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Exhibition: Ways of seeing red

Updated January 08, 2017



The best known indictment of the atrocities of life in Lahore’s Heera Mandi, Iqbal Hussain’s life’s work is a response to the turmoil and uncertainty that plagued much of his younger years. Belonging to a family of courtesans, Hussain grew up in the winding lanes of Lahore’s red light district, and defied odds by studying at the National College of Arts (NCA). Painting portraits and domestic scenes of the women in his community, the artist’s art was often branded degenerate and too contentious for display. Undeterred, he continued painting life as he saw it, and as he felt it. He recently exhibited his work, titled “For the Love of Women”, at the Clifton Art Gallery in Karachi. For Hussain the canvas is not a place of escape, but one of engagement, confronting the stark realities of a world devoid of all humanity.

The women in Hussain’s art — often sprawled and reclining at ease in his studio — are depicted from the intimate perspective of the insider, but voyeurism eludes his work. The obvious lack of objectification that would normally be present in the portrayal of a similar theme creates a very honest dialogue between an artist and a subject, in turn eliminating the usual distance between the viewer and the subject, creating a moment of emphatic understanding. This moment is heightened by Hussain’s painterly brushstrokes and bold use of colour, both of which create a sense of urgency. The moment being shared among the artist, the subject and the viewer is a vulnerable one. These women are displaying themselves in a manner that they are not used to, without their ornaments and pretence. Almost none of them evince a sense of being observed by the public.

The women in relaxed scenes of domestic life and their milieu may seem a far cry from the hallowed, infinite black of the paintings that depict women in burkas abusing the women of Heera Mandi. But both succeed in communicating Hussain’s humanist narrative voice. One painting depicts several courtesans lined up like automatons, surrounded by antagonistic burka-clad women with sticks ready to strike. The mysterious black of the burkas melt into the ominous, infinite black of the background, leaving the courtesans helpless.

The most compelling part of Iqbal Hussain’s work is his depiction of relationships within Heera Mandi

Also striking are two paintings that are similar in form. One depicts Hussain himself surrounded by ominous figures in black, who link their arms together to form a human chain around him. Whether this chain is protective or hostile is up to interpretation. The second painting depicts a young dancer standing between two elderly ladies, both of whom hold on to a piece of rope that binds them to the dancer’s hands. The expression of the dancer conveys grief, but like the burka-clad women around Hussain, it is unclear whether the old ladies are supporting or threatening the dancer. This is the genius of Hussain’s work: successfully mirroring reality by creating a loud, cacophonous, dissonant visual-symphony of protests and acceptance.


Hussain’s work is not simply an indictment of society’s cruelty and lack of humanity. It is a message of remembrance and hope, as well as a continuing protest against the abuse of women. His work has made an indelible impact on the way various factions of society now view the flesh trade. Ever the humanist, Hussain’s work informs and imparts information to the viewer, it does not impose it. His brand of activism is bold and unflinching, intensely personal and wholly inclusive, but resonates strongly within a culture strained by hypocrisy and prejudice.


The exhibition was held at the Clifton Art Gallery, Karachi from December 08 to December 17, 2016.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 8th, 2017

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