A gold bullet on top of Islamic stenciling, open sores and festering wounds, life-size sculptures of silenced men whose faces are obscured.
Pakistan’s sectarian crisis has grown so acute that it is creeping into the country’s contemporary art scene, spurring young artists to question the causes and assumptions behind the violent Sunni-Shiite divide.
Hardline Sunni groups have killed hundreds of minority Shiites in suicide bomb attacks and shootings.
Shiites say they are living in a state of siege, and some call it genocide. Fear has driven some families abroad, while others have taken up arms against groups backed by al-Qaeda.
Some artists have taken to expressing their anger at the carnage through their work.
In the elegant city of Lahore, criss-crossed with colonial-era boulevards and home to a bevy of lively artists, Imran Mudassar balances one of his latest pieces, Secret Love, on his knees, a diptych of a golden bullet and human heart against interwoven Islamic motifs.
“I’ve started to incorporate the clashing of the Shiites and Sunnis into my work,” the 31-year-old artist, who is secular Sunni, said at Government College University, where he is also a lecturer.
In Religious Landscape, he decorated a 2.1m high white canvas with designs from the Koran, Islam’s holy book. Red gashes resembling flesh have been torn across it.
“Both faiths adhere to the Koran, but they fight over the Koran, too,” Mudassar said of the piece, which sold for 135,000 rupees (US$1,372) after being exhibited last month.
The nightmare scenario for Pakistan, a nuclear-armed US ally, would be sectarian war. While Pakistan is not close to one, fear and instability are growing.
“If the violence continues, if the situation doesn’t settle down, then more and more will start producing this kind of art,” said Mudassar, whose self-portraits of a bullet-riddled torso a year ago earned him an established spot on the art scene.
Pakistani art has been on an upward trajectory since the 1980s, buoyed by media attention and domestic sales. Galleries have sprung up in cities and the two major art schools — the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore and in the city of Rawalpindi — produce a slew of talented artists every year.
The scene was given a boost when another young artist, Imran Qureshi, was named Deutshce Bank’s “Artist of the Year” for this year, celebrating his work addressing religion, terrorism and the mutating relationship between Muslim countries and the West.
Qureshi has talked of the bloodshed in his homeland being the inspiration for an installation of white interlocking bricks, which are splashed with red paint in the shapes of flowers and splotches of blood.
While Pakistani artists have traditionally focused on tumultuous political and social changes, with their work even thriving on them, they are now also engaged in self-examination, art professors and gallery workers say.
“Recent turmoil has sparked a new trend and artists are now looking inward,” said Zahra Khan, curator at the year-old Satrang Gallery, tucked inside the opulent Serena Hotel in the capital, Islamabad.
In the leafy capital, art is complemented by black graffiti that has appeared in recent weeks, scrawled on brick buildings and in courtyards, saying “Stop Shia Genocide” in capital letters in English.
In March, the Satrang Gallery featured a sculpture, Strained and Sustained, by 28-year-old up-and-coming artist Saud Baloch, of a person curled up in a heap on the floor, encased in a latex russet-colored sack designed to feel like skin.