Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic
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Zoya Uzair, a student at National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, Pakistan, prepares for a fashion shoot. Developed by her classmate, the art project aimed to play with the stereotypes often associated with women who cover themselves.

Photograph by Matthieu Paley, National Geographic

Pakistan’s Passionate, Young Artists Defy Stereotypes

Despite terror threats, the youth of Lahore, Pakistan, remain passionate—and vocal—about their right to free expression.

Vibrant, young, and liberal, the city of Lahore has been the progressive capital of Pakistan for over a century. French photographer Matthieu Paley, who has spent years living in and trekking in the country's mountainous region, calls it “the cultural heart of Pakistan.”

The city—created in part to be a haven for Muslim minorities—took on the artistic mantle in an unconventional way. In 1875, when the area was still part of India (and still under British control), a western advocate for the arts named John Lockwood Kipling helped open an art school and a museum there. Kipling was the school’s first principal and the museum’s first curator. His work was to preserve and showcase the crafts, music, and architecture native to the Punjab region. (His son, English author Rudyard Kipling, wrote Kim, a novel set in colonial India in Lahore.)

The school and the mission grew. Today the National College of Arts (NCA) and the Lahore Museum carry on the same directive.

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Rabeeya Arif, a graduate of NCA, stands near the indoor swimming pool at the Harsukh art community in Lahore. The pool was designed to resemble a traditional Turkish bath, or hammam.

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A Karachi native, Rao Hassan Nasir paints from a photograph he shot of an NCA security guard.

Paley stopped in Lahore last February and met some of the young artists and students studying at NCA. “The youth are especially passionate about finding ways, through their art, to express a sense of freedom in this complex country. They dig deeply into the meaning of Pakistan, finding inspiration in its spiritual history.”

Paley had been in Lahore to photograph its historic Walled City. While holding a workshop, he was impressed by the maturity of his young students. A terrorist organization called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar had just bombed a high-traffic area nearby—targeting the government—and during his stay, there was a second attack.

But Paley's students didn't seem disturbed by what was going on around them. One student, Karim Ali, explained: “I don’t get scared or bothered. Because that's how they want us to be, you know, scared of their attacks, so they can make us do or follow whatever they want. Anyway, nowadays, what does it even mean to be secure? Are you safer in Pakistan, France, U.S.? I wonder ... I have decided to feel safe, it’s my decision.”

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Aftab Sheikh (right), the principal of the Harsukh art commune, chats with Zainab Sattar (left), a native Lahori who just returned from the United Kingdom.

The students, who “pride themselves on their very modern views,” says Paley, tend to focus their efforts on remaining progressive amid the more conservative aspects of their society.

Partly as a result of its long-ago artistic charter from the NCA, Lahore feels more forward thinking than almost anywhere else in Pakistan, as evidenced by its liberal vibe and Sufi soul. Many of the young adults he spent time with identify with the traditions and poetry of Sufism—a dimension of Islam that is strongly mystical and spiritual. “They really feel inspired by this,” says Paley.

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Waiting for a visitor, Saleema, a transgender woman who did not give her last name, sits in her room in Lahore's red light district. In Pakistan transgender women—known as khawaja siras—have been associated with good luck, but they have also been marginalized. Today some advocacy groups are fighting for their rights. Saleema is considered a guru in her community and teaches other young khawaja siras the art of singing and dancing.

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Pakistan Talkies Cinema is an old movie theatre in what is now Lahore's red light district. It is considered controversial because it plays mildly erotic films.

He was struck by the level of freedom he observed while spending time with students on the NCA campus—a contrast to what many people might associate with a part of the world that is generally more conservative.

He met musicians, fashion designers, dancers, and painters—all of them free thinkers. Rabeeya Arif, a former architecture student who now works on a project to restore the Walled City, told Paley, “You'd be surprised how much diversity you find in Pakistan, especially at university. People love to engage in deep, meaningful conversations. Some women wear hijab, others don’t—it’s not about how you look, it’s about what you say. There is much respect and great dialogues.” Arif pointed out that “historically, even though Islam is the strongest component, this country was established so that it could be a tolerant land for all minorities.”

The voices of these young men, women, and transgender women seem to rise above any threat of oppression. “The way they speak and create art is very touching,” says Paley. “They are excited to have a chance to show who they are. They really shine inside.”