A world beyond appearances

March 29, 2020

The artworks by Sanie Bokhari and Saba Zahid, produced independently and in diverse mediums, are connected through content: the state of women in a patriarchal society

Golden Hour by Sanie Bokhari.

The exhibition, All the Women in Me, was meant to be seen by multitudes. But the public viewing, scheduled for March 13, was reduced to ‘by appointment only’ on account of coronavirus. As a result, there were more eyes and faces in the artworks than in front of them – at the Taseer Art Gallery, Lahore.

The show included works by Sanie Bokhari and Saba Zahid — two artists who graduated in fine art from the National College of Arts (NCA) in 2014, acquired their postgraduate degrees from the US and the UK, respectively, and have been practising in the country and abroad. Their style and approach are distinct yet connected.

As students, both of them had demonstrated a high level of academic skill — the ability to make what Karl Ove Knausgaard describes as “verisimilar image of reality”. In the present exhibition, they employ this skill to make gains. Saba Zahid renders the world as we observe it, while Sanie Bokhari portrays it as it survives in our imagination —individual as well as collective. Bokhari draws references from a diverse array of sources including Indian miniature painting, European sculptures and Sikh imagery. Zahid focuses on her immediate surroundings and captures situations that depict certain content.

The exhibition could have opened a few days earlier, on March 8, the day for women to celebrate their independence and demand their rights – for, their artworks, produced independently and in diverse mediums, are connected through content: the state of women in a patriarchal society.

Though not overtly feminist, their works reflect an awareness of their social conditions, thus making their canvases more than mere pretty pictures. Behind the apparent imagery, is a subtext—how women are perceived by others and through tradition, culture and positions of power.

In her Prelude, Bokhari unpacks the historic assumptions by appropriating two Mughal paintings: of Emperor Jahangir standing on the globe (containing world map, a lion and sheep side by side) while taking aim at a dark skeletal character (poverty); and in another, contemplating a small sphere in his hand. In Bokhari’s graphite and acrylic painting, a girl is balanced on an orb, holding the head of a bearded man. The circular form is composed of naked women as if in hell (what else do you expect in a male-dominated society). The dress of a large female figure (self-portrait) sitting on the top is covered in a pattern comprising lines from Faiz’s poetry.

Bokhari “re-imagines the female figure as a protagonist and idol” in her narrative; thus the work is a celebration of a woman’s world. Her Silhouette includes a central figure, reminding one of an Indian miniature surrounded by strange species and creatures. Some of these are hybrid forms of the artist’s face, and of a body between a snake and a newt, composed in mirror-image arrangements; along with stylised drawings of monkeys. The movement in the work, between human and other forms, is accentuated with the flow of paint-soaked brush, as well as red lines that emerge from claw-like nails of her characters.

Dream Land by Saba Zahid.

Both through the construction of middle figure and the transmuted bodies of other females, she is “referencing elements of miniature painting. Playing with scale and perspective…[and] pushing the evolution of the tradition of miniature painting into a contemporary means of production”.

Sanie Bokhari expresses her ideas on how women, especially young, are considered a burden in the society. In her canvas, Golden Hour, a young girl clad in a unisex attire, stands with a cluster of men, wearing pink shawls/wraps. The woman (again the artist) is firmly grounded in her Doc Martin shoes, and drawn from a lower viewpoint, is elevated to resemble a monument overlooking men, who owing to the colour of their drapes, seem to be trespassing the defined boundary between the sexes.

Bokhari critiques the role and reading of gender conventionally assigned by society in a mocking and humorous way.

In a corresponding tone, Saba Zahid weaves stories of individuals in our homes or vicinity — the familiar and independent females. Her female model is engaged and content with herself, operating freely and happily. One sees a meticulously painted female, reading a book (artist’s self-portrait), or lying on a sofa holding a mobile phone, selecting a dress at a boutique, relaxing on a couch, or gazing through binoculars. These are situations where male presence is not required, registered or recommended.

In Zahid’s work, women, regardless of their status (house help, a neighbour aunty, a young graduate) are in their Comfort Zone, Dream Land, and Private Space — all titles of her paintings.

Saba Zahid astonishes viewer by her grasp of minute details. The surface of a cabinet, wall and switchboard in Reader, edge of a TV screen in Dream Land and the entire visual in Eye Candy confirm the artist’s command over her visual language. But she is not content with representing these figures. It seems that the relationship between what is viewed and how it is viewed is more important to her on account of her reading of Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida) and Susan Sontag (On Photography).

More than the act and politics of image-making, or the link to tradition, the works of these two artists map a world beyond appearances.

Sanie Bokhari and Saba Zahid’s artworks portray state of women in a patriarchal society