When we discuss feminism in art, our thoughts are usually mandated with aggressive ideologies and performances which draw a lot of attention and controversy. Being labelled a ‘feminist’ has become somewhat of a screeching alarm bell guaranteed to keep people at bay and society has of course drawn up the perfect physical features of a feminist artist as well: tattoos, short hair, scruffy t-shirts with socio-political slogans and short-tempered reactions. The uncomfortable hesitance to speak openly about women’s rights in art classes, exhibitions and public talks is in itself an example of how the world – not just Asian societies – are not ready to embrace the diverse culture of feminist art.
However, Pakistanis have forgotten or missed their own history of feminism which prevailed over classical literature and hallmark artists. Those kinds of gender awareness attempts may not have always yielded results but did clear the pathway for the country’s contemporary artists to engage with feminism unapologetically and more importantly, individually. Anna Molka, Salima Hashmi, Marjorie Husain and Durriya Kazi are a few of the gems who have been pushing for women’s worth to be recognized in art and culture. Another one of these precious gems is Nahid Raza who has dedicated many years to art education and standing up for marginalized women of our nation. This generation of women allows us to view feminist art with a very difference lens; subtlety yet poignancy are features in their work which instigate dialogue and memories on how Pakistani women are pushed aside for resources and credit.
Such is the work of Nahid Raza, who has exhibited numerous times and established herself as one of the few female names in Pakistan’s art history. Her work focuses on the predicament of women and their inevitable ill-treatment. Yet rather than focusing on situations that are external for women like the lack of protective laws, or unfavourable economic investment for women she taps on to private and internal matters. Exhibited at the Canvas Gallery, Nahid Raza’s ‘Woman’ collection includes a selection of paintings which depict solitude in dark rooms, yet with an iota of hope flickering behind the canvas. The show included a stunning set of bronze cut-out sculptures which resonate power and strength as compared with the tranquil paintings. Raza’s paintings discuss the domestic life of women as each composition is a snippet of the inside or an interior of a living space. Midnight walls, drawn curtains, secluded furniture with patterns create a very obvious space for a withdrawn person. Her paintings have interesting yet such simple titles which are direct indications of the setting each of the artist’s women are situated in. Waiting, Alone and They just left help pronounce the aura of each canvas.
As Raza graduated from The Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC) and started displaying her work in the early 1970s, she has, naturally, an experienced understanding of her work and what she concerns her art with. Her view point on the ‘objectification’ of women is not what many of us would associate the term with. Her paintings show that the women are enclosed in an environment where they cannot seem to move out of a certain dictated regiment and deemed as lifeless beings…perhaps that is why the women are painted so similarly and almost blend in with the furniture. At times, Raza dedicates more detail and definition to objects like the curtain as opposed to the female figures which makes her viewers think about how the despite being a living and breathing person, women are side-lined as unimportant entities.
Hidden here and there, Raza adds little touches to her paintings such as dinner on a plate, feet hiding behind curtains, a makeup compact or a green spruce leaf in the hands of her female figures. These symbols, especially the moon in Living constitute the everyday factors of a woman’s life in her home yet they have larger connotations as well. The group of friends for instance conjure a depiction of social life yet within this small group of friends we wonder how accepting each woman is of the other – often, women are the creators of barriers for their own kind.
The two Buraq paintings are another reminder of how a woman’s role is not solely meant for domestic purposes. By using religious mythology, the half-mule, half-female creature suggests the fantastical elements women are capable off and are validated in religious scripture. The Buraq paintings show a vibrancy of happiness and spiritual belief as compared to the soft demure women in plain white ghagra cholis. The jewels, roses and golden wings adorning the Buraq is perhaps a way for Raza to remind her viewers how religion initially valued and placed sacred importance in society for all that a woman has to endure. Similarly, the stark shine in the bronze metal plates reflects the irreplaceable role women have in society. It takes a lot to mould and shape metal, usually melting the substance to its purest form and redefining its shape. These three-dimensional incarnations of female figures remind the viewers how resistant women are and that they are really a force of nature to be reckoned with. It is ironic how Raza reminds us of nature and the environment through these brassy gold sculptures; the peeled off reflection in each piece draw upon how many species peel and shed off layers to blossom into their truest form or continue to rejuvenate themselves underneath.
Nahid Raza’s exhibition took place at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, from 18 – 28 August 2015. Images courtesy Canvas Gallery.
Veera Rustomji is a Fine Art student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She has been a freelance writer for the past two years and enjoys conducting research within the field of art.