Art that juxtaposes the many parts of Pakistan.
The concept artist Omar Gilani, based in Lahore, has already gained some notoriety through his illustrations for the Tabeer original music series by Patari, Pakistan’s premier music streaming service, and his wide-ranging freelance work. Now the internet is buzzing with excitement over his experimental Pakistan+ series, in which he imagines a high-tech Pakistan of the future.
The detailed, smoothly rendered images pair quotidian scenes of contemporary Pakistani life with towering skyscrapers and levitating motorcycles, a shining backdrop reminiscent of the techno-metropolis that was the one cool thing about the bad Star Wars films.
The regional cultural highlights are all there and span the general to the very specific, from boys playing cricket in narrow streets to the Lahori red light district of Hira Mandi and the extremely local phenomenon of the ‘Pindiboyz’ revving his motorcycle in the sky.
Explaining this juxtaposition in an interview with The Indian Express, Gilani reflected, “I think there are segments of society in Pakistan, and perhaps India as well, that still live in the past, no matter how much the technology around them may progress.”
Unfortunately, it looks like the same old stereotypes will persist into the sci-fi future as well; a couple of the scenes perpetuate the narrow image of Pashtuns as warrior-types or as the shady figures you find at the liminal spaces between so-called ‘polite society’ and its margins.
Most write-ups about the series have focused on the novelty of Pakistan+ and its simultaneously glossy and rustic representation of the country. I was left wondering if this duality is an expression of premature nostalgia for low-tech cultures that could be swept away by change, or a low-key cynicism about the ability of people and societies to evolve at the same pace as their cars and phones.
Gilani mused on the same theme during the Express interview, saying, “There may be great advancements in tech and cybernetics, but I don’t see any evidence to show that federal level incompetence in dealing with poverty and overpopulation will decrease.” One of the pieces depicts a classic episode of petty police bribery, just now on hovercrafts.
As a result of this ambivalence, Gilani’s drawings reminded me of another series by a Pakistani graphic design group, Birbal Studios, that went viral a couple of years ago, especially on Tumblr, with the tagline, “I tried to imagine a happier Pakistan.” That series took landmarks from all over Pakistan and embellished them with flowers, popsicles, and geometric patterns.
The jumping off point of Birbal Studios’ effort was an exasperation with one-dimensional portrayals of Pakistan as a violent place and failing state. They wanted to show a different side to familiar images of an undeniably troubled, but excessively derided, homeland by adding eye-catching, cute flourishes. Pakistan+ accomplishes a similar feat through different methods, but it ends up showing off a future Pakistan whose existence, with its stark contradictions, doesn’t actually seem that attractive.
The full series can be found on Gilani’s facebook page, here.