A subaltern herstory

February 16, 2020

Reclaiming feminist narratives at the Lahore Biennale 2020

Only a few decades ago in the occident, the feminist artist group The Gorilla Girls disguised themselves as gorillas to assert and reclaim female artist representation in credible art institutions such as the MET and the MOMA. Here in Pakistan the ongoing exhibition titled: In the present lies the past – feminist excavations held at the ASR Resource Centre as a collateral event of the ongoing Lahore Biennale excavates an alternative history. The curatorial statement by Nighat Saeed Khan clarifies that the exhibition is not an artistic endeavour but a subaltern herstory. Gorilla Girls may sound like an irrelevant parallel as per our ground realities and difference of problems, but the herstory of Pakistan is as courageous – an initial stroll across the timeline of efforts, sacrifices and battles projects a woman-kind surrounded by gorillas, there’s no space for more disguises here to prove power – women in Pakistan have been the ones who burn their dupattas on public spheres when policemen in Karachi rape and murder two women or when the chaddar is used as the only definition for women. Our herstory is a ruthless yet highly subversive response to a claustrophobic history – from Islamization to ideas of a religion that the religion was never aware of.

Upon entering the show the ASR archives on exhibit are a memory walk through print (newspaper clippings) and documentation. It is a walk across confused hegemonies and conflicted ideologies - amidst the efforts by the Women Action Forum and the ASR. A 1953 calendar with official holidays marked on the next page, celebrates Qauid-i-Azam’s birthday on December 26, and Christmas holidays from December 25-30, with Diwali, Basant and Shab-i-miraj holidays. It resonates with Jinnah’s ideology and his words that have almost become a cliché now “you are free…to go to your mosques…temples …” cliché because they are always used, never applied. One wonders, what moved Jinnah’s birthday and the Christmas celebration to one day? One also wonders about who decides the fate of these days? The ASR excavations in the form of the ongoing exhibition and display of archives throughout the galleries are not just reminders of misogyny but power manipulations and consequent narratives where many are the subaltern.

The exhibition unfolds with an installation with books hanging through a skylight, multiple pages have been folded like an origami and these include a history of feminist publications by the ASR – the ASR has worked relentlessly for alternate stories, voices that are not heard. Women authors and voices embark their presence in the air here. “The first initiative in this direction was to reprint an anthology of short stories by women, Nakoosh-i-Latif, which not only found a readership in feminist circles, but also in the retail trade” (ASR team). This installation is surrounded by art work in this and different rooms. Art that is deep set in the suffocation and restraint in society and time: Sailma Hashmi’s masked or cross taped women, where speaking or ‘the words by a women’ are an ungiven privilege in a bloody, smoggy environment or Farida Batool’s lenticular narrative of joy and disaster, presence and absence – a girl skips her rope while society, time and architecture dilute and pollute – Lalarukh’s minimalist aerial excavations or observations of line in figurative movements, all urge the viewer to develop a new eye – to see and read and believe and do – as ‘her’.

Lalarukh’s minimalism was a movement in itself, with her courage, valour and commitment to the WAF, her articulation of ideas and form withhold sound, oceans and skies within dots and lines.

Lalarukh’s minimalism was a movement in itself, with her courage, valour and commitment to the WAF, her articulation of ideas and form withhold sound, oceans and skies within dots and lines. From dissecting and drawing patterns of music to lines in constant motion to photo etchings conquering existing geographies with color - her work is the voice of herstory, where whispers are louder than screams and art the only hope of survival. This exhibition shows that the women of this institution have worked for reform and are not there just to agitate.

The female form, maps, text and print make patterns and statements across the show. Rabia Hassan brings childlike drawings, scraps from old copies, reminiscent of the home in her portrait paintings, Nazish Ata Ullah’s veiled figure doesn’t appear human – it is hollow – with only an outer layer of shuttlecock attire. The figures and forms, subaltern, alternate, yearning to be seen or heard or let alone be recognized, resonate with what ASR has managed to do through its history and in the exhibition. Other women artists whose works have been shown here are Mehr Afroze, Sylvat Aziz and Durriya Kazi.

I move across titles such as ‘rhetoric and reform, masculinity, rationality and religion’ in books to Lalarukh’s inspiration in classical music and the ‘rooted’ feminist history of dance, theatre and music, a poster of a play directed by Madeeha Gauhar written by Shahid Nadeem Jhalli kithay jaey? to a letter addressed to Nighat Saeed Khan addressing an opposition to the Hudood ordinance as “it is alleged that it tends to victimize the innocent rape victim” - the span of the exhibit is colossal in substance, narrative, document, dichotomy and history.

An open book at the exhibition reads this verse from a poem tilted women and salt.

“There are many types of respectability

The veil, a slap, wheat…

Stakes of imprisonment are hammered into the coffin of respectability

From house to pavement we own nothing…”

The ASR has shared it history and curated it as a wake up call. It is a curatorial question of who owns anything. And who decides. It is a history shared with proof, love and sacrifice.

The author is a visual artist, writer and researcher currently teaching at  NCA, Lahore

A subaltern herstory: Reclaiming feminist narratives at the Lahore Biennale 2020