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Tabdeeli, a performance piece
Tabdeeli, a performance piece

The Chawkandi Art Gallery’s most recent exhibition introduced art lovers to a diverse oeuvre by the internationally-acclaimed artist Qinza Najm. Originally from Pakistan, the artist resides and works in New York. Delving into the political depths of feminine subjectivity and gendered violence, Najm presented an array of mixed-media pieces that enveloped the gallery space. 

The show’s title All Around Her Was A Frightening Silence was inspired by Saadat Hasan Manto’s tale Hatak. Much like the stance Manto’s protagonist takes to empower herself and end her exploitation, the women in Najm’s artworks also take a stand against the cyclical oppression by dominant males.

Moving from Pakistan to America, the artist witnessed a similar level of ferocity against women in both her old and new homeland. This was reflected in her series of works, ‘Stretch(ed)’ where iconic female figures, taken from famous Western paintings, are juxtaposed with common rug patterns. In each painting, the figure is stretched and enveloped with the oriental design, illustrating how a woman is spread thin in order to adhere to the roles society expects from her, while also having to face constant male viciousness. Not only does the presence of collaged Western and Eastern motifs in a painting represent the universality of the violence, it also reminds the viewer that this is not a recent phenomenon but, rather, a malicious plague that has been silently endured for centuries. Interestingly, each painting still manages to retain an overall silhouette of a veiled figure which, along with the rug, is a recurring symbol in Najm’s oeuvre.

Qinza Najm depicts the oppression suffered by women and minorities in her debut exhibition in Karachi

The carpet, a common object in any household, becomes a symbol of domesticity in her work and, therefore, again reflects a woman’s expected role, while also bringing to mind that the solution to curb violence against women has been ‘swept under the rug’.

In the print ‘Veil of Bullets’ a meek woman, clad in a fishnet strung with bullet-casings, sits before a delicately designed rug. With her gaze lowered, the woman appears like a defenceless fish trapped in mesh and ‘literally riddled with bullets for a sin which was not her own.’ This work evolved from a previous performance where the artist draped herself in similar mesh with each casing representing the senseless loss of women and minorities worldwide.

Swept Venus
Swept Venus

Taking advantage of her background as a psychologist, Najm created an in-depth video installation of women from her personal circle, posing questions to them about gendered violence within their own lives. Each woman was asked to present two objects, one associated with violence and the other with retribution, as can be seen from the tasbeeh (rosary), which provided a woman with internal strength in the video titled ‘Story of the Mother’. Each personal tale was a story of persistence and hope and the installation allowed this form of empowerment to reach others on a public scale.

Najm also presented a performance piece in the gallery with the help of local students. Initially enacted at the Queens Museum in NYC, it was set to be a piece of resistance and empowerment against habitual victimisation — a journey that is not easy, but one that must be taken.

This is the first time Najm has presented her works in Pakistan. They are visualised by the artist as a means of moderating empathy between the East and the West in order to unearth social ordeals that are experienced universally while also, perhaps, lending a form of support and hope through each artwork.

“All Around Her Was A Frightening Silence” was exhibited at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi from November 16 to November 24, 2018

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 9th, 2018