Masuma Halai Khwaja’s path to finding her voice and recognition hasn’t been linear, but her priorities have always been right
When Masuma Halai Khwaja decided to reestablish her art practice, she jumped back into the deep, often murky waters of fine art headfirst. She took on the role of thesis advisor for 2005’s graduating Fine Art class at the Indus Valley School Of Art & Architecture at the same time as she worked on a painting exhibit at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi. The amount of patience, mental clarity, stability, and organization that is needed to handle a handful of angst-ridden artists-in-the-making while returning to dust off the creative corners of one’s own mind is more than any ordinary, albeit artist’s soul can bear, but Masuma Halai Khwaja is no ordinary woman.
At a time when we are often tempted to gloss over ethnic, cultural, and religious differences, Khwaja chooses to learn more about them and address them. She will make a conscious effort to truly inform, with history and cultural nuance, the bodies of work she creates, and presents the facts, which makes it easier to understand and consume what she is saying, rather than become lost in politically charged debate. While most will live in cautious silence, Khwaja chooses to laugh off any fear and count on her artist’s language to fly safely under all radars.
In 2005, her work was quite different. The skillset and artist remain the same, and so the final work may bear her mark, but the concerns have changed and developed over time. At what was her career relaunch at Canvas 17 years ago, Khwaja offered coy glimpses of skin and flowers under sheer veils. The earnestness of the painter within was very evident then, and is evident now, though to Khwaja, the woman’s body covered in fabric has taken on a different meaning.
“When I came back, I was over and done with,” Khwaja recalls, rather calmly. And rather than internalize the struggle and criticism and let it impede her, it seems she simply chose to just do what she did best. You might be tempted to think that what Masuma Halai Khwaja does best is create, it is simply the act of her never stopping that is her greatest gift.
In 1991, Khwaja graduated from the National College of Arts with a distinction. A distinction, while does not guarantee a successful career as an artist, it does open doors. For Khwaja, who describes her thought processes as “foggy”, each time a door opened: a celebrated actor wanted to meet with her; a museum was to ring with discussion about a scholarship, she did what she wanted to do in the moment. In one instance, it was getting up and going for lunch with her friends, and in the other, she just didn’t want to wait.
Even post-NCA, while she did want to go abroad and pursue her education, Khwaja fell in love, and chose to get married and start a family instead.
“Whenever I pray to God to make my show a success, I always ask for it in a way that will not compromise my happiness or those important to me,” she says.
“When I look back at my life choices, the only thing I have ever been very clear about is that prioritize happiness over everything else. In that way I feel that perhaps I am little foggy in how I operate.”
She has always kind of gone with the flow, though, and that is how most people promise you are guaranteed to find success in some form.
As her life changed, so did the subject matter. “At college, it was all about how I felt,” she says, “I was exposed to all kinds of people at NCA, more diverse than what you come across in your Karachi bubble. I noticed some of my friends dressed more conservatively, and would even choose to cover up in front of male family members at home.”
She did enjoy painting drapery, and that symbol has translated to various media over the decades. Her love of drapery and cloth comes from the fact the her maternal grandmother owned one of Karachi’s oldest boutiques on Tariq Road, her own mother tended to keep her hands busy with knitting or crocheting, and thanks to the school she attended – Mama Parsi in Karachi – she was well-versed in the craft of needlepoint and sewing, whether she wanted to be or not.
In 2005’s Womanhood exhibit at the Canvas Gallery, Khwaja picked up where she left. The show was an extension of her thesis show, and a starting point at best.
“My works were selling, but perhaps I hadn’t found my voice,” she says now.
Her tendency to collect cloth – “meri aankhon mein kapra dekh kar chamak aa jati hai,” – led her to create a portrait of herself with different fabric swatches, which led to another showing of tapestry in 2017. “But that intense thought process wasn’t there,” she says.
One of the things that stands out about Khwaja is her tendency to accept she doesn’t know, and that she is willing to learn. So if she had the skill to create beautiful pieces out of fabric, but they didn’t have a big idea anchoring them, she would find one.
The starting point for her was obviously where the cloth came from. Herself an interesting result of ethnicities and genes pooling from Morocco to Mozambique to India, she decided to start ascertaining where her material was from. Once she did that, she would decide just how to use it.
A few years ago, when there was much excitement about the CPEC, Khwaja was showing some Chinese visitors around and while viewing a map exhibit at the Mohatta Palace Museum, was mystified by the interest they showed in Gwadar.
“Soon enough, a hotelier who was there came over and told them he had some land to sell in Gwadar, which all sold off within minutes.
“So my thought was, sure, the CPEC is a good thing, but is it really?” The incident and observation resulted in works featuring Terracotta Warriors on overtly Sindhi and Balochi cloth.
“I was thinking, the whole while, either they will lose their culture, or it will evolve into something completely else,” she says.
Khwaja says she cannot help but being political in her work, as how can one living and growing in the kind of environment we have not be, but she also likes to just give of her skill and brain to things she cares about. For instance, she executed the Reel On Hai project during the 2017 Karachi Biennale as an attempt to engage the public, to uplift the appearance of Karachi, and to just be involved. She says, “when you give, you get back, and the team I worked with, and I gained a lot of attention and recognition.”
But as we have learnt over the course of this conversation, what doesn’t make her happy, doesn’t serve her anymore, and Khwaja returned to her practice with more fearlessness than ever. “I just decided that I wasn’t scared of people anymore, and if they put me down, I don’t want them in my life. Peace and happiness are the most important, and as my work with the Biennale came to an end, I found a turning point.”
Whether it was her curating a show for a world-renowned artist such as Aisha Khalid, or finding she needed to learn more about pre-1971 Pakistan, Khwaja learned, unlearned, did, redid, and she was happy.
The artist, when you meet her, will seem the least likely to be the sort to shake things up. Her soft voice, slow speech, and sweet laughter brush away any concerns one might present to her regarding her work. But she has a scholarly bent, and she will try to learn enough to not just produce a single work or a body of, but also to speak in very easy terms of what she thinks the issue at hand is. Her execution is always straightforward, but that is because Khwaja knows what she wants to put across. If she wants to speak of the ravages of war, she will symbolically place elements that are not meant to be where they are. If she wants to talk about how there is a lot more to a traumatic event, she will literally spell it out for you.
“Think of when someone is raped – and not even to speak of the survivor here – but think of how her family would be impacted – her children. That’s entire generations of trauma.”
Rape on a mass scale, such as during war would have to be even more traumatic. But as she has displayed in one of her shorts, “we just tend to safely keep things away till they rot, and we tend to never speak of uncomfortable subjects till one day we realize everything has gone bad.”
Her latest show, also at Canvas Gallery, features most prominently, you guessed it, drapery. Whether in the form of a burka or the Bohri rida, Khwaja is questioning what is religious, what is cultural, what is herd mentality, and what is once again where it isn’t meant to be. And though she doesn’t realize that the subtext of everything she has done in her life has been this, she talks about The Conference Of The Birds, and how, “you must learn, unlearn, and learn again what you want, otherwise you will always be part of the crowd.”
Turning her attention within herself, Masuma Halai Khwaja finds herself looking towards Eastern writers for what it seems will be her slow journey of self-discovery.
She is particularly inclined towards Farid ud Din Attar, whom Rumi referred to as the greatest poet to ever have existed, but not Rumi himself, as she finds him over-romanticized by the West.
While not a story of astronomical rises and crowd dazzling one associates with great artists, Masuma Halai Khwaja’s is one that reminds us where to put our minds, hearts, and application. And like birds, we shall all find our way home.