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Sisters in Art

Author: Dr. Akbar Naqvi      Publications: The Herald - Annual (p.286)      Dated: Jan 1994

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Nahid Razas Karachi exhibition, held in late November, is a good point of reference to reflect on the place of women painters in Pakistans array of contemporary artists, and the end of the year offers a vantage point to do this. While the 50s and 60s were dominated by male artists, the 70s saw women breaking the gender barrier. But in the 90s they finally seem to have come into their own. For once, the gender divide is working in favour of Pakistani women artists, not by ` default but on the basis of merit. In 1993, far more women than men exhibited their work, which augurs well for the future.

Shakir Ali, Sadequain and Ahmed Pervaiz were the first and foremost innovators in Pakistani art. Gulgee, who was included in their ranks, soon made his art into a family marketing enterprise. Zahoorul Akhlaque, Pakistans eminent contemporary modernist seems to have hit a creative impasse. Jamil Naqsh disappeared from the art scene years ago, creating for himself a lucrative niche in the commercial art market. Bashir Mirza, meanwhile, always in high spirits, surfaces now and then to assure himself and his admirers that he can paint. But it was Zubeda Agha and not Shakir Ali who introduced modern painting to Pakistan. ln 1948, Agha exhibited her works in Karachi and raised a hurricane of protest. But she never claimed her rights as the pioneer, and no one did this on her behalf. She was not a Kishwar Naheed nor a Sylvia Plath, both feminist poets who repudiated Bernard Shaws claim that “womens greatest art is to lie low, and let the imagination of the male endow her with depths.” Our women painters may find their poetry useful for their own purposes too.

I will discuss only those women artists whose work, in my opinion, made a difference. It was Lubna Agha who raised her own painting to the level of discourse. using the idiom of abstraction to express her own awareness of a womans station in life. She designed white paintings through which ran thermal trickles of blood. ln her art, the female body was broken and quartered. She also used shells, eggs and other images of life and fertility, all extremely suggestively. With these and parts of the female anatomy she made gestalts of shock, the more shocking because they were examples of aesthetic edification. Her first exhibition at the Indus Gallery in the 70s was a sensation.

After Lubna Agha, the Indus Gallery also put up a group show of three young women painters from the NCA. Of these, two disappeared into wedlock and the third, Mansoora Hasan, still makes art and exhibits it on her yearly visits to Pakistan. While Lubnas wrath had become the delectation of the female flesh in the abstract and was worked into the texture, tone and feel of her painted surfaces, Mansuras subsequent development was reassuring. But the latters dependence on Zahoor ul Akhlaques style of cultural comparisons between East and West has left her very little room for initiative, innovation or freedom.

Amongst artists today, Mehr Afroze, Qudsia Nisar and Nahid Raza have justified their earlier promise and established themselves as mature artists. Mehr Afrozes reputation was built on her strength as a printmaker, and her coloured prints are the finest to be seen in the country. At its best, her work could be compared to the Bangladeshi artist Kibrias sensitive coloured prints. Like him, she also pushes the medium to its limit, allowing it to transcend its own limitations. Unfortunately, she has not shown the kind of serious thoughtfulness which is in evidence in the work of Zarina Hashmi – a thoughtfulness which gives Hashmis prints their existential resonance. Mehrs reticence is by no means for want of skill; rather, it appears to be a matter of choice which reduces her work to a fetching silence.

It could be said that Qudsia, Mehr Afroze and most of their contemporaries, both male and female, do not believe in disturbing the silence of complicity so cherished in our society, not for want of words and noise, but for fear of compromising what is called practical wisdom. Several martial laws forced our people of mind and conscience into becoming intellectual eunuchs. Lubna was angry, but her boldness was a flash in the pan. She, too, eventually surrendered to domesticity and silence. Feminism in art has had little chance here, even though subjects suggestive of feminist awareness may have been alluded to now and then, often merely as a politically correct gesture.

Qudsia, for her part, observes silence on issues of both life and art. She paints delightful landscapes and cityscapes, and is the best water colourist of Pakistan today, at least until Mehr Afroze exhibits her own secreted water colours and challenges her. Like the American water colourist John Marin, Qudsia has evolved her own shorthand to create urban and natural spaces. But she has yet to capture the ineffable poetry of her subjects and the magic of her medium as did Marin.

Nahid, meanwhile, who held a major exhibition this year, seems finally to have found her voice. She believes art should arise from the human condition and in turn make sense of it. Her early works were testaments to the struggle for dissection of this nature, Madonnas body had to be a cadaver first. Obviously, Madonna was engaged in a buzkashi over the female body, her message being that she could do a better job of selling her own body than any man. ln a different way, both Youngblood and Smith suggest that they are aware of the hollowness of the female body, which in death has acquired a new life. We cannot discuss the full implication and meaning of the hollow body here for want of space, but one thing is clear: women artists have been treating their subjects with great freedom in matters of form, medium and material. For them, there are no barriers between form and material, and what the subject wants for power, it gets. Women artists in Pakistan are limited to painting, print making and collage. Durre Sameen Ahmed must be considered an exception, for she may well have opened up a new possibility.

Today, women artists want to reclaim their body from male possession and recast art history as a feminine perspective on “time past and future.” Woman has been variously seen by man as a fertility goddess, whore (the Greeks could never make up their minds if Helen was one or the other), betrayer, or the image and object of chivalry. Traditionally, her body has been her greatest asset as well as weakness. Today, women artists want to reshape the female body in terms of their own aspirations. This body- snatching is set to continue for some time to come.

ln Nahid, the nude suggests the sensuous opulence of the female body, without irony, and without the brazenness of Madonna. But the nude functions as a victim in Nahids paintings. The recognition of what has been “immemorially known,” in Jungs words, has given woman the status of “victimhood”, at par with sainthood. The nude then becomes a sacred icon of reverence. With it as a symbol, Nahid plays out the end and the beginning of themes and styles. In one set of paintings, planes are boxed, and images of women force-fitted in a new kind of Cubist agony.

Nahid applies acrylic with flow and fervour, using its full body and sensual expressiveness. Half moons, trees, buildings, rainbows, and patches of the sky also appear in her work, rendered cryptically to suggest that between dreaming and imprisonment there is only the wall. Faiz, too, dreamed in his cell and climbed to the stars on the Jacobs ladder of his poetry. But his dream had the quality of mans defiance against mans tyranny. Women played hardly any part in his poetic world, except in the conventional manner of poetry.

ln the other set of paintings, Nahid brings the wall down and lets heaven invade the space of her paper. Here, a marked change of style can be seen as well. The nude is present, laid out like a corpse, and also afloat in the air, reminiscent of Chagall and his floating violin player. But his zany fantasy is not Nahids, nor is his colourfulness. She gives her women the right to dream, but not to protest and defy as tormented creatures should. Their body language is of surrender, their posture supine.

In the very merit of Nahids style lies a problem. There is so much pleasure that one forgets the pain. This is the eternal problem of art. When Aristotle confronted Greek tragedy, he came to the conclusion that pain had to be carried in partnership with pleasure, otherwise truth would suffer. But Nahid does not see the lot of women as tragic. Her forte is sentiment and her art is a gentle, well-meant reproof. lf this were not so, her paint would flow like molten lava and would not rock us caressingly on its currents and cross currents without in any way threatening our safety. Pleasing sadness is the viewers moral reward. But this is better than the aesthetic nirvana of Zahoorul Akhlaque.

Women artists today have an edge over their male contemporaries because they have the subject and the perspective which can make art live again. Shakir Alis advice to concentrate on pure form was necessary for its time, but this was pushed to extremes. In any case, many failed to realise that some of his own paintings were profound studies of space which would strike Pascal with terror. The two most subjective of our painters, Sadequain and Ahmad Pervaiz reflected on their inner life as the replica of the outer. Now it is up to Pakistans women artists to extend the frontiers of formalism where it interacts with life, and to end the conspiracy of silence in art.

Feminism in art, as in other fields of life and knowledge, has its responsibility clearly spelled out. This art has to be critical and honest, mediating between the subjectivity of the artist and the world of her own prosecuted, abused kind, delicately balanced between aesthetics and conscience.