Arresting artwork

Under threat of persecution, artists in Pakistan are using their work to sow the seeds of change.

Painting of a girl in Pakistan
Zahid Mayo’s portrait of a young girl holding a sheet over her naked body (Courtesey of ArtSoch)

On a late June evening in Lahore, critics, creatives and prospective art buyers rushed to attend the launch of Pakistan’s newest contemporary gallery. ArtSoch, in the heart of Gulberg, one of the city’s busiest commercial areas, promises to support emerging artists and breathe new life into the country’s art scene. It was packed with visitors and a steady stream of reporters. They weren’t disappointed. While most of the walls were hung with more traditional work referencing local architecture and beautiful landscapes, one piece stood out, in large part because, for the first half of the launch, it was flipped over, facing the wall.

Pakistani audiences tend to shy away from controversial topics, and the gallery owners must have been unsure what the public reaction would be. Halfway through the launch, however, the painting was finally revealed. It caused a stir. Zahid Mayo’s oil portrait on canvas of a young girl holding a sheet over her naked body would have raised a lot of questions on its own. But the accompanying text in Urdu calligraphy made it the talking point of the launch. It asked: “Meray Nange Jism Se Tumhe Kya Masla?” (“Why do you have a problem with my naked body?”).

Pakistan’s conservative and patriarchal norms have long dictated acceptable topics. But the country has also been grappling with a rising feminist movement over the last decade – one that has, since 2017, been fed by the global #MeToo movement. Women’s access to public spaces is still restricted: a recent study found that 70 per cent of males would discourage their female family members from taking public transport, while riding a bike is still taboo. But society’s policing of women’s bodies is increasingly being questioned. Every year since 2018, the countrywide Aurat (Women’s) March has been held, despite critics within both the media and government accusing marchers of going against Pakistani “culture” and spreading vulgarity. This intensified after a poster with the slogan “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” (“My Body My Choice”) went viral in 2015, sparking death threats against the organisers and efforts to ban the march.

In this context, placing a semi-nude figure in public is a statement in itself. But as a painting in a gallery, it also drew attention to the pressure placed on women to preserve their bodies away from the eyes of predatory men, rather than the onus being on the men themselves.

Art for social change

For too long, Pakistan’s art scene has lacked both public interest and state support, as well as financial stability. A few established names continue to dominate. Avoiding politics, they stick to aesthetics. Houses are adorned with beautiful paintings with common traditional themes: horses, buildings, landscapes and calligraphy. Co-founder and curator of ArtSoch, Mariam Hanif Khan hopes that the new spaces opening up in Pakistan can draw new and passionate voices to the scene. “Our gallery is about mobilising young people because nowadays the younger generation rarely pursue visual arts,” she says. “We want to promote an idea that art is not just visually appealing but has a much deeper meaning.”

This is likely to be a gradual process, building on work already being done. Karachi’s Canvas gallery has been exhibiting thought-provoking contemporary work since 1999. Its founder, Sameera Raja, was an architect before moving into the art world in the hopes of changing what it was that Pakistani society considered to be art. “The work we do primarily focuses on building an awareness around art and for that we have to build bridges,” she said. “What good art should do in my opinion is that it should plant a seed in your mind, and that seed doesn’t have to flower immediately, because maybe you’re ready for it 10 years later.”

This process requires creating spaces that are both safe and engaging. Artists, curators and gallery owners find themselves treading a fine line between creating meaningful, urgent work and being too literal. Finding this balance can lead them to explore social change in unexpected ways. Raja points to Canvas gallery’s recent exhibition of Saba Khan’s “Water Explorer”, which showed in August and September. Saba’s work centred on the Indus river and the way its water is used. “In a way it was pushing boundaries of the conversations we have around water,” Raja said, “and how the end user is a woman, because it is women who collect water in rural areas and yet they have no say in the larger scheme, in regulatory bodies and committees in Pakistan.”

Freedom of speech under threat

Some conversations are easier than others. Noormah Jamal is a Pashtun artist, part of a marginalised ethnic group from the north of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Having grown up in the majority-Pashtun city of Peshawar, Jamal later moved to Lahore to study at the National College of Arts, and was shocked to find how many of her peers were sheltered from knowledge of the ethnic divides that dominate Pakistani society. While Pashtun and other minority activists have been working hard to raise awareness around their mistreatment, the forced disappearance of activists and silencing of their voices by the state, she discovered that their fight is rarely discussed outside their own regions. Jamal decided to do her thesis on gender, race and personal bias, and to confront these issues in her art, which explores identity and emotion through portraiture and sculpture.

Jamal’s latest major work is a sculpture series of women in burqas. “I’ve always seen burqas be portrayed as a form of oppression,” she says. “Where I grew up in Peshawar, chadars and, later, colourful burqas were a big part of our culture.” Many women wore these burqas after the influx of Afghan refugees in the 90s who had fled the first Taliban regime. Her series explores her own childlike fascination with the colourful garments and aims to put out a counter-narrative to that which emphasises the black, Saudi-inspired abaya as an oppressive tool for Muslim women.

Jamal, too, is treading a fine line. She points to the controversy around Adeela Suleman’s “The Killing Fields of Karachi”. The installation of tombstone-like sculptures, highlighted by red flowers placed upon the “graves”, called attention to extra-judicial killings in Karachi at the hands of the police, who the artist believed were also unfairly targeting Pashtuns. It was shown at the 2019 Karachi Biennale for less than half an hour before police removed it. But those 30 minutes made a difference, says Jamal. “I feel that even in ransacking [removing the art] it got justice as after that so many people who previously had paid no attention to work like mine, which focused on minorities, were now suddenly asking me about it.”

While change will not be immediate, the creation of engaging artwork can help facilitate a dialogue that has long been suppressed. Privately owned galleries give artists a certain freedom away from the hand of the state, yet the growing number of public galleries in Pakistan allow for a different kind of conversation, and for different kinds of art that are not simply made to be sold on the market.

Crucially, this comes at a time when freedom of speech is under real threat. In September, thousands of journalists protested a bill that, if passed, could shut down media organisations and penalise journalists for “defaming” military generals, judges and government leaders. Pakistan already ranks near the bottom of global freedom indexes. While artists are censored by the state, and use symbolism to protect themselves, the growth of a larger art world in Pakistan can help push back against this trend.

Despite courting controversy with his portrait of an empowered naked woman, Zahid Mayo’s work continues to be exhibited across Pakistan. A definitive change is sweeping through the art world, in the face of dangers and limitations. As Mayo said in a recent interview for the Express Tribune: “I think many times the process of art creation in public spaces, and how it has the power to involve people, is much more important than the art itself.”

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2021 edition. Subscribe today.

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