Handle with care

February 25, 2024

At the Faiz Festival 2024, exhibition ‘Dil na-umeed to naheen’, presents works of 38 living artists

Handle with care


o Katy Hessel, the British art historian and the author of The Story of Art Without Men, “being an artist and a woman has never been easy.” For many women in Pakistan, and other patriarchal communities, just being a woman has never been easy. The society has generally remained hostile. Occasionally, the state has made draconian laws and suppressed women in the name of religion and morality. Women from our surroundings have suffered, sometimes visibly, often indirectly.

If a woman is a successful professional, she still performs the duties assigned by patriarchy: managing the house, dealing with the maid, preparing meals and raising children. So when it comes to being a female artist, it is more difficult in our context: continuing art practice is tough, surviving as a woman is a struggle.

Yet women artists of Pakistan have contributed enormously to art making, teaching and curating besides running art galleries and writing on art. The history of Pakistani art is different from European art. Here, women like Anna Molka Ahmed and Zubeida Agha were present from the beginning. The former established – and headed (1940-1978) the Fine Arts Department at the University of the Punjab; the latter is regarded as the pioneer of modern art in Pakistan.

An exhibition at the Faiz Festival 2024 recognised this fact and offered a kaleidoscopic view of Pakistani art. Titled Dil na-umeed to naheen, and curated by Saulat Ajmal with Rohtas 2 team, it presented work of 38 living artists across cities, disciplines and experiences. The exhibition became a survey show from early paintings by Musarrat Mirza (1968) and Naazish Ata-Ullah (1983) and a photographic print by Durriya Kazi (1981), to some recent pieces such as the installations by Noorjehan Bilgrami (2024) and an origami collage by Fatima Saeed (2024).

Looking at Naazish Ata-Ullah’s sensitive canvas Chaddar, one realises how the later generations followed the symbol of burqa; in performances (Mansoora Hassan), miniatures (Shahzia Sikander, Aisha Khalid) and sculptures (Ruby Chishti). Ata-Ullah’s intelligent appropriation of this piece of garment during the Zia regime became an idiom to describe the invisibility of women in every sphere of life, as suggested by Kazi’s print with a figure wrapped inside a length of fabric, so that you are aware of her face and body, yet every part is concealed.

This distance between visible and hidden seems to be a recurring issue for several artists. Talat Dabir’s shrouded mass (Veiled Echoes), Naiza Khan’s metallic slip (Robe), Bushra Waqas Khan’s small and body-less dress weaved with countless bits of printed paper each bearing a cross (Lamellar) dealt with the absence of the female body in a society that is obsessed with it yet reluctant to accept its presence, place and independence. The female body is seen as a threat, hence not to be seen.

A number of artists employed the metaphor of the female body to communicate more than one meaning. Nausheen Saeed, in her life-size sculpture (Handle With Care), of a naked body tightly covered in a printed fabric, almost a second skin , lying on its side, asserted how women are treated in our culture: an object of attraction as well as of utility; content that has been the artist’s concern for some time. A suitcase handle and straps have been attached to the back; transforming the female into a piece of luggage. A similar modification was found in Masooma Syed’s sculptures fabricated with female hair, converting them into a jewellery item (The Necklace), a pair of feet (To Life ‘L’ Chaim) and a weapon (The Sword). The work, besides its utilitarian hints, suggested the paradoxical perception of female hair: attractive and strong. Another participant, Ruby Chishti, recalled the disappearance of body through her sculpture Recollection of my Birth; a group of five tiny elderly ladies sitting in a circle as if looking at a newly born (absent) girl.

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The change of identity a woman has to go through was observed in Nadia Khawaja’s two polaroids of combined portraits, Hero with a Thousand Faces. Nusra Latif Qureshi also dealt with layered personas in her Self-Portrait II, and III.
Handle with care

The narrative of invisibility continues in Sadaf Naeem’s installation constructed in tied cotton cords, hanging with loose ends, and formed like women’s torsos. Titled Threads of Empathy: Knotting the Unseen, the work has a haunting residue of female physique on display, at trial, in agony, yet invincible: a life that could be lived through multiple metamorphoses.

The change of identity a woman has to go through was observed in Nadia Khawaja’s two polaroids of combined portraits, Hero with a Thousand Faces. Nusra Latif Qureshi also dealt with layered personas in her Self-Portrait II, and III. If the shift in Qureshi’s digital prints was delineated with coating of characters in different dresses, in Ambar Hammad’s photographs (Mona Lisa Series) it was achieved by the artist putting up an alternative, temporary and famous personality. She posed like the historic model, thus commenting on the practice of reducing a living female to an icon of beauty (through a male painter and numerous male art historians). Today no one knows the name of Lisa Giocondo, but everybody is familiar with the Mona Lisa, just as many are aware of Leonardo da Vinci.

A similar situation was sketched in Sabina Gillani’s sensitive digital prints, each named after the story of one of eight women, represented through body organs, partly clad features, stains of blood and impressions of patterns. This world - a woman’s world - looks fragile, tormented and defenceless, a state that can be sensed in Salima Hashmi’s Pursuing Radiance, with a scarlet flower and an open hand, both stitched in red trickle-like lines, though emanating an air of resistance. The chromatic preference and the creative use of material were also witnessed in two large works by Laila Rahman. The presence of pomegranate and spikes (in material form) added to the power of her mixed media paintings.

The decision to use a fruit or vegetable as a symbol has been a regular theme in the work of many women artists. Talha Rathore in a set of 12 gouache and pen on wasli (Sowing Seeds) created delicate drawings about various seeds. The work signified female fertility; it also suggested the remarkable quality of tackling her medium and metaphor in a poetic manner. Risham Syed’s mixed media, Ali Trade Centre Series V (with Orange Flamingo) was also embodied with a poetic element, although the artist addressed and investigated the ghost of colonialism and the curse of neo-imperialism in a commodity-bitten culture. The historical roots and routes of exploitation were mapped by picking a vocabulary that offered something beyond the intended content.

This blend of idea and form, pain and pleasure was also present in Adeela Suleman’s six prints and a sculpture. Forged by assembling kitchen utensils to compose (functional) helmets for women pillion riders, these pieces, along with providing a metallic protection to an exposed female, presented an appealing object too. This merger of content and form was experienced in many artworks at the exhibition that derived its name from a verse by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. This was only appropriate because the great bard had always supported the vulnerable and the victims irrespective of their gender, ethnicity or class – in a language that inweaves his political ideas, position and practices with his poetic sophistication and profound lyricism. Thus, Faiza Butt’s The Journey of Memory, a composite portrait of Salima Hashmi, incorporating pictorial references to different periods and people in her life, also included the profile of the poet who transcended confinement to produce an immortal body of literature.

The exhibition at Alhamra Art Gallery was an impressive and incredible achievement. Saulat Ajmal, in curating this show, repeated the seventeenth-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s words from 1649, “ I will show you what a woman can do.”

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

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