. One-two-three-slash. At one point in Remembrance a chalkboard message appears, quoting the testimony a year ago of a 13-year-old Pakistani to a U.S. Congressional hearing; his sister had been injured in a drone attack: “I no longer love blue skies. I prefer grey skies. The drones don’t fly when the skies are grey.”
“This is a story that’s been going on for centuries,” Haque said. “It’s something that’s human, and we should understand it.” She paused a moment, then added: “You can heal. But the scar remains.”
Each time she returns to Karachi, Haque said, “There is a sense of, life is fragile. I could die here. So I’d better make use of it. I think the reality is, you can die anywhere, anytime. And, yes, there is risk in going to Pakistan.”
And risk in staying away. “This is our sky, too,” she said. “It belongs to everyone.”
All images courtesy Sabina Haque.