This article cannot start without mentioning the first female artist that Pakistan ever had. She, in turn, paved the way for others to pursue art. Zubeida Agha’s solo exhibition of ultra-modern paintings in 1949 fired the first shot in the emergence of modernism in the country. She was the first properly modernist painter of the newly independent state. It is significant that she was unwilling to describe herself as a ‘woman painter’, insisting that she had won the distinction of being ‘a painter’ in a world where professional artists were male and ‘teachers’ of art were female. Her engagement with modernism was a focused, lifelong endeavour, powered through her study of philosophy, poetry and mysticism as well as her fascination with the urban. Her later paintings move between realism and abstraction and are characterised by prominent decorative motifs in vibrant colours, and the very lush presence of these motifs created a modernist effect.
She was a regular studio painter in a rare-field environment that set her apart from the streams and issue-specific areas in Pakistani painting. Her work seems at once fresh and child-like, poised in naivete; endearing, yet isolated from the concerns of the Pakistani woman painter. But Agha wondered if her being a woman was relevant to the viewing of her work. She conceded in an interview that there was a kind of sensitive delicacy in her colour, which may owe something to her gender. She added that political opportunism had been apparent in the work of male painters, but not in women’s art, and summed it up: “Women seem to be more pliable, but they are actually less willing to compromise.”
Unlike artists who are geared to market demands and heavily indebted to promotion and publicity, Agha remained free from external pressures. Hers was an inner journey – unmarried, she gave her undivided attention to art and left her mark in history as the grande dame of Pakistani art.
However, later on, women weren’t as appreciated in society as Agha was in the 1950s. And so, when General Zia-ul-Haq took over, during the 1980s, feminist artists and poets emerged as the most vocal opponents of the regime’s Islamisation policies. Artists and activists like Salima Hashmi and Lalarukh have played a major role in this opposition. They were breaking through in a male-dominated artscape, vying for shows, experimenting with and modulating traditionally established forms and daring to touch upon taboo subjects such as nudity – all the while paving the way for other women artists.
Since then, many other artists have employed various modes of expression and genres to explore feminist themes and ideas. Comparatively in the West, the female body and its representation by men was challenged by feminists: the female body had a different position in the Pakistani context. It was located at the centre of the Pakistani state’s political agenda, which claimed ownership of female sexuality as well as its appearance. “The chador was a symbol of suffocation and oppression, masquerading as protection,” remarks activist Salima Hashmi. Thus dark humour, mockery and defiance – starkly different in nature – was the spirit which inhabited the art of Pakistani women.
One artist, however, took to her own novel aesthetic and expression. Lalarukh was considered the pioneer of photographic, minimalist tradition/art in the country because of her simple drawings and camerawork. She was among a group of fifteen women who stood up against General Zia’s anti-women laws in the 1980s. It was a time of feminist camaraderie and solidarity, and her contributions lie not only in staging protests, public meetings and workshops but also in defining the women’s movement across Pakistan as shown in the efforts of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) who launched ‘The Women’s Manifesto’ calling for equal rights and opportunities for women. Mrs.
Hashmi recalls, “We assured our comrades that this will not be made public because it would be considered sedition in those days. I have to state that many of the women there would not consider themselves political in any way, nor would they consider their art to be political. But I think the act of signing that document made them terribly aware that they had signed their name to something which was very important, and which clarified perhaps certain thoughts and confusions that were going on in their minds and in their personal lives. So, in a sense, it synthesised what they had been feeling but had not yet articulated.”
In the early poster calling for equal rights titled “Masaawi Haqooq” (1983–84), a veiled woman is portrayed shackled, recalling the anti-women laws and ‘Islamisation’ process instituted during this military regime. A later poster highlighting crimes against women collages newspaper reports to expose the extent of violence witnessed by women across generations and class groups. Lalarukh deploys a photo-collage technique in a brilliantly designed calendar for the year 1985, showing a group of women demonstrators projected onto its grids as if paving a shared path, joined by a silent force that rivets through them all and seems to say, “stronger together.”
However, discussing where her feminist position is reflected in her work, Lalarukh dismisses the notion of having to consciously bring the two together. She rejects the idea of a ‘feminist’ image as being something to do with overt female symbols, or certain colours, or other recognisable elements. She is quite emphatic about why this is so, “Because ultimately, whatever you are comes out in your work.”
Artists who dared challenge norms were put behind bars, courtesy of Zia. Moreover, anyone whose work got a response in the form of a ‘haw haye’ or was perceived as having somehow jeopardised his ‘system,’ was dealt with in a similar manner
On the other hand, Nahid Raza, took to her own perception of womanhood and painted the female body but replaced the male gaze with a woman’s, as she claimed. Through the use of black and white in her series “Portrait of a Woman,” Raza explores longing, love and loneliness. Her figures are women on a black canvas, sitting by themselves in deep thought. “The colour is flowing on her. It’s like the woman is melting. Love melts her – the love of children, of parents and of siblings. That’s what happens to a woman when she loves,” says Raza. “When I first began the Woman Series, I was painting broken, disintegrated women,” she continued. “I soon got tired of feeling sorry for myself and took control of my life.” Reflecting her own emotional state, the women in Nahid’s paintings became bolder and more confident. She painted with a vast number of issues in mind – divorce, prostitution, sale of women, motherhood and the existence of platonic relationships between men and women. Celebrating motherhood, Nahid began painting pregnant nudes, directly linking human limbs and organs to the art of creation. Merging many influences, Nahid depicted maternal love projected in icons of Christianity, Hindu mythology and Mughal miniatures. Nahid’s work also lamented the treatment of female children in Pakistani society, where the birth of a girl is mourned and the birth of a son is celebrated. She embarked upon another series of works which referred to her experience, as well as the socio-political circumstances. Nahid faced the most difficulty in conservative art circles with the said paintings. The titles of the series are indicative of their content: “Biology of a Woman,” “Woman for Sale,” “Code of Silence,” and “Divorce”. In an interview, she spoke about how she has always painted from a woman’s perspective, and to her, nudity has always been about form and colour, and that the debate of right and wrong is in the eye of the beholder. “Here most people look at a woman as an object. I am anti-mullah. They think this is about a woman’s body, but it about an artist’s expression. Here, women think that a woman is only for bed. That’s why these mullahs look at women in the wrong way and believe that she should be covered at all times,” Nahid argues passionately.
We can hypothesise that feminist art in Pakistan was a reaction towards General Zia, as all our research indicates one thing; that it challenged social stigma and threatened those who were militantly conservative.
Artists who dared challenge norms were put behind bars, courtesy of Zia. Moreover, anyone whose work got a response in the form of a ‘haw haye’ or was perceived as having somehow jeopardised his ‘system,’ was dealt with in a similar manner. As history tends to be commonly visualised on a timeline, an outcome of the 1970s and ‘80s feminism would be our contemporary feminism circa 2018 i.e. Ayesha Jatoi and her laundry performance on that military airplane. The masses reacted with the ‘haw haye’ routine but she did not face jail time as no one felt threatened by it as Zia did, and therefore, no action was taken against her. Mrs. Hashmi comments, “I think there’s a great deal of humour in that work apart from the fact that it was critical of the quality of our public monuments, and that they needed to be taken down a notch or two in their pomposity. Let’s face it, a defunct fighter plane is a very useful place to hang clothes, isn’t it?”
Correspondingly, progressing to the 21st century, designer/illustrator Shehzil Malik is a notable figure in the contemporary feminist art epoch. Her wonder works have not been restricted to a canvas or a computer screen but have been prominent in rather public spheres – whether these be in the form of graphic t-shirts or collaborative works around the city. Malik’s practice is story-telling-based, addressing not merely the issues an average woman faces today, but also the issues that seem to be rooted deep in our society – the male gaze, ‘acceptable’ behaviour and clothing, discomfort on the street etc. Malik questions, “Why is every act for a woman – whether it’s what we look like, what we wear, where we go, or what we do – an act of gender politics?”
Malik’s illustrations were introduced to a vast audience during her time as an Art Director at a local brand Uth Oye! Later, her most eminent fashion for a cause collaboration was with a clothing brand called Generation where their clean-cut attire celebrated womanhood through powerful imagery. This was taken a step further by the infamous photoshoot under the Cavalry Bridge, Lahore, which received various sorts of responses. It raised a whole lot of questions (valid, enigmatic or otherwise), which led to publicity. As she mentions, “My hope for this collection is to have a feminist manifesto woven into fabric, to transform a woman into walking artwork that stakes a right to the space she occupies.”
Considering the repercussions of Shehzil Malik’s practice, we believe it is fair to assume that her works have a direct impact on society. This statement of course doesn’t undermine the practices of other mentioned artists, but to expand, Malik’s work has a direct relationship with the audience. This would be the consumer – regardless of gender. The fact that her illustrations are recognised across the region and well embraced, whether they be Uth Oye! collaborations or apparel by Generation, somewhat speaks for the success of the art. Moreover, this way of working brings out the art to the general public in various public spaces. In our opinion, kurtas/t-shirts with prints of her works that address feminism or other issues can be viewed as a subtle, peaceful and perhaps effective way of activism.
Nonetheless, there has been inevitable change that is slowly but surely coming: it can be credited to an expanding circumference of freedom of expression and awareness. In our opinion, we have progressed as a society in the sense that we’ve become more tolerant – if not accepting – of such concepts/activities, but the fact that there will still be ‘haw hayes’ at things that were ‘haw hayed’ at back then is where it’s stagnant.
“That fine serial Churails wouldn’t have passed in any period in Pakistan because of the fact that it challenged basic patriarchal values on which this society is constructed. And you can feel it shuddering when you have a work like that which gives over power to the women: I mean it’s unheard of! This is a country, after all, that assassinated its first woman prime minister and they’re not ashamed,” Salima Hashmi adds.
Nahid Raza couldn’t have said it better (or as poetically): “History continues to repeat itself despite the advances we have made, women continue to be treated as objects. Women artists are not common people. They have a mind within their mind, a heart within their heart, a soul within a soul. We think in a different perspective. We are like the sky and the sea. We inhale everything around us which we then reveal in our paintings.”