LONDON — Drone warfare is silent, invisible, depersonalized killing. It is frictionless death. For those living in the countries from which the unmanned aircraft are piloted — far from war zones or terrorist bastions or unsuspecting wedding parties caught in the crosshairs — drones remain a faceless weapon of war. They exist in an unseen elsewhere, in an information vacuum imposed from above and undisturbed from below. Not so in those nations terrorized by drone strikes. When Pakistani-born, US-based artist Mahwish Chishty visited her homeland in 2011, she was struck by the elaborate conversations being had about drones, complex details shared and passed on, the machines taking on a heavy freight of fear and fantasy, their sleek bodies elaborated on by the local imagination.
Chishty’s current solo exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museums is a visual manifestation of that dynamic. In her paintings and objects, completed between 2011 and 2015 (years in which the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that almost 200 strikes were carried out in Pakistan), drones become garish, individual, easily identified. Chishty studied miniature painting in Lahore and here she utilizes elements of that technique, projecting Pakistan’s folk art traditions against the blank flanks of America’s weapons of war. With carnivalesque colors and flashes of gold, the unmanned aircraft are subsumed by the very culture they target, suggesting the ways in which drones have become an inescapable element of Pakistan’s psychic landscape and an obnoxious feature — for some — of everyday life.
Inspired by the truck art tradition of South Asia, Chishty’s drones are copiously embellished with icons, patterns, and motifs. In “Reaper” (2015), a wide eye balances on a black tripod while smaller eyes huddle on each wing: the painting, at the entrance, seems to watch visitors as they make their way around the room. Eyes recur — a sinister take on the apotropaic talismans that flourish across the Mediterranean and the near east — as do fish skeletons, doves, guns, snakes, the sickle moon, and stars. In “MQ-9 Predator” (2011) a drone with a lotus flower at its heart drops brightly colored bombs in an elegant arc. Complex, colorful interlocking designs metastasize across the aircrafts and malevolent warpaint-daubed faces coalesce out of the frenzied decoration.
With her hovering plastic models — their loads of missiles resplendent in tinny primary colors, a delicate crab inscribed chillingly under the chin — Chishty transforms lethal weapons into children’s toys. In doing so, she hints at the remote control aspect of contemporary warfare, the models’ clean lines and cheerful, antiseptic brightness nudging at the kind of sensibility that produced the term “surgical strike.” These drone trinkets might make one wonder whether Chishty’s work veers too close to aestheticizing the war on terror — and indeed the artist herself has said she was eager to see what effect “friendlier looking” drones might have — but a quick review of the exhibition makes such notions impossible. In “MQ-9/2” (2011), the craft boasts a skull’n’crossbones besides revolvers and bomb motifs, a vivid red fire licking at its belly. These machines are beautiful but horrible; their drone faces, emerging from the assembled symbols, are nothing if not malicious.
This atmosphere of menace is most evident, perhaps, in Chishty’s three-dimensional paintings, in which drones are splayed across wooden structures, casting shade against the gallery’s pale walls. Here, the aircraft lurk, predatory, in landscapes of bombed-out cities, fields of sandbags. Slender and deadly, these drones slice through sepia terrain, leaving shadows and silence.
I was in South Africa recently. Outside Cape Town’s Iziko National Gallery is parked a restored Casspir Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, gilded beyond recognition by an elaborate coat of colorful traditional beadwork, completed by local artisans in Mpumalanga province and Zimbabwe. Casspirs were used mercilessly by apartheid-era police, becoming a tool of oppression in the hands of a fearful administration. “The Casspir Project” is thus cast as an act of reclamation, a de-fanging of the instruments of terror and a celebration of the cultures such instruments were employed to repress.
But in South Africa, the era of Casspir is, at least nominally, over; catharsis is possible. The drone program, on the other hand, is only just beginning. Chishty’s project can occasion no healing, no reflective triumph of culture over terror. Instead, her beautiful war machines leave the viewer feeling uneasy, apprehensive. Which, no doubt, is the point.
IWM Contemporary: Mahwish Chishty continues at The Imperial War Museum (Lambeth Rd, London SE1 6HZ) through March 19.