Feminist public art

Aurat March posters from Hyderabad, Multan, Islamabad, Quetta, Lahore and Islamabad, carrying messages that represent their organisers’ manifestos, have hit digital spaces like a tsunami

One version of the legend of Aurat March posters is that it all began with Shehzil Malik, a Lahore based artist. Younger artists and designers say they look up to her while creating feminist public art. Even so, when she designed the first official Aurat March poster in 2019, she may not have realised that by 2021 these posters will have taken a life of their own; that there would be ‘poster reveals’ on social media; or that they would garner enough attention to be vandalised when put up in public spaces. 

The truth is that when art speaks, it will be consumed, shared and celebrated. This year’s Aurat March posters from Hyderabad, Multan, Islamabad, Quetta, Lahore and Islamabad, carrying messages that represent their organisers’ manifestos, have hit digital spaces like a tsunami. Some say this is because Pakistani art associated with women’s liberation movements is sparse. And yet who can dare discount Pakistan’s history of feminist public art?

Salima Hashmi and Lala Rukh’s artistic contributions to the Women’s Action Forum are still alive and accessible. Lala Rukh’s posters, in particular, could be posted alongside today’s Aurat March posters and would engage, arrest, and offend as viscerally as they did four decades ago.

Aisha Khalid’s paintings, Farida Batool’s photographs, Ayesha Jatoi and Adeela Suleman’s interventions and installations, Bani Abidi and Rabia Hassan’s videos are all feminist in nature. Naiza Khan’s Henna Hands (2000-2003) falls into the genre of feminist public art no matter how you interpret it.

So then what makes this year’s Aurat March art novel? Isma Gul Hasan, an artist volunteering for the March’s Islamabad chapter says: “The themes and concerns depicted on these posters are not unique, it’s the scale and diversity of the artwork that is unprecedented.” She describes the Aurat March artwork as “visual storytelling that represents women’s lived experiences that has been crowd-sourced from across the country.” Of course, she recognises that it is the internet and social media that allowed for this unprecedented scale.

Farida Batool, Lahore-based artist and senior faculty at the National College of Arts, says this year’s posters have an inclusivity that makes them novel and exciting. “It’s a good effort because you can see all kinds of diversity in the illustrations, the posters are bring created in large cities, but they haven’t left out marginalised communities,” she says. She is referring, in particular, to the attention given in several posters to the plight of Baloch women.

Kanza Naheed, who volunteered for the Karachi chapter, says that inclusivity-and-diversity was one of the guidelines for the artwork. Perhaps that’s why there is a rainbow in the backdrop of her illustration. Aisha Nazir, who volunteered from Multan, has shown women working in farms and offices and in streets, as well as disabled women. She has localised her poster by including a shrine in the background. Similarly, one of the Hyderabad posters has a river in the background.

A collateral benefit from the Aurat March art has been that it has made women from across the country feel included and honoured - to have their work shared. “Of course, there are senior artists involved, but there are also so many amateur artists whose work is being shared; there are women who can’t join the march but can now feel being a part of it through their art contributions. Art is an expression of one’s feelings and Aurat March is giving us a chance to share our feelings,” says Aisha.

Another exciting aspect of Aurat March’s cultural products - posters, videos, animations and illustrations - is that they are breaking down the boundary between art and design. “Until recently art was considered as elevated and high-brow; in comparison, design was considered on a lower rung. But these works were created collaboratively by activists, volunteers, artists, and designers and have collapsed that distinction between art and design,” says Shahana Rajani, an assistant professor at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and an organiser of Aurat March-Karachi.

According to her, this collapsing of boundaries is important because Pakistani art has a history of being apolitical and aloof from society and often limited to circulation in gallery spaces, while design has a wider appeal and circulation.

There are also those who say that Aurat March’s creations aren’t necessarily art, much less public art. By traditional standards, they have a point. An argument could be made that these works may instead fall under popular culture. But a significant purpose of Aurat March is to bend genres and make breakthroughs. By forcing their way into digital, material and physical spaces across the country, these posters are harnessing emotions and attention. They are a call to action.

Who gets to decide what art is, asks Seher Naveed, the head of the Fine Arts Department at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. According to her, art is something that has aesthetic appeal and gets a reaction. “Any kind of visualisation in public space becomes art. It can be created as a form of resistance or creative expression, or both,” she says. And who gets to decide what feminist public art is? According to Farida Batool, even the act of women lovingly placing chadars at Bibian Pak Daman (shrine) can be considered feminist public art. Public art doesn’t have to be limited to posters; it includes installations on roundabouts, awkward sculptures of Allama Iqbal, advertisements for mardana kamzori cures, religious propaganda and poetry and imagery at the back of rikshaws.

These artworks have done more than break the boundary between art and design; they have also challenged the internalised male gaze. According to Laura Mulvey, who coined the phrase male gaze and used it to critique traditional media representations of female characters in cinema, it is the act of depicting the world and the women in it, from a limited, masculine, heterosexual point of view that represents women as sexual objects that exist solely for the pleasure of the male viewer. Think Lollywood posters of busty females sprawled across the façade of Bambino through the 1980s. Think Jamil Naqsh whose long-necked women morphed into pigeons or maybe the other way. Think kajol-lined eyes painted on the back of a truck. Think fair skinned, passive women serving tea to men, plastered on billboards.

There are none of these women in the Aurat March artwork. The women in Aurat March arresting posters aren’t required to be sexy, airbrushed, or embellished by make-up. They are unique, important and complete on their own, as one of the posters says. By challenging the male gaze in their illustrations, the artists have imagined and portrayed a different world - one that aspires to be safer, more inclusive and more equal.

The six Aurat March chapters did not coordinate their artwork. Despite this, there are striking similarities in their style and themes. The first is a spirit of collaboration. Aisha Nazir, who made the poster for Multan, says her creation was a result of extensive collaboration and feedback. Isma Gul Hasan says her imagination of the Baloch women she illustrated didn’t only come from watching videos and observing photographs of the women but also from speaking to Baloch women and activists who have been advocating for Baloch women. “It was a shared idea that I brought to life, it wouldn’t have been possible without everyone’s input,” says Hasan.

In posters across the cities, sharp and dark reds, yellows and purples figure prominently. The arresting colour palette is deliberate; as is the idea that the artworks are powerful in simplicity. Maryam Akram who created animated comics to answer the public’s questions about the March says, “When you are creating art to reach a wide audience, you can’t be subtle; you stick to simplicity.” Tehreem Binte Zafar, a designer who volunteered art for Islamabad, says the idea is to show, not tell: “The posters we’ve made, the placards the marchers will carry, the slogans they will chant: the public doesn’t need to like any of it, they just have to get it.”

Another similarity between posters from different cities is the influences the artistes have cited. Some mentioned Russian Soviet-era posters; others were motivated by Parveen Shakir’s poetry; and many referred to WAF’s iconic protest photographs and Lala Rukh’s posters from the 1980s and early 1990s.

Lala Rukh’s posters stand as mirrors to the ones we are surrounded by today. Yet another parallel lies in the behenchara that she practiced then. Her posters were laboriously screen-printed, a process that, although complicated, can be carried out at home. Bearing this in mind, she developed a screen-printing manual, titled In Our Own Backyard and travelled across the region disseminating the knowledge among activist organisations and grassroots communities for women’s empowerment.

Decades later, in the same spirit, volunteers and organisers for the March are teaching one another how they can subvert the male gaze, imagine feminist public art, paint murals, pick walls for graffiti, plaster posters in public spaces and most importantly, persevere when the artwork is trolled, torn down or painted over.

“I have learned to manage my expectations,” says Shehzil Malik when asked if she expects the murals, the posters and the graffiti to last. “Cities across the world take pride in public art. Many host tours to show people the expressions and feelings of those that reside in the city, but that’s not the case here,” she says. Here, Aurat March artwork is torn down or vandalised within days, in some cases hours. Last year, she had told Vice News: “I see it as a sign that men are very uncomfortable with women, both as human beings and as subject of art.” Of course, aesthetically pleasing, agreeable women selling fairness creams and cooking oil do manage to sustainably tower over our cities. Perhaps it’s the feminist part of feminist public art that irks some people.

The writer is a freelance journalist and a former staff member.  

Aurat March posters: Feminist public art