Living and working between Karachi and London, Pakistani born artist, Naiza Khan received her formal training from the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford, and the Wimbledon College of Art, London. She has since participated in numerous exhibitions, biennales and residencies, both in Pakistan and across the globe. Khan is Senior Advisor at the Department of Visual Studies at the University of Karachi. She is also a founding member and former coordinator for Vasl Artists’ Collective, Karachi that continues to nurture art in the city. Khan is currently an M.A. candidate at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmith’s College in London.
Her practice has explored questions of identity and politics of the body, and later grew to envelope the city of Karachi and its strategic relationship with the surrounding ocean. In her most recent undertaking, Khan will be participating in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. The APT includes over 80 artists and groups from more than 30 countries and will display contemporary art that challenges the shifting political and social structures of this region in the 21st century.
Khan’s vast experience and integral role in the discourse of Pakistani contemporary art can, by no means, fit in the mere limitations of this essay and therefore focuses on keys elements in her artistic journey including her participation in ATP.
Jovita Alvares (JA): You have been exploring the female form since your early years at college. Could you briefly recall the journey of exploring the body and identity?
Naiza Khan (NK): Yes, this exploration began within the academic structure of the Ruskin School of Art during the late 80’s, which had a strong emphasis on drawing as a means of observation and for the exploration of ideas. The study included life drawing from the model and visits to the dissection labs at Oxford, for a closer study of anatomy. But at the same time, the formal and conceptual training ran as parallel tracks as I was working with ideas of identity, diaspora and poetry in my studio space. As I grew up in England, I always thought about the notion of ‘home’ and how I could use my work to talk about my sense of place. When I moved to Pakistan in 1990, I started thinking about how my work would develop in the new circumstances of my life, and how I could claim the ground under my feet, to have a sense of belonging to Karachi. For me this came through my practice and setting up my studio. Through drawing, I was rethinking the female form in terms of its embodied self. Thinking about the body in relation to narrative, to the city, the use of allegory and ideas of female subjectivity that were driven from the self. In a sense, it was sharing a personal experience of certain kinds of conditions, which everyone experiences but perhaps we don’t realize that.
JA: Highlighting one of your earlier pieces, ‘Hair Falls at Night’ (1996) is a series of four diptychs depicting hair, made in graphite on canvas, and a handmade illustrated book of poetry. Could you talk about how this series came to be?
NK: ‘Hair Falls at Night’ was triggered by a very specific event in September 1996. The work comprised of four diptychs; in each was a double image of hair drawn from life, almost as a still life, but each image was about a set of emotions, which were embodied in the imagery of falling hair, it was quite a complex body of work. The other part of this project was an artists’ book, which took an intensive amount of work and time, and something that people perhaps don’t remember so well. The book was based on an incident that happened in interior Sindh in 1996, in the same week as the assassination of Murtaza Bhutto in Karachi. Two women burned themselves in Hyderabad in front of the anti-terrorist court, as a protest against land grabbing by a major in the army. Nine of their male family members had been killed over the course of 5 – 6 years when they tried to fight their case. These women realized that there was no justice in the courts for them, and as a last resort, they would make a public protest through self-immolation. This whole thing was complicated and the women died of third degree burns. One of them was pregnant… When I spoke to the journalist who had taken the two photographs which document this event, he told me that the action happened in a split second and he barely had time to shoot it… Since this news came out the same week as Murtaza Bhutto’s assassination, it never really got to front page news.
So the artist’s book, also titled ‘Hair falls as Night’ was made in response to this, it was an edition of four handmade books,.. I worked primarily with text, different voices overlaid within the pages through varying fonts. One voice, which was a more conceptual response and the other was narrative taken from new reports of this incident, factual and typed out across the Kozo paper with a manual typewriter. The beautiful part of this story is that Kishwar Naheed wrote a poem in response to the book and this tragedy. The poem was written from the voice of the women, in a Sindhi dialect.
JA: ‘New Clothes for the Emperor’ (2009) was a photographic series that employed a model posing with your armour pieces. What was the relationship between the female and the sculpture?
NK: To recap briefly, when these armour works started in 2006, it was as a result of a long decade of drawing the body in all its complexities. So, in this photographic series, I had invited an artist- friend, Samar Zia, to think about the idea of wearing or inhabiting these steel objects of attire. Samar was a very engaged artist working in Karachi and her practice at the time was grappling with the representation of different identities. We did not plan or specify how this process would turn out, so there was a level of spontaneity and the performative aspect of working together was not scripted, but the conversation that we had was very insightful. The idea of holding attire or clothing as an embodiment of your sexuality or identity and then moving that object across another body created a whole new set of questions. At this point, I had started working with fabric such as malmal and leather to create soft sculptures. This was a way to think about the performative potential of the works, moving away from the object-ness of the steel I had been using.
JA: Moving forward, how did your concerns of gender shift to Manora and an exploration of its space? Was it gradual change or did it occur all at once, as the imagery for either are so distinct from each other?
NK: Yes, the imagery is distinct, and the shift happened quite fast, but I think my concerns around gender continued through the Manora work, they just took a different course. In retrospect, I don’t really see these as distinct bodies of work. My attention moved to Manora because I felt I needed to get out of my studio, I just found the city to be overwhelming and problematic. So, in 2007, I had invited the Italian art historian, Monica Dematte, to give a series of lectures at Vasl. I took her to Manora Island with a couple of other artist friends and realized there was a lot to explore. It was an easy space to navigate, to sit and write, to think. So in this way, the idea of walking has been really important in the sense of experiencing the landscape in a particular way, which is a very different experience in the urban density of Karachi… Looking back at the maritime history of this port city, we don’t realize how much of Karachi’s cultural ecology has been impacted by the ocean.
The act of walking set up other relationships, between the body and the landscape; the female body in a highly securitized and militarized cantonment, between myself and the community, and the idea of reclaiming a sort of collective memory of a place. So coming back to your question, the physical sense of working ‘on’ the body was not visible but I was working ‘through’ the body as a process.
Some processes had not changed; I was still using the medium of drawing and watercolour to make observations and record the emotional tenor of the space, which was visibly different to that of Karachi city. I also began to use photography and film as a way to document people, sites and conversations. I realized that something very interesting was happening here, and I just followed my instincts. After the first year, I realized that I had pushed something in my own practice, the ways in which I was gathering information and how that visual information could be put together was a visible question in my work.
As an artist working within a commercial gallery space, we often have a signature style and it is tough to break your own mold. The physical distance from my studio was important and this allowed me to think about the space of the city, its geography and how to find a personal way to map that complex space. So this question of mapping the geography we inhabit was important for me. The Manora journal, which were notes I was keeping from the island and now, ten years on, these have become the basis of a performance piece called – Set in moment yet still moving.
JA: Could you elaborate on these performances?
NK: Last year I was invited to present my work for the Third Text Symposium in Liverpool, an academic journal set up by Rasheed Araeen, in the late 60’s. I decided that I would think about ways to spatialise these notes which were mainly to do time and place. The notes were a set of observations, about the relationship between history and the everyday, the idea of how the ocean transforms culture and objects. In the journal, which is structured as a diary, my position moves between different cities and their entanglement.
So the reading is a text-under-construction, and each iteration offers the possibility to transform it in relation to its spatial context, the audience and to extend conceptually the geography of my walking.
JA: Please talk about your participation in the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial.
NK: This is my first participation in APT and the curator wanted to show the ‘armour’ series of sculptures, so it’s great to have a sweeping overview of these works. There are 11 pieces going to APT, together with the set of photographic works that we spoke about earlier. Part of this series includes a new edition of the ‘Rani of Jhansi’, which is a really beautiful piece made with steel, ivory feathers and red suede leather, that pays homage to the warrior queen who fought the British Empire in the 1857 Indian Mutiny. Also included is ‘Armour Skirt’, ‘The Robe’, two chastity belts, the ‘Pelvic armour’ and some of the pieces that you might find here (in the studio).. So I am super excited that this body of work will be seen together for the first time under one roof!
In my current research, I am very drawn to the body again, especially through performance and writing. So I feel this is an opportunity to look back at these work after a decade, and to rethink the questions generated around them. .
JA: So you’re currently an MA candidate at Goldsmith College, London?
NK: Yes, at the moment I’m studying at the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmith. This is a program within the Visual Cultures department so it’s really great place for cultural theory and critical thinking. What I like about this program is that it’s very interdisciplinary in terms of the student cohort, and that brings together very different skill sets. There are a lot of self-organized initiatives, and collaborative work on a number of live projects. The CRA studio has an unusual position, in that it requires us to work on our independent research and share it with our group regularly. At the same time we are being exposed to a number of different research methodologies, which can be anything from Remote Sensing to different archival methods. This is grounded against very strong theoretical frameworks, which are not as European-centric as I had imagined but more eclectic.
It’s a space that, allows me to challenge the way I am working, and gives me time to think about what I am producing and how I want to make work in the future.
JA: Are there any new ventures you would like to share?
NK: Currently, I am doing research on moments of mutiny and specific confrontations, when the Riot Act was read by representatives of Empire to its subjects. These moments of emergency translated through specific confrontations such as the Jalianwala Bagh (Amritsar) Massacre in 1919 and the Hosay (Muharram) Massacre in San Fernando, Trinidad in 1894. Something that Dipesh Chakrabarty in his text, Provincializing Europe, talks about is the Union Jack and its fraught relationship to the organized massacre of its subjects beyond the boundaries of its ‘fair’ land. He goes on to say how the history and identity of Britain is formed within its self-assigned geographical boundary. So I am working with these ideas towards a series of images.
Also, for the last few months I’ve been thinking of works that I have conceived as projects, which did not materialize because of time, budgets, logistics or belief.,. Quite often it’s the experimental work that does not fit in the commercial gallery and gets aborted. In Manora a lot of ideas were generated, and I was thinking that I want to mine my own practice and actually produce some of these ideas. .With that thought in mind, I’ve been scripting out possibilities that may become a speech act or a filmic piece.
JA: Thank you for your time.