Assistant professor Farhan Karim co-directing Getty Research Institute project

LAWRENCE – While many volumes have been written on the decolonization of the British Empire in India and its partitions, creating in 1947 the bifurcated state of Pakistan and then in 1971 Bangladesh, the phenomenon has not been looked at through the lens of art and architecture. 

It’s that project upon which Farhan Karim, University of Kansas assistant professor of architecture & design, has embarked. He is co-directing with Maristella Casciato, senior curator of architectural collections at the Getty Research Institute, and art historian Zirwat Chowdhury a three-year research project on the art and architectural history of South Asia under the aegis of and with funding from the institute. 

The first phase of the project, a workshop on “The Art and Architecture of Partition and Confederation: Pakistan 1933-1971,” was held at GRI in October. Fourteen scholars presented their work relating to the topic. The idea is to follow up over the next two years with a symposium on the topic and finally an edited volume of scholarship. 

The Getty Research Institute is part of the Getty Center, comprising the J. Paul Getty Museum and other entities founded by the J. Paul Getty Trust, in Los Angeles. 

In 2017, Karim received a Mellon-Volkswagen Fellowship to spend a year away from teaching, working on a book looking at the subject more strictly from an architectural-history angle. His departure was delayed, however, and he’s about to leave for Germany in December. He’ll be working at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (Center for Modern Oriental Studies) in Berlin. 

The Getty project is different in that it adds art to the mix and seeks to broaden out the areas of inquiry by bringing in scholars who have studied what Karim called “histories of decolonization, partition and confederation in geographies outside Pakistan,” e.g., Israel/Palestine and East/West Germany. 

Noting the recent tendency of scholars of the partition in South Asia to look to “interpretive frameworks other than those of communalism and sectarianism (i.e., Hindus vs. Muslims),” Karim and partners urged participants to try to “offer alternatives to the primacy of charismatic leaders (e.g., Gandhi and Nkrumah) within post-colonial histories.” They were asked to look at how various artistic media “engendered the aspirations, often convergent and often conflicting, of a state and a people” and how, conversely, they “nurtured relationships among people at and across borders.” 

It’s an issue close to Karim’s heart. His own family was directly affected by the “traumatic experience” of partition, during which an estimated 30 million people were displaced. 

He said he was pleased with the initial GRI meeting and presentations. He’ll work with the participants over the coming year to prepare for a more formal conference at the Getty, whose ultimate end product will be an edited volume of essays on the topic. 

He has been asked, as well, to consult on an exhibition on South Asian modern architecture being planned by curators Martino Stierli and Sean Anderson at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. 

Karim says this is a crucial time to revisit the idea of partition, nationalism and globalism, especially at a time when we need to address the challenges of rising isolationism, forced displacement, migration and climate challenges. 

“How,” he asks, “can historians bring new perspective to this debate on nation, nationalism, refugees, migration, etc.?” 

Photo: 1947 AP Wirephoto showing Muslim refugees fleeing India for Pakistan during the partition of the former British colony. Credit: Wikimedia Commons