The Pakistani artist Ijaz ul Hassan has been censored, threatened and even imprisoned because of his work. As martial law descends on his homeland once more, he tells Arifa Akbar why he will never stop fighting
In 1977, Ijaz ul Hassan was forced into a blindfold and a noose tightened around his neck inside the infamous prison housed in Lahore Fort, as his torturers pretended he was about to be executed. As a young artist who had done little to hide his contempt for the martial law imposed by General Zia-ul-Haq's repressive regime in the 1970s, his activism had left him in the line of fire. For four weeks, he was held in solitary confinement, routinely placed under a dangling noose and taunted with threats to his family, friends and "collaborators", before his guards reluctantly freed him.
The incarceration was the culmination of decades of political activism that began with Hassan's protests as a student at Cambridge University against the Vietnam War, and continued with his efforts to organise union protests in his home city of Lahore and the poster artwork that he produced to inspire a resistance movement against the military dictatorship in charge of his homeland.
The artwork Hassan made was deemed so explosive that it was censored, refused entry to exhibitions or taken off the walls of museums by gallerists who feared the wrath of the country's brutal regime. Even today, works by Hassan deemed too obscene and seditious for display in the 1970s have still not been shown in Pakistan, although the Canvas Gallery in Karachi recently staged a retrospective of "declassified" works that had previously been hidden from public view.
This week, the Pakistani-born artist is showing some of his images as part of a group exhibition, Figurative Pakistan, opening tomorrow at the Aicon Gallery in central London.
For someone who has always believed in the power of art to affect changes in the real world, today's political climate in Pakistan - where President Pervez Musharraf's declaration of martial law has chilling parallels to ul-Haq's regime three decades ago - leaves Hassan with a bleak sense of repetition. The anger against authoritarianism that he first felt as a young man has in no way diminished.
While he is now one of Pakistan's most revered contemporary artists, Hassan's work is still regarded as subversive, with its graphic images of violence, references to the Vietnam War, and representations of bloody street protests. Until he left Pakistan two days ago, his every step was followed by military guards, while his son, a Harvard-educated lawyer, faces house arrest.
For Hassan, his anger cannot be disentangled from his artistic vision. "I have never been able to distinguish between politics and painting. Politics was unavoidable, right from the beginning. There is always something nasty left behind by the army, when it comes. In the Seventies, I was working with a specialised group of artists and writers to strengthen democracy.
"One of the reasons democracy is so fragile in Pakistan is because we do not build up institutions such as the arts, which are essential for democracy. …