“Cautiously one approaches Naiza Khan’s artistic practices, reflecting on its many strands, over several decades”, thus writes Salima Hashmi in the monograph Naiza Khan “published on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Naiza Khan: Karachi Elegies’, for The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University in 2013. Absolutely, because Khan’s work surprizes a viewer due to its execution and materiality but more than that because of its multi-layered meanings, which relate to multiple histories, communities and cultures.
At present Naiza Khan is representing Pakistan, for its first ever pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but her work, shown at this prestigious venue, started to take shape several years before. Her monograph provides an introduction to that body of work, which culminated in the form of Manora Field Notes at the Venice Biennale. The book includes images of her earlier prints (made during her studies at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford 1987-1990), later drawings, paintings, three-dimensional pieces and also suffices reproductions of works based upon Manora Island that began, approximately, in 2010. So the volume is a kind of retrospective of the artist, known for the sensitivity of her drawings and the complexity of her concerns.
Along with the ‘Director’s Forward’ (by Michael Rush) three essays on different aspects of Naiza Khan’s art (by Salima Hashmi, Karin Zitzewitz and Nafisa Rizvi) and an interview of the artist (by Iftikhar Dadi) are published in the book with artist’s notes inserted in separate sections that help to contextualize her imagery, and her choice of material – which in a sense adds towards shaping her content.
Salima Hashmi in her essay ‘Poetics: An Introduction’ discusses Naiza Khan’s life, and how it is essential to understand Khan’s art practice. Hashmi’s overview offers a link to different phases of Khan’s work. By and large, one deduces that whether it is her rendering of human body, text based surfaces, works constructed with different fabrics, surfaces representing human organs and hair, corset-like sculptures, body – for that matter, female, is the main element of her aesthetics. According to Hashmi, “Khan continued to probe female body as the primary site of tension, desire and rebellion… Her work has constantly centered on the sensuality of the female body, alongside its ‘defense’ and ‘defiance’ against the sanctimonious historic agenda that seeks to guarantee subjugation and obedience”.
Probing body through diverse means is seen in Khan’s Her Body in Four Parts (diptych part 1), 1995, charcoal on canvas, with each of the four panels describing one part of the body. Naiza Khan seems to evoke the feeling of flesh, temptation to touch and memory of decay in this work, complemented by a set of another four panels Her Body in Four Parts (diptych part 1I), 1995, executed in silk organza on canvas. The presence of this fabric conveys the sensation of body and its texture. It is again visible in another of her work Henna Hands (2003-2006), a series of site-specific wall painting in Karachi, in which (as Karin Zitzewitz writes in her essay ‘This space that is at the brink of erasure”: Intervention and the Aesthetics of Ruination’) “Khan created templates of female nudes – realistic and imperfect bodies–out of stencils used for applying henna to the hands and arms on special occasions”. Zitzewitz continues to explore Khan’s intervention at public spaces, both through site specific works and her video Homage (2010), which originates from an abandoned school in Manora Island. “The film opens with the voices of children, who, we see after half a minute, are playing in the rubble that surrounds a large pile of scape wood painted in a beautiful sky blue. The video then flashes back to the artist painting that pile of discarded furniture, an act that Khan explains quickly for the camera, is intended as the memorial to the children who were crushed two years before. The colour is borrowed from their gravestones.”
Naiza Khan further explains at length and eloquently in her interview with Iftikhar Dadi, ‘Manora to Karachi: A Conversation’. Here the artist talks about her process, ideas and connection to community. Answering to Dadi’s question about relation between artist and community, Khan responds: “I feel my position has been shifting; or rather, I have had to take on multiple roles. …… Essentially, I was trying to document some of this erasure, this shrinking space in which social relations were perhaps in greater evidence some years ago”.
Naiza Khan not only documents but transforms and transcends the space in such a way that it turns into a metaphor of loss and longing. Historic missing and personal belonging. Looking at her recent work in the book and being familiar with her project at the Pakistan Pavilion, Venice Biennale – that solely deals with a small island in Karachi, one is reminded of Tolstoy: “Look carefully at your village and you’ll be universal.”