January issue 2009
Portrait of a Woman
At an exhibition held in October at Bradford University’s Gallery 11, the young art students in attendance were very keen to learn about the life and work of the Pakistani artist whose work was on display. So Nahid Raza went on to give them a totally new perspective on gender-related issues and how they impacted on a woman artist in her country.
Raza spoke from a vantage point. Her paintings have transformed the women of her era into role models for future generations. Always spontaneous and extremely emotional, she has lived life by her own rules and painted according to her circumstances.
Confined to small spaces earlier, Raza painted on wood and paper surfaces held on her lap, while seated on the floor. But now, with access to large studios, such as the recently re-opened Studio Art, her art school, she enjoys the experience of using textures to freely build up on large canvases.
One of the few women artists in Pakistan to have been awarded the coveted President’s Pride of Performance, Nahid Raza looks back on the almost four decades of her career with nostalgia. When asked to recap the details of the influences on her work, she says her own life has been her biggest inspiration. Like many struggling young artists, Raza searched for subjects and expressions as she experimented with different media. But her work generally evoked optimism — they were like rainbows in abstract and expressionistic settings.
A deepening interest in earth colours and art history led to her first important exhibition, the Chawkandi series, which was the outcome of her detailed study of the Chawkandi tombs in the ’80s. She spent days wandering among the relics, admiring and gently tracing with her fingers the designs carved on stone immortalising the noble men and women at rest beneath them. Later, transferring the sketches onto painted surfaces, she wove patterns of jewellery, mounted horsemen, weaponry and the flower motif which appears on many of the tombs. This motif appeared to be from an earlier age: in ancient Greek art, a similar motif of a round form with petals symbolised the Alpha and Omega — the beginning and the end.
After a stint of printmaking in the US where she exhibited her work and lectured university students on Pakistani art and artists, Raza spent several months in Germany and her work was displayed in several towns. Upon her return to Pakistan, it appeared as if her experiences overseas had sharpened her understanding of her surroundings and her identity in that context. She had finally found her own voice in a subject that would become a magnificant obsession with her and lead to a series simply titled ‘Woman.’
Though she painted with a keen sense of observation, there were to be many diversions and deviations in the ‘Woman’ series. Raza maintains that the subject of an artist’s work is the point of departure in the creation of a painting. But an artist may continue to explore the same subject endlessly by inducing different moods with varied coloration, or by introducing fragmented backgrounds and textures that border on the expressive or the abstract. Her imagery has included symbols of freedom (birds), love (flowers), enlightenment (the moon) and fecundity as illustrated by the fish that fill the seas with life.
Deviating from her signature work, a typical example of the artist’s innate love of life and celebration was expressed in the midst of preparations for her son’s wedding. In a one-time sequence of paintings, she used elements of the popular truck art: exotic birds, large flowers and ribbons, interwoven with the colours of happiness — yellow, red and green.
Studying her work through the decades, one discovers in it a documentation of the artist’s life. The mother and child element entered her work when her grandson was born; the painful vulnerability of ageing parents and the burden of responsibility on the daughter all find a reflection in her work through sombre, dark colours. However, on occasions, in many compositions one senses the fearlessness of the artist, in the face of personal adversity — the canvas is bathed in the strong forceful colours of determination. Painting only deeply-felt convictions, Raza captures their essence on the stark surfaces, renewing the sense of the subject constantly.
In her most recent exhibition in December 2008 at Karachi’s Canvas Gallery, the male form, with its well-emphasised muscles, entered Raza’s canvas for the first time. It is a man’s physical prowess that allows for gender domination, the artist appears to declare, not the intellect which is the strength of a woman.
Articulating her views through her canvas is, for Nahid Raza, an unending source of joy. She revels in it. Time and time again, she re-invents and revitalises her subject, looking life squarely in the eyes.