July Issue 2013
Women and their suffering were key themes at an exhibition at Canvas Gallery in Karachi this June. Karachi-based artist Cyra Ali’s work was featured alongside that of Lahore’s Maria Khan and Saira Khan. There was no unifying title or theme to the show, but the artists drew on similar ideas, exploring issues of repressed femininity.
Upon walking into the gallery, one’s attention is arrested by two huge portraits of monstrous women in lacy negligees. The narrative is a familiar one of thwarted sexuality: the fancy garments lie grotesquely on the women’s obese, aged bodies. The artist, Maria Khan, has a very specific theme in mind: All the paintings feature one or two similar-looking women in the same kind of accoutrement with wrinkled, lonely faces openly displaying dark emotions of abandonment, a loss of beauty and dying hope. This sharing of the tortured inner self is Khan’s intended effect; in her artist’s statement, she proclaims that “we all have stories and secrets that we want to share, and art is my medium to share those stories with the world.”
She uses subdued shades of brown to create her images, while the undulating lines and curved figures create a sensual mood. The proportions of the faces and bodies are distorted, creating a comical impression. This could well be a caricature of pretty young things gone to seed through age and experience, while still desperately holding on to their desires. The same women feature in other paintings, aching after something lost, as can be inferred from their dress and makeup. Garish streaks of fuschia and orange in their graying hair, and flowers surround and climb over them, as in ‘Awaiting a Lover’ and ‘She Seems to be a Sad Lady’. Feelings manifest in the way subjects are positioned. For example, in ‘She No Longer Cares For Me,’ the viewer infers that one of the two women presented feels marginalised in the relationship as she sits behind the other, made smaller, and rendered as an outline rather than coloured in. The titles of the pieces tell the story straight-off, and the technique and symbolism are also fairly obvious. Flowers are a classic symbol of sexuality, and the growth of vines over the bodies signifies passage of time and decay. Flowers also represent showy but transient beauty, such as the women must have experienced and want to reclaim.
Cyra Ali, whose past work has subverted conventional notions of femininity in our society, offers two large, eye-catching pieces on the same theme. There is a pop-art aesthetic in her work, which screams “rebellion!” Using needlepoint and acrylic on canvas, Ali’s work evokes fabric embroidered with a motif, that a woman might buy at an upscale lawn shop and wear to a formal lunch, but the symbols are refreshing. ‘History/Herstory’ is a playful take on politics, both of states and gender. The faces of important figures throughout history are embroidered onto vibrant fish-bodies which swim around against a large net. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Queen Elizabeth, Pamela Anderson, Imran Khan, a Bratz doll and the Pope float side by side in this cultural ocean. Although it is interesting to look at, the painting doesn’t seem to have much to do with the artist’s proclaimed theme of rejecting a “tame” femininity. It does assert that women and men have played an equally important role in history and culture, though.
The unabashedly sexualised ‘Girls Who Don’t Wear Underwear, Never Get Their Panties in a Bunch’ is more tongue-in-cheek, using the same needlepoint motif technique to depict female figures provocatively posing from the waist down and with leering, pouting lips, encased in flowers, where their torsos would be. The imagery seems to call out and ridicule the objectification of women while at the same time celebrating sexual liberation.
The use of needlepoint is clever given the subject matter: embroidery, traditionally a women’s craft, is used to challenge traditional notions of a domesticated femininity. In both the acrylic and needlepoint, Ali works hues together in a subtle way, letting related shades blend together and graduate from aquamarine to teal and orange to red. This subtle play of colour creates an illusion of movement in the paintings.
Sara Khan’s paintings are the most restrained of the lot and she uses intricate, unexpected details to create a surprising effect. Khan aims to visually express complex stories and characters. The artist creates that complexity by using different media in similar tones, to create a sense of depth, shadow and texture in her work. For example, in ‘My Pet’ a boy holds up a dog in a house, his face gleeful but strangely contorted, while an elderly woman looks on from another room. Using paint, pencil and ink to create layers, and partially obstructing the figure of the woman, Khan gives the viewer a feeling of looking in through a doorway, spying on the subjects just as they are spying on each other. The paintings are done mostly in grey and white with occasional splashes of translucent colour. Khan pays attention to body language and facial expressions, through which the mood of the piece is communicated.
The over reaching impression she creates is of suppression and a lack of control for her subjects, who are women or children. One observes strained relationships, and a sense of entrapment. Human figures are pale and fragile, as though they are slaves of their surroundings. ‘Tapestry’ shows the shadows of two children standing behind a yellow fabric, out of which emerge the heads of two elderly women. This suggests an idea of families being caught in the fabric of social norms, with the young becoming mere shadows in the presence of this fabric’s power. The young are situated outside the social fabric while the elderly are depicted as part of it. ‘Route’ re-emphasises this feeling of entrapment by showing a man pointing a gun at two children walking down a street. One of the children sticks his tongue out at the man in defiance, but the blurred outlines of the figures show the hopelessness of the gesture. The deceptive, insidious nature of the trap is suggested through a rather unexpected move: the man’s body is made up of hundreds of rabbits. Animals feature in a number of the paintings in unexpected ways, perhaps symbolising innocence and helplessness. Viewers feel let into private moments of the subjects’ despair, as evident in ‘Trance’ and ‘Tumble,’ which show naked women with distorted faces dancing or falling down, robbed of control of their circumstances. However, the muted colours and ghost-like figures defy a complete sharing of the experience.
The artists do not push the envelope in terms of theme, colour and symbolism. The overall atmosphere of the show is heavily reminiscent of post-war literature and art, reeking of ennui and discontent – especially in the treatment of women. However, the use of mixed media and distorted figures is interesting, and the familiar imagery creates an emotional connection.