Back To The Zenana


An exhibition of fifty paintings and two pieces of sculpture by women artists from Pakistan will visit Bradford and be shown at the citys Arts Museum on October 7. Fifteen of the artists represented live in Pakistan, while the others are residents of Canada, the USA, Dubai and Britain. The expatriates seek to represent Pakistan as original Pakistanis and inhabitants of various parts of the world, hopefully reflecting this hiatus effectively in their work. We will not know because only Bradford will see their art of divided allegiance.

The exhibition, which will be inaugurated by the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK, will also visit other obscure galleries in England. Benazir Bhutto is expected to catch it while she is in Britain in November. These are the bare bones revealed in the press release dictated by Salima Hashmi and released by Chawkandi Art. Ms. Hashmi was, however, unavailable in Karachi on August 1 when some of the works, in transit, were shown at the Chawkandi. Since she is the principal organiser of the exhibition, she was sorely missed as she would be able to answer certain questions raised by the selection. We understand that some learned papers will also be read in Bradford. Who will read them was not mentioned in the press release or through any other source. Above all, we were not informed who would be funding the exhibition.

On the evidence of the exhibition, the selection criteria appeared confused. Several Karachi painters of note and one distinguished sculptor did not make the ostensibly representative national exhibition. To name only two, Riffat Alvi and Rabia Zuberi were not included. The press release said that one Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith had come to Pakistan 18 months ago and selected the work of 25 short-listed artists from Pakistan. Obviously, hers was a conducted tour confined to Lahore and Karachi. That good women painters flourish in cities such as Peshawar was not in her knowledge. She could not have seen all the works included in the exhibition, so somebody deputised for her. Obviously, Salima Hashmi should answer why she rejected the two artists named above as well as others.

The exhibition also suffers from other problems, For example, it did not suggest that our women artists are doing anything significant except painting and sculpting. Any pulsating idea or two? Forget it. Exciting issues? None to speak of Thrilling experiments? Not in evidence. Anguished concern for the women of their country? One had to look hard to be disappointed. The hastily hung exhibition, in fact, seemed a ploy to pre-empt the charge that it was not shown first in the country of its origin.

What was obvious that the exhibition should not have been sent out without drastic culling and revision? Durriya Kazis sculptures will not cause any stir even in Bradford. They should not have come out of her studio, had she been critically alive to their poor quality. One must ask in what way she will enhance the image of this art form better than Zuberi? l do not hold any brief for Zuberi, but for the information of Dr Nima Poovaya- Smith she is the foremost woman sculptor of Pakistan.

Salima Hashmis works were pretty but it was difficult to connect them with the plight of the victim of domestic violence, Zainab, which l was told was what they were about. Mehar Afrozes paintings were not at their best. Nahid Raza was seen trying impatiently to abandon herself to heavily texturised surfaces in white and black. Qudsia Nisar was shockingly garish. Only Samina Mansuri had a canvas of resonance, and one wished it was not going out of the country yet. There were some paintings which looked like doubtful miniatures which made Hajra Rahis claim to inclusion stronger. Mansura Hassan, who has emerged as an interpreter of Kishwar Naheeds poetry with the poets help, showed a remarkable disposition to say nothing. There were paintings which could not have made it to any exhibition but for the gender bias. So much for Dr Nima Poovaya-Smiths judgement, unless she believes that she is doing the kind thing to encourage our artists – or she feels that Bradford and Pakistan do not deserve anything better.

The major names in the exhibition do not need the protection of their gender they have made it on their own. Mehar Afroze, Nahid Raza, Salima Hashmi, Mansura Hasan, Samina Mansuri, Sumayya Durrani, Qudsia Nisar receive as much attention as men, if not more. What are they going to gain by lending their name to support the feminist politics of art in England? Having made their name with men in Pakistan on merit, what need is there for these artists to erect a “chardiwari” round themselves in England? Whose agenda is it to put up a “zenana” exhibition in Bradford?

Salima Hashmi is reported to have said in a TV programme that men had no right to speak on women artists. Only those who see themselves as a gender zealot will preach this view. They carry a particular feminist virus of European and US extraction. Certain feminist extremists would also taboo men and woman from touching one another. Therefore, Martina Navratilova decides to have her baby through artificial insemination. There is the possibility of a new race of fatherless babies inhabiting the world. While the media excoriate Muslim fundamentalists of keeping women in “purdah”, fashionable feminist in Pakistan would segregate genders in “mardana” and “zenana”. This will create a new version of a nunnery with its own vows of chastity.

There is, incidentally, going to be a Museum for Womens Art in London Kate Saunders of the Sunday Times says that it will “bring to public view the work of the women artists of the past which has been neglected”. She, a “rabid feminist”, is against the idea of this museum. She admits that it will do good to bring to proper notice works of artists such as Marla Robusti, the daughter of Tinterroto who is believed to have painted one of his masterpieces. “But if women artists deserve space in the big galleries”, she says, “that is where l want to see them”. She advises feminists to pressurise big galleries to remove their barriers of discrimination. She is right because it is defeatism to resort to the protective advantages of gender segregation. In Pakistan, this is not allowed. Today, some of the best painters here are women, and they are recognised without any problem. Europes problem need not be our solution.