Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


Claire Bishop

Committee Members

Molly Aitken

David Joselit

Saloni Mathur

Subject Categories

Asian Art and Architecture | Asian History | Contemporary Art | Fine Arts | Modern Art and Architecture


South Asia, Bangladesh, post-colonialism, Global Modernism, internationalism, artistic medium, printmaking


A combined attention to style and influence has characterized the emerging field of global modernism, which has focused on the significance of abstraction for artists in contexts such as postcolonial Pakistan, for example, and the influence of foreign versus local traditions on that significance. This dissertation triangulates the issue of style and influence with the question of medium and its role in the development of modern art in Pakistan. An historical and cultural bridge between Asia and the Islamic world, Pakistan represents an important case study for competing narratives of civilization, identity, and aesthetic form, and how these contribute to the development of a postcolonial modernism. Originally consisting of two non-contiguous territories, Pakistan was split from Muslim-majority provinces on either side of India in 1947 when the subcontinent became independent from British colonial rule. In 1971, East Pakistan gained its own independence as the state of Bangladesh.

This dissertation asserts that modern art in Pakistan is characterized by a productive tension between dominant or “major” artistic mediums such as sculpture and oil painting, and “minor” mediums such as drawing, watercolor, and printmaking. While oil painting was the backbone of Pakistani modernism, the medium remained encumbered by its colonial inheritances, its tendency towards coherence and totality, and its hegemonic status. On the other hand, minor mediums such as printmaking, watercolor, and the arts of the book provided artists with the tools to fracture and evade nationalist pressures and to develop contiguities with folk and Islamic traditions that had been displaced as major forms during the colonial period. To explore these complex and alternating hierarchies of medium, this dissertation utilizes artist-focused, institutional and exhibition case studies. It provides an historical trajectory of modern art in Pakistan from the anti-colonial Bengal School to the post-independence rise of canvas painting, and to a generation of artists reacting to Zia ul Haq’s Islamist dictatorship (1978–1988) by turning to mediums such as printmaking and miniature painting during the 1980s and early 1990s. The dissertation thus seeks to provincialize canonical theorizations of medium specificity, modernist autonomy, and the post-medium condition, and demonstrates that a decentering of modernism requires a close attention to medium and a challenge to the self-evident centrality of canvas painting to modernist practice globally.

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