In a world where identity is marred by facades, deception of what is and isn’t, arbitrary social constructs, judgment, it is easy to lose one’s inner voice and more often than not the expression of it becomes both constricted and challenging. Identity and expression are interlinked, one cannot exist without the other and although one’s identity is linked not to one’s physical state of being or societal constricts but is very much altered and defined by in. It is our response to the outside world when our identity is questioned, simply because fitting it into pre-set molds is all too convenient and over simplified for the complexity that is housed in our soul. Whether we try to compartmentalize identity through ethnic, geographic or gender boundaries, we often forget that both physical and emotional identity is shaped by our conditioning more than anything else. In a country where female artists and unique identity are rarely lauded, an exhibition showcasing 13 artists, curated by one herself would indeed be a sensory treat. Soft Bodies with its curatorial succinctness is one of the rare exhibits in Karachi which will outlive it’s all too short display – for its thematic poignancy is direct yet indirect, clear yet vague enough and, while it tugs on one brain wave and then another it delivers just what it promises – everything and nothing, the unique and the ordinary all strung into one.
For those of us who relish in our individual personalities, space and identity – we know all too well the subjects explored in this exhibit. The show had seven artists, three writers and three illustrators – all of them in some way responding to the notion of space and identity – what is versus what has to be. Being similarly entangled by chains of societal pressures in body and in mind, very much stuck in the “to be or not to be” dilemma, when I moved to Pakistan some ten years ago for the first time in my life – I knew that for nostalgia’s sake covering this exhibition would be absolutely necessary. Being reinvented at the age of 19 was hardly a convenience, rather an act of valor which mirrored the thoughts perhaps of those artists exhibiting parts of the souls and thus giving way to their vulnerability. The oeuvre displayed here was not only the cathartic expression of diverse artists but the representation of the same for every individual in the world today. The work on display has not only been curated to present itself aesthetically with due rhetoric, it is for many the home of expression without the evident everyday biases, without prejudice, a space where one can exist within and without.
In many ways, the curatorial note is apt in drawing an analogy to crystals and their unique development, Sophia Balagamwala, the brainchild behind this exhibition and all its vastness says, “Crystals grow differently when subjected to different surfaces, temperatures, environments and the gaze. These growths have different forces, times, circumstances…the crystals are represented in various forms – hard, soft, deeply complex, unique, always variable, and constantly adapting and evolving, much like the bodies presented in this exhibition.” Just as Balagamwala had made the comparison to crystals forming in uniquely varied circumstances and thus revealing to the world their face – so too, is the manner in which each artists take on difficult and even at times controversial subjects in our part of the world giving it their unique expression. I had been warned by Balagamwala that the journey of 13 completely different artists would not be easy to pen down, but for me this exhibition meant so much more than the ideas one may have seen on the surface. It spoke to me about freedom, about rawness, the idea of existing without societal norms, gender constraints, without the pressure of judgment and with full embrace of vulnerability.
If one were to touch upon the main themes of the show, they would be: the physical and the emotional. The physical body and the absurdity of conformation of any type to be identifiable is explored by artist Connie Wong who herself is diversely ethnic and explores the fantasy in human and animal bodies replete of gender, ethnicity, cultural considerations and sexuality – most probably drawing from her own experiences of diversity. Similarly, one of the most eye catching works due to its size was of Nisha Pinjani,who comments on her religion and prescriptions of Hinduism in how her physical attributes and sensibility make her a female with a good reputation – this is a shameful response to how much we are changed and made negatively self-conscious by external factors that may or may not be true. Maria Khan’s piece is a mix of various artistically sensibility, interestingly at times drawing inspiration from Sigmund Freud – this is shrouded with irony as he is known to comment on human sexuality as the main reason for several human behaviors – here, Khan through her piece “Still Life” is commenting on the lack of identity of a body, no gender, no sexuality, completely heteronormative – hence challenging the notion that identity is based on religion or gender or other notions.
Areeba Siddiqui, is an illustrator that I was particularly drawn to due to her apt description both in words and illustration of the not so typical Pakistani girl. Her works depict girls wearing the hijab and how a woman’s behavior, likes and dislikes may be shaped by a piece of clothing – however just like any other female, personalities are unique despite what is shown in terms of clothed physical identity. Her Rooh Afza bottle although stereotypical has the hilarious label of “desi men tears”, something all of us ladies can relate to, crying for hours on an end for a desi “muckboi” who was bound to break our heart with his Pakistani – esque new age mind games.
One of my favorite pieces from the exhibition was that of Bibi Hajra Cheema’s, “Bambawali-Ravi-Bedian Canal day dooja paa”. It shows a typical canal scene in Lahore, except without men sitting around the canal but only females in all their femininity – half clothed, some naked, lying down, touching, laughing, jumping, washing their garments along the riverside and there he is, one man evidently bothered by these scenes nesting himself in the middle. This piece spoke to me as it also let out a burst of laughter – a scene that now has relatively decreased from the time I moved to Pakistan, due to public spaces being more open and accessible, it is still a relatable piece. If it weren’t for my feminism weary fiancé, I may have even commissioned Cheema for a huge blow up of this piece.
The alternative theme explored throughout the works displayed in Soft Bodies is commentary and negotiation of the “soft” body – emotional space and identity. Neha Mashooqullah very aptly states, “There is a shadeed shortage of spaces where one can be vulnerable in this city”. Relatable and true, space is not only the one we occupy with our body but also with the mind, our thoughts, freedom to think, space to think and reciprocal positivity to vibe certain emotions and feelings without being judged. On a similar note, while I was having coffee with Balagamwala a few weeks ago, she had told me an interesting anecdote of how this exhibit was actually scheduled to show a year ago until the organisers had wanted to censor some of the works – she exclaimed on the absurdity of doing so as one of the artists shown Sanam Maher, journalist and author, uses Instagram to comment on censorship patterns in Pakistan – it is interesting to see what makes it on the “approved list” versus what does not.
Soft Bodies explores concepts which are otherwise seen as evolving well before its time, where identity, geography, gender and culture are still seen as strong associates of art – this is what makes it a landmark show for all to follow suite. This show seeks within it the importance and exploration of freedoms, freedoms to exist, freedom to think and opine without judgment, without knowledge of right or wrong or of or male and female – it was as if the viewer would be teleported into a world where everything was rid of the prejudice associated with it. With more platforms trying to represent female artists and their oeuvre, there emerges not only questions about the feminine physical and metaphoric being but also the notion of any physical being and whether or not the world and its population allows for something to just be, isolating it from any comparison of how it should be – in body and in spirit.
Soft Bodies curated by Sophia Balagamwala at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi