Artists think many things when making their work. Many of them become apparent in their work, others take a back seat. Many a times, the titles their works are put under add or reduce meanings. Such was the case of ‘Pretty Can be Gritty’, a group show by by Sausan Saulat, Sara Khan and Saba Khan at Gandhara in Karachi.
Decorative arts are often categorized in opposition to Fine Arts as intelligence and beauty are for women. Both qualities are considered mutually exclusive qualities for women and art alike. One might argue that what ties the trio together is their uncanny sense of humor and satire with which they engage not just with their concerns but also their mediums. However, the show whether intended to or not does come off as feminist specially when one begins to look at details such as the three participating artist being women, and their works incorporating jewelry, flowers and beads, all the pretty things associated to feminine existence. One cannot help but look at the work through the lense of feminism.
Works such as Sara Khan’s Hand Over, where the beautifully manicured, mannequin’s hand, adorned with red jeweled bracelet and mehndi design, refers to the impending danger of wearing jewelry for women in Karachi. She makes reference to a robbery which became the talk of her town when an old lady was decapitated by robbers for her gold bangles. However, though the work might not have been made as a feminist comment, it does come of as one where women are “handed over” after marriage as the passing on of a responsibility. The mehndi, red nail polish and the delicate chain around the mannequin’s wrist all reinforcing the unintended message.
Similarly Sara Khan’s Boom Boom Boom, titled after the sound of fire crackers often used during wedding ceremonies, draws parallels between bullet holes and body piercings. Again the Maang Teeka and Nathni can again be seen as feminist symbols all displayed as targets. The oriental patterns border surrounding the target shaped work hints at how the culture and traditions surrounding the celebration of the marriage do not keep into consideration contemporary issues of insecurity, violence and economic disparity. Also, the willingness of women to become beautiful targets despite knowledge of the impending danger.
Sausan Saulat’s Four Seasons in One Day shows portraits of drama serial actresses. Their dazed expressions hint at the cliché of the helpless woman that most drama serials use, or rather misuse. In doing so, they reinforce patriarchy in an already patriarchal system. These portraits are presented stretched across an embroidery hoop a choice which can be read in to various ways. Embroidery has very strong associations to women especially the hoop which is traditionally used to confine cloth to make it easier to handle while embroidering. Thus it is seen as a frame of limit perceptions towards women’s role in society or a means to confine or make manageable.
Saba Khan’s work was perhaps the only one to hold its ground despite the surrounding context. In fact, it seemed to employ the context to its benefit. Saba Khan addresses urbanization and the class divides in a tongue in cheek manner. Khan’s work consists of small painting made in acrylic and other mixed media, mostly using colorful beads. Her use of kitschy material such as beads and glitter the use of which is usually associated to craft rather than art and often perceived as decorative, a term that is almost an insult in the realm of contemporary art. Her medium goes further than just a medium as using beads to embellish women’s clothing is also a means of living of the under privileged strata of society. The stereotypical images of the home and how the dream of the home is sold, brings to mind some of the hideous advertisements that come on television. Several paintings include images of extravagant sofas and chairs, and appetizing meat, cakes, pastries and chocolates. All these are luxuries of the wealthy which are not normally obtainable to a larger part of population.
What an artwork says to you as a viewer can change over time depending on the context in which it is experienced. As complex as works of art typically are, there are really only three general categories of statements one can make about them. A statement can address form, content or context (or their various interrelations). However, within each of these categories is a variety of subcategories, giving visual culture its variety and complexity.
‘Pretty Can be Gritty’ ran at Gandhara-art Space, Karachi, from 1 October to 17 November 2015. Photos courtesy Gandhara-art Space.
Madiha Sikander is a visual artist and writer based in Karachi.