July Issue 2013
Through Her Lens
To celebrate nine years of producing jewellery for Pakistani women, Kiran Fine Jewellery could have opted to come out with a limited edition range or held a special exhibition. Instead, they took an unusual route and asked nine women photographers to contribute their works for Kam Sukhan, a coffee-table book on photography. The photographers were asked to present works that comment on the experiences of being a woman and the book covers a range of subjects and styles.
Both Qurat-ul-Ain Khalid and Mahwish Rizwi superimpose images of women over other objects or shroud these figures in cloth. In Rizwi’s work, the rich ochre tones of the backdrop and the white dresses worn by some of the figures evoke paintings by western masters such as Degas. The women’s faces are obscured in every image and a central theme in her work is how people present themselves or hide their real selves in society. Societal expectations and conventions are explored in Khalid’s work as well and she writes in her artist’s statement that her photographs narrate the story of a woman standing up against them. Body parts are isolated in her photographs — outstretched hands are superimposed over a leaf in one image and in another an eye is placed within the frame of a window. Both Khalid and Rizwi’s works are wrought with symbolism, but at the risk of being somewhat over conceptualised. Photographer Adeela Badshah too veils her female subjects faces but there is simplicity in her series, with all the women posing in the same position that counter-intuitively gives more meaning to her work. Each woman poses demurely for the camera and the image is superimposed with another image of her with a dupatta over her head. The viewer can see through the ghoongat and therefore the images are somewhat phantom-like. Her subjects are of different age groups and while Badshah intended to explore women’s inner strength that lies beneath their elegance and poise, the series may also prompt the viewer to think of the unknown faces that lie behind niqabs and burqas.
Another memorable series in the book is by Insiya Syed, who photographs her grandmother in everyday settings. Some of the images, taken through doorways and windows, give the sense of the photographer maintaining her distance from her grandmother, but there is also a sense of intimacy as she observes her Amma Jan reading the paper or sewing clothes. The starkness of her compositions suggests the loneliness of old age. In one particularly striking photograph, the white of the wall in the background and an object in the foreground create a flattened mass, with the grandmother’s semi-obscured face floating in the centre.
Lali Khalid also focuses her series on one figure — her pregnant self. Some of the images are obviously posed. But others in which she sits at a restaurant table, her hands at her temples, or when she stands near a window, smiling at something outside the frame of the photograph, capture fleeting, unguarded moments of everyday life.
Shalalae Jamil’s series include some images that seem to be photographs of old family portraits. “Who took this picture?” “When is it from?” asks Jamil in her introduction and the viewer too asks the same questions. Nostalgia, longing and ambiguity are replete in these images and her series is more of a theoretical examination of women in photography than a show of her technical skills.
For a photography book celebrating women, it is somewhat surprising that two essays contain no images of women. In her artist’s statement, Nazia Akram writes that her series, consisting of landscape and architectural photographs of Europe, explores how women adapt to different environments. Unfortunately, this thesis is not evident in the work and although the images are certainly striking, the aesthetic of high-contrast, sharp images is already quite common.
Farah Mahbub’s series consists of words such as aqeedah (faith) and haya (modesty) projected over hanging fabric. Lights situated behind the fabric emit bright glows, giving the work an eerie, luminous quality. This series is a reflection of Mahbub’s meditations on spirituality and proves that women’s photography is not about images of women, but about how women view the world through their lens.
At the other end of the spectrum, Khaula Jamil’s photographs are of Pakistani women from various professions — waitressing, law, medicine — all beaming at the camera. Although Jamil intends to honour the resilience of these women, the series is somewhat simplistic and provides no examination of what makes these women resilient in the first place. This is not to say her photographs should show women looking serious or distraught — that would be too obvious — but the smiling portraits look as if they could be from a company brochure.
With photography exhibitions taking place less frequently than art shows, and with male photographers being asked to exhibit more than women, it is rare to see such collections of works by women. Kiran Fine Jewellery and Markings Publishing took the right step forward by compiling this book and, hopefully, other designers and brands will follow suit
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.