Tough Love (2019)
Tough Love (2019)

How does an inconspicuous thing such as the way we sit become gendered with rules on how women, in particular, should perform it? More so, women straying from these supposedly agreed upon conditions are then labelled ‘licentious’ or ‘un-ladylike’. Pakistani-American artist Qinza Najm tactfully dissects these social constructs in her most recent display at Chawkandi Art Gallery. Najm has long relayed her thoughts using the feminine form as both subject and medium.

Aptly titled Becoming A Woman, the exhibition captivates the viewer with an array of vibrant hues and paintings referencing the visual silhouette of a woman with legs spread apart; a stance, when taken by men would not even warrant a second glance. The posture is strong, provocative and not easily digestible, making the work all the more touching. If you are a woman, you understand how everything about your life is dictated, right down to the way you should sit. You are made to shrink emotionally, mentally and physically to make room for everyone else around you. Najm gives that power back to the female. The pose becomes a symbol of pride and the belief that, as a woman, you are allowed to take up that space and be who you wish.

No matter the level of abstraction or minimalism the artist uses to paint the female’s pose, it stands out because its connection to negativity and provocation is so etched in our minds that it can be recognised in any form, which the artist then uses to her advantage.

An artist tactfully yet boldly questions social constructs around the female form

‘Claiming Space’ is an installation piece that is made of several of these figures painted on mylar sheet. It takes up at least a quarter of the gallery, making its title quite fitting. The work cleverly highlights how these dilemmas of space are intersectional and, therefore, happen to every woman, though wavering in degree. Each figure is painted on backgrounds of varying skin tones, with the centre of the installation focusing on lighter skin and fading outward to other skin types.

The addition of zippers in the painting titled ‘Internal Surveyors’ become symbols of consent and the power a woman has on her own body. Accompanying them are also abrupt gashes on the canvas, which highlight the violence women suffer on different levels, be it physical or mental. Through the cuts in the canvas, another layer of paintings peeps through. Again, the artist puts the power back in the woman’s hand. By staring back, the woman is aware that she is being gawked at and she will no longer accept it with eyes averted. So, as the painted woman stares back at the viewer from the slashed canvas, she retakes control of the sexualised gawking and instead reverses it.

Though deceptively direct in its connotations, Najm’s work is laden with deep-seated dilemmas that reveal themselves upon closer exploration of the displayed works. It leaves room for interpretation, while making the audience realise the feministic core in which the art is rooted.

‘Becoming A Woman’ was displayed at Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi from October 24 to November 12, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 17th, 2019