Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Art In Islamabad Gallery Runs Counter To Stereotypes

For a reporter who has spent most of her adult life covering the wars and the aftermath of the wars in south-central Asia, doing a story on an art gallery must have felt like a vacation -- or at least a breath of fresh air.

Carlotta Gall is one of the very few mainstream reporters whose work I take at face value. Her columns are always very well-crafted, she reports about things she has actually seen and people she has actually talked to, and she always manages to include some historical context. All this and more, actually: if you read her over an extended period, you can see that there's never any consistent "spin" -- in one column she may appear to support President General Pervez Musharraf, for example, but in a subsequent piece she may line up with his most strident detractors.

I'm not calling Carlotta Gall a "flip-flopper"; far from it. I'm saying she calls 'em as she sees 'em. She has made a career of praising people when she thinks they've done something good, and criticizing them when she thinks they've done something bad. It amazes me that anyone so honest can still draw a salary from the New York Times; but then again she's willing to work in south-central Asia. They certainly don't have anybody like her in the corridors of power.

Back to the point: Carlotta Gall's newest piece is a portrait of the National Art Gallery in Islamabad, Pakistan, which opened last month after more than 30 years of on-again, off-again. Most of the article details the story of the gallery's construction -- a project whose fate has always depended on the whim of the national government, in a country of severe political shifts. It's a fascinating tale, and Musharraf looks good in this light. (So there's probably something quite scathing about Musharraf in Carlotta Gall's pipeline! -- just kidding, but not really!!)

Back to the point, again: Tucked away near the end of the piece is a wonderful description of what the gallery actually contains:
The gallery runs counter to many of the stereotypes of Pakistan’s image today. There is a startling amount of humor and overt sexuality in the exhibits. A pair of suitcases filled with special shower heads for Islamic ablutions, and monumental razors and clippers, poke fun at the needs of the Muslim traveler. Metal sculptures of the female form recall something of the medieval chastity belt. Suspended wooden speakers invite visitors to enter a maze like a pinball machine and batter their heads with the sound of hundreds of madrasa pupils chanting the Koran.
It's our unifying factor, our common human bond. Where would we be without jokes about sex, ablutions, and religion? I can see the advertising slogan now:
"When in Islamabad, get your sex and religion jokes at the National Art Gallery."
OK, maybe not ... but it's still funny, isn't it?

You can read the entire piece at the NYT website: "An Outpost of the Arts, Secured by a Military Dictator". Or if that doesn't work, look here.