Beauty and callousness: the world of drone art

Artist Mahwish Chishty approaches the world of military drone warfare through the language of vibrant Pakistani ‘truck art’, in a stunning new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

Mary Ryder
7 December 2016

Reaper (2016) in IWM Contemporary: Mahwish Chishty © IWM In her mission to build a greater conversation around the pervasive presence of military drones in Pakistan, Mahwish Chishty's artwork juxtaposes the silhouettes of UAVs with colourful, ornate Pakistani folk art patterns, creating a beautiful and disturbing experience.

The first reported drone strike in Pakistan occurred over a decade ago in 2004, as the US launched full-throttle into its global war on terror. Since then, drones have been employed as official counter-terrorist strategy. The covert nature of remote control warfare adds a further dimension to militarisation in the region with worryingly little accountability.

The way we wage war has changed. In an age of increased public surveillance, should we be worried that the use of drones has become standard practice in modern warfare?

The covert nature of remote control warfare adds a further dimension to militarisation in the region with worryingly little accountability.

Our debates around drones tend to focus on the ethics, legality and civilian costs of this relatively new technology, and the vague – often questionable – line between protecting and threatening our personal freedom; whilst unmanned drones may be deployed in warfare without putting the lives of military personnel at risk, is unwarranted and constant surveillance a justifiable consequence?

Far less attention is given to the broader repercussions that drones have on their target country, and how they impact on culture. Chishty's artwork invites us to do exactly this: the perturbing combination of contemporary forms of violence and warfare with local artistic traditions, highlights the pernicious ways in which drones shape the physical, psychological and cultural environment of Pakistan’s border region.

Chishty's drone series is inspired by traditional Pakistani 'truck art', providing an aesthetic cascade of bright colours, and intricate, ornate design. On closer inspection, these beautiful patterns reveal rather more sinister elements, including snakes, guns, swords, spears, grenades, dead fish, and omniscient ‘big brother’ eyes.

Chishty’s aesthetic language captures the pain and strangeness of contemporary drone warfare.

Chishty has used the technique of staining her paper with tea deliberately, to evoke a representation of the dusty-brown aerial landscape of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border: the view that drone operators see on their computer monitors thousands of kilometres away from the battlefield.

Chishty’s aesthetic language captures the pain and strangeness of contemporary warfare, and opens up a conversation on drones’ long-term presence in Pakistan, and their penetration of the country’s cultural fabric.

Reaper © Mahwish Chishty_1.jpg

Reaper (2015) © Mahwish ChishtyThe delicate gold leaf used in Reaper evokes the visuality of Islamic-Byzantine art, creating an interplay between religion and the ‘war on terror’ – the suggestion of religion producing a conversation around the motives behind US counter-terrorism strategy and anti-Islamic sentiment. 

By the Moonlight © Mahwish Chishty.jpg

By the Moonlight (2013) © Mahwish ChishtyChishty's work deploys a loud clash of elements: the exquisite patterns of Pakistani ‘truck art’ alongside the outlines of US drones. Within this handling lies the implication of one country in the life of another: how the long-term presence of US drones in Pakistan has helped to increase hostility between the two countries. The havoc wreaked by drone warfare is merely an intensification of US imperialism, with little consideration for the lasting impact it might have on Pakistani culture.

MQ-9-2 © Mahwish Chishty.jpg

MQ-9/2 (2011) © Mahwish ChishtyThe lack of accountability and transparency, and the immense spatial distance between operator and target, form drone warfare’s most controversial feature. But it’s also a form of warfare that has become a twenty-first century icon, leaping from the hazy screens of drone operator rooms to the western video game market. Anyone who has played Call of Duty will already be familiar with the MQ predator drone, whose silhouette floats above. 

MQ-9 Predator © Mahwish Chishty.jpg

MQ-9 Predator (2011) © Mahwish ChishtyDrone operators are invested in remaining anonymous, and accordingly, there seems to be no definitive statistics for the real civilian cost of drone warfare. Chishty’s artistic practice is an attempt to remedy this secrecy. By making drones as visible as possible through the combination of florid paintings and sculpture, her work poses an unavoidable reminder of the constant presence of aerial warfare on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.


Stealth (2015) in IWM Contemporary: Mahwish Chishty © IWM In other pieces combined with the exhibition’s lighting, Chishty juxtaposes bright Pakistani ‘truck art’ colours with drone-shaped shadows. Warm, child-like colours, alongside the silhouettes of killing machines, heighten the sensation of beauty and deep callousness.

IWM Contemporary: Mahwish Chishty, Imperial War Museum, London, open 19 October 2016 – 19 March 2017.


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