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Women and Recent Art: Some Thoughts

The contribution of women artists or the nature of women’s art, in a broad discussion, could comprise many stories of celebration, resilience, resistance and inspiration. At the same time, one is aware that gender specificity also speaks of the female (artistic) narrative as ‘other’, separated and apart from the male viewpoint that is assumed to be dominant, or has historically overshadowed in art, often reinforced by women themselves. It can thus become a limitation in its emphasis on woman as an artist, or artist who is a woman, as opposed to simply referring to her as an artist. Discussion based on gender can also impose an aspect of negativity and bias, because it will tend to speak of discontent, especially if you impose a western reading of Pakistani women and society (and art). However, it is also possible to locate the art by women as a central and significant part of the art discourse in Pakistan, having many layers of narratives; some of which are more dominant and/or accepted, others more peripheral; it converses with the personal and the political. A complete whole is that which complements the traits of the masculine and the feminine in a shared space of creativity and gives voice to the visions of family, people and community.
There are two main aspects that I bring to the subject of women and art. First, over the years, my interest in art generally has been intuitively drawn to narratives that implicitly or explicitly contest and or defy accepted frameworks and norms of reference. Secondly, the ‘marginal’ entails important narrative that does not necessarily follow market values or aspirations, and more importantly, the critical discussion has been on the aspect of marginality/centrality in the art discourse and its interface with (inequality in) society; as opposed to negotiations on gender. The ‘value’ therefore shifts to what is perceived as ‘peripheral’ bringing it to the center, and in doing so the ‘center’ comes to the periphery. The dynamics constantly shifts in degrees, back and forth. It is often located away from assumed or apparent centers, because there are many rich spaces in between, and pauses in history that have faced either effacement or been threatened by a one-track, linear line of production, or politics within the art milieu as well as the reading of it.
For art writers, there is the familiar expectation of going the route of western twentieth-century iconic examples, such as that of Judy Chicago, and to sources that may be outside the immediacy of artistic and social discourse of contemporary Pakistan. However, considering that global discourses (that are the outcome of or related to the immediacy of gender and political inequalities, struggles and wars) have, and are bound to be somehow related to causes that demand empowerment globally. There are parts of other histories that become the inspiration, if not the source due to a trickle down affect. The continuum of connections can be found in their discontinuity, and whether artists consciously or otherwise are aware of the contextual reasoning to their content or not, the task at hand seems to be to locate the current nature and texture, image, medium, etc., as it is now. To understand the nature of art, women’s art (if it needs to be addressed on its own), would therefore be to draw a larger circle with male artists who have addressed the issue of the female, most often as their muse.
Furthermore, the artist invariably attaches to, or is unable to detach the historical link of colonization and western modernity, to herself as ‘subject’, or to set herself free, or from reinforcing the male ‘gaze’, her imagery somehow meandering into the nexus of rupture: between ornamentation and minimalism, tradition and modernity. It is divided in between the past and present, nostalgia, sentimentalism and rejection, and exists in both. And meanings are negotiated within that framework. While I would not like to locate a linear pattern, as ideas embodying a lateral view and connections that escape a simplified linearity being simply more poetic and closer to relate to, there are directions/approaches that could be seen as having some kind of sameness, of shared visions and circumstances perhaps.
In any case, why should any reading or critique of women’s art follow the expectation to fulfill the requirements of thought within the accepted discourses of women seen and portrayed as sufferers, when the history of art is replete with examples of them as symbols of strength and nurturing? On a side note, this very subject forms the object of marketing grants for countless NGOS in the third world. In other words, it is a safe and sure avenue for gaining visibility and for individual self-projection, but risks exploitation of the real issues of class inequality.
Coming back to the aesthetics in visual art, one finds a vast landscape of very telling but disparate perspectives that seek beauty, considering that the notions of the beautiful are simultaneously located in the future and the past. In Image and Identity, Dr Akbar Naqvi refers to “the arched brows, stylized half closed and languorous eyes, delicate mouth, beautifully convincing period garb and detached look (gaze)” of classical ‘Chughtai’ features. Here, Dr Naqvi raises a pertinent issue on femininity and the traditional/cultural it entails. He writes: “Chughtai’s role in robing women ceremonially for their roles in his art had two aspects:
“First, it was connected to the idea of veiling, which is as much as matter of covering up a subtle invitation to pry imaginatively into what is hidden. It is a sin to expose or see the private parts, and also the decorative parts of the body, both connected with the procreating nature. The human instinct to cover up the body is mythic. It arose with the birth of self consciousness as shame in the story of the Fall…” (Akbar Naqvi, Image and Identity, OUP 1998, p. 65).
On the subject of Chughtai’s females’ attire, Naqvi suggests a reading into its “metaphoric play upon the drama of the veiling and unveiling of Reality and Truth at many levels”. The critic delves into the use of wash as veil, suggesting that it mediates between the white and black “in terms of light and the absence of light”, quite poetic in comparing Rembrandt’s use of color in shadows, and in referring to darkness as “veiled light”. Naqvi’s critique opens and hints to many pathways of light, so to speak, a multi-layered engagement with depth and knowledge (however subjective), which is far above recent writings on art. Secondly, he brings a modernist’s reading into his subject, claiming that the women in Chughtai’s imaginative catwalk are without body, or which is somewhere between the folds of the voluminous Indo-Persian traditional couture (p. 65).
The delicacy of line in Chughtai which gave volume and depth to the garb/attire was an obvious ode to the tradition of line and its flatness, something for which, as Naqvi says, one does not need to see William Morris or Art Nouveau to understand. The decorative quality of making, weaving, creating was to appreciate, in adoration and in praise of the Creator, similar to the work of those who embellished Quranic manuscripts. Which is possibly why Naqvi refers, in places, to Chughtai’s “angelic” faces and expressions. It would be relevant to note that he also reads into works such as The Poet’s Vision by Chughtai as an “extravaganza of line which is a source of pleasure” in itself. And, he refers to the direction towards the heavenly, noting that the figure of the female appears “hoori’”-like. Quite beautifully, the critic hints at the artist’s connection to the poet Ghalib, and to the ghazal in his muraqqa: “The old man (poet) pleads that the wine jug should be left for his eyes to drink from because he has no strength left in his hand to hold it” (p. 87).
Keeping in mind the distances of time, changing concerns and frameworks, one could delve into the work of distinctively diverse narratives, particularly in the context/content of the garb and body; their physical and metaphorical implications, messages and desires. Meher Afroz, Sumaya Durrani and Naiza Khan work and live in the same mileu, and this reading provides an opportunity to locate some aspects of the complexities of their concerns, mediums and approaches. Another narrative, a little apart but relevant here, is of the miniaturist Aisha Khalid.
But before that, I would like to briefly mention some names especially in relation to Chughtai-like imagery and the feature of veil: Hajra Mansoor, who is known, and a relatively less spoken about artist, Sumbul Nazir. Intermediary artists as I would refer to them, and significant in their own spaces, their imagery resides in an imagined past, taking from it the stylistic content, but infused with their own meaning/s of art. Mansur has painted in the wash technique of Chughtai/New Bengal School and pursued it regardless of the changes, ruptures, challenges of time and history. Naqvi has remarked on a somewhat similar approach to changing times, of Chughtai’s desire to halting it, keeping it still. There is also the element of sentimentalism and stylized form of the female, mainly the face that appears to have shifted its gaze inward into the self, into its emotional plight, of unrequited love. Incidentally, this is an ingrained trajectory of local literature in which the body and self is visualized (the eyes are the garb, the ornament, the heart, and the window to the outside world).
From a modernists’ point of view Hajra Mansur and Sumbul Nazir’s dreamy women in watercolour would appear cautious and painstakingly sentimental, with immediate connections to Urdu digest afsaanas and stories that are parallels of TV soap operas. These were traditions that with changing times did not find a closure, neither sustained nor nurtured. Repetition appears close to replication. All insights aside, it may be interesting to note that what appeared as the male gaze in Chughtai or its reading by Naqvi, it is women artists who have also reinforced stereotypes. There are of course popular artists like Iqbal Durrani who have churned out imagery of the romanticized women, offshoots of the same tradition, with remarkable skill, and gained much prominence from hotel lobby sales and shows. Salima Hashmi refers to a chapter on Hajra Mansur in her book Unveiling the Visible as capturing themes that are “almost iconic: wide-eyed women, architectural backdrops, flowers, ornament, pattern.. a world she constructs with an ease with endless repetition” (p. 61). Incidentally, Ali Imam, the great patriarch of art, once remarked when the artist Mansur Aye walked into the Indus Gallery, that he didn’t know that the artist was still alive. Of course, Imam was referring to Aye’s repetition of the doe-eyed female face.
Thus, there has been a discomfort with narratives that resisted the western modernist approach of the fifties and sixties, in which artists such as Zubaida Agha was at the forefront, with her first show in a group exhibition in Karachi in 1948. The Civil and Military Gazette carried a letter by Atiya Begum Rahamin which dismissed Agha’s work and compared it to “the art in asylums”. “The lack of talent arose from the breakdown of traditional good painting”, she wrote, showing her limited critical approach, which we inherited in art writing: critique as long as it was in the English language by a certain class of people carried its weight, even if it was a series of value judgments. Hassan Habib defended Agha in a letter in response in 1949 that was also published. He wrote that the artist had “learnt to paint what was not the illusion of reality, but the interpretation of reality/she was not interested in comfort and reassurance, but disturbance and discomfort/to deconstruct forms and shapes handed down by history and tradition” (Akbar Naqvi, p. 148).
Keeping in mind the past that is quite recent, the work of three contemporaries Meher Afroz, Naiza Khan and Sumaya Durrani could be addressed especially in the connection to garb that has entered each of their traejctories. The black employed by Afroz in her Poshak series of etchings (from around 2007), apart from the infused figurative or object and motif elements, invokes the sense of colourlessness. Here, one is reminded of Dr. Naqvi’s reading of the garb in Chughtai’s prints, that darkness holds the veiled light, and of his reference to the artist’s women without body. Afroz’s headless poshak or attire that is without body elicits a similar response: the light is retrieved from within the etched black in a series of scratching, contrary to the harmonious unbroken circularity of Chughtai’s linearity. Though Meher’s prints embody the flatness of the miniature tradition in these works, some of the more striking imagery of attire is a combination of gestural marks within a flat frame in which the garb or attire is given a sculptural volume, resembling a body that is not. However, the illumination is from within, and the artist says that she intended to give a strong sense of presence of the body (without the figure in it).
Though the gesture and spirit in Afroz’s etching Dream is far from Sadequain’s Sar Ba Kaf, there is a strong sense of violence and pathos in the poshak that occupies central space in the compositions. It is not merely decorative, garb is a form and space, object and subject, a metaphorical illusion; it is the outward appearance that holds the inward values held by the individual, male or female. It is the libaas of the mutaqqi, or devout. But could it also be a portrait of the artist, as she stands vulnerable, partially visible, not understood by the mileu around her?
Garment appears in the work of Sumaya Durrani in different manifestations of her presence through its intervention, with a striking affinity to Afroz’s headless poshak. Through the body and/of form of the garment, the artist invites the viewer to enter her trajectory of devotion. Art and life are in complete sync, and she is aware that she is not object nor subject, but her body and soul is in a continuous dance, in union, in praise of God. In her earlier large paintings titled Irfan-e-Sarmast-Samezan (circa 2011) the self, the body of the devotee, seems to be in an uncontrollable circular movement upward, and we sense glimpses of ecstasy in flashes, the body bathed in the joy of its own sexuality; the male and female are in eternal union. A circular anti clock wise movement of the devotee appears in a later work, Lou Bhi Tu Qalam Bhi Tu (2014), part of Raqs-e-Bismil. A participatory work in which the audience enters a room in darkness, and proceeds in a circular movement around a bodiless figure seemingly shrouded in voluminous attire in black. It is but only a garment that embodies the person, the female, who in an instance, like the whirling dervish, follows an upward flight to the devotional sound of “Hu”, into the “Hu”. As the movement suspends the viewers’ gaze towards the ceiling, we see the illusion of a blue sky created by a projection. Of the many readings of this work, one is clear of the artist’s strong gesture to break away and to unite with other traditions outside the art “mainstream” as her being “dissolves into the Hu”, that is woven by her and others on a loom. The ijtema (gathering) thus participates in the act, their bodies also in movement around the garment (connected to the loom that is weaving the words Allah and Mohammad), as part of the work. The artist too is the spectator at this point. “The loom weaves the garment of Hu/ the garment is implied here”, she adds. (My email conversation with Sumaya Durrani, 2015)
In a participatory performance work Wahid (2015), the artist’s maroon embroidered shawl is partly worn and used as a cloth on which she places sheets with the name of Allah. One is reminded of Naazish Ataullah’s work of paper (aquatint) Chaadar V1 (1987) and other works from the same time. Chaadar appears in a different reference in Sumaya’s installation work Aye Taair-e-Laahooti (Raqs-e-Bismil, 2013-14) where she takes 99 shawls and dupattas used by herself and friends for another installation work and assembles them like a clothesline that stretches the length of the narrow gallery space, into oblivion. In this case, the garment carries the smell and aura of its owner, who is an incidental participant. Similarly, the imprint of the personal is evoked in Ataullah’s imagery, and one is not surprised at the common spaces of these apparently separate discourses. They are bound by shared mileu, language, experiences and differences.
If Ataullah was referring to political and social bondage at the time of Martial Law, she was exploring and articulating (while also mentoring students at the NCA, Lahore) the poetics of her medium and imagery that was both personal and political. In 2000, Naiza Khan explores a strand similar to Ataullah. Her Henna Hands series of works (2002) articulate the decorative and the embellished which has been present throughout in Afroze, Ataullah, Durrani and Aisha Khalid (Phoolon Wala Kamra, c. 2000) in degrees. Her intentions seem to lie in marking turf, through walk chalking, erasing and overlapping; interventions into the dynamics of the self and city, into convention and rupture in a framework which reinforces social and cultural stereotypes of women. The individual remains central, however vulnerable and temporary like the henna. In subsequent years, the artist explores the body through its absence in three dimensional bodies cast in galvanized metal in the works titled Heavenly Ornaments. The body laments its bondage of Muslim and European histories, the self dissociates from itself, and and the title becomes a pun on the Urdu text Bihishti Zewar by the Islamic scholar Ashraf Ali Thanawi, addressing the code of conduct to be followed by women, and conventionally presented to them at their marriage. Objects of fetish, but also of desire, the artist’s armour (pelvic armour, body armour, lingerie, chastity belt, bullet proof vest 2006-7), encompasses the discussion on the role of disparate histories that somehow connect and coexist, no matter how far apart.
Amra Ali is an art critic, curator and researcher based in Karachi, Pakistan.


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