Dua Abbas Rizvi’s second solo show – five years after the first – at O Art Space, Lahore was a layered, complex and ultimately an unforgettable experience. Reinforced by the potency of the artist’s statement, How to Abandon a Narrative That No Longer Serves You is a continuation of the artist’s visual investigation into the role (and perception) of women in history, mythology, society and art. Her mastery of pastels combines with her photographer’s eye for light and her love for magical thinking as well as the theatricality of medieval art to create a series that lulls the viewer to question what it is she is seeing. The serenity on the surface of these paintings belies the deep-seated societal contradictions that they are simultaneously revealing.
The majority of subjects in this show are women shown at some stage of flight or escape. ‘Her Kind’ shows a woman standing in a bedroom, complete with pink curtains, translucent wings spread out behind her. Titling the work after Anne Sexton’s poem, a favourite of the artist’s, reveals the artist’s frame of reference. The artist ponders of womankind: “Really, what is it we are wanted for? Who are we? We are associated with so many things, mythologically also. Are we who we are perceived to be? Are we independent entities?”
The artist gives the women of her series various vessels to soar away on, whether there are fantastical flying urns, UFOs, ships, or a floating bed. Levitation and women engineering a great escape are familiar themes in the artist’s body of work. The inspiration drawn from the flying heroines of the stories in Arabian Nights is evident and beautifully captured on canvas by the artist. The viewer feels the gleeful magic of a great adventure to be had. The artist explains in her own words: “That conventional image of the gunslinger riding off into the sunset, that’s something I was working with. In ‘Buccaneers’ and ‘Island’ they’re both riding off into some kind of nebulous conclusion or afterlife because I wanted them to be victorious images. I didn’t want them to be images where they’re just protesting a state of affairs… As far as the women are concerned, I wanted to give them the promise of a better ending.”
Whether that better ending is achieved is a mystery the viewer is left to answer on her own. The expressions on the women’s faces are not easily identified. The artist, a fan of Da Vanci’s technique of sfumato, brings her subjects alive through the lack of a fixed look on any of the faces we see. Uncomfortable as it is to experience such ambiguity, Rizvi seems to be giving her subjects the freedom to adorn themselves with whatever expression they please – malevolence, peace, excitement, bitterness, anger, resignation or neutrality. They are not there to satisfy the demands and expectations of our gaze. We are kept in a state of questioning, of deeper investigation of these women.
The artist’s sense of humour and love for theatricality comes out in ‘The Missing Audience’ where the busts of berating and scowling men are put on solid columns with nary a soul to hear their tirade. If a man wants to pontificate, and there is no woman to soak up his words, does he really exist? The piece deliberately flips the usual narrative found in Pakistani dramas where men are allowed freedom of movement while women, unceasingly and frustratingly, are confined to the bed. The artist started an informal archive of images of women in bed taken from various television shows (she has another one of angry men). “That used to really irk me,” the artist says, “Why are they always just stuck to the bed? Get up – try to take back some control. There should be some agency to those characters [but] they’re inseparable [the woman and the bed]. Everything happens from the bed – crying, making calls. There are so many scenes – the bedroom is the most featured space in our dramas.”
The portrayal of women in these television serials as immobile (and hence powerless) contrasted sharply with the animation of female characters from Arabian Nights, something Rizvi marveled at while reading Marina Warner’s commentary on the beloved tales. She elaborates: “I understand from the dramatist’s point of view, that generates a lot of sympathy for the women. They shouldn’t be treated that way. But maybe show an alternative! It’s self-nurturing, that feeling. It just breeds more of it.”
The artist is very meditative in her visual art, considering the topics she takes on. She reveals how any “rage” she has comes out more in her fiction writing, but something about her visual practice “tempers” that feeling. She also goes back to Arabian Nights: “Scheherazade’s approach to patriarchy is very clever. She understands she can’t take it down singlehandedly and overnight so she sets about telling the Sultan the kind of stories that will change his opinion of women. I really like that – fiction and the depiction of women alone can cause a big change.”
The artist, cleverly and gradually, is doing the same with her artwork. She questions what we expect of women, how we perceive them, how much space we are actually willing to give them and she reveals the inverse relationship between the social acceptability of a woman and the amount of space she takes up. To fly means the entire universe is hers, but that won’t save her from us conventional folks on the ground calling her a witch and clamouring to burn her at the stake (metaphorically or actually). The artist makes us acknowledge this with a gentle, knowing wink, all the while cosseting us with the soothing beauty of her work.