I came across Mona Hatoum’s hair drawings at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Human hair is an unusual choice of medium to create art but, in 2003, Lebanon-born British artist Hatoum created minimalistic drawings with hair as an inquiry of the female body through the eyes of a female artist. Employing an intimate physical artefact that is cast from the body as waste, the artist focuses on the taboos around the female body. For the viewers, there are multiple interpretations: the drawings may represent non-consensual interactions that the female body is subjected to, from overbearing glances to sexual assault. Many of Hatoum’s powerful works revolve around body politics, by using the human body as medium. The artist’s forced separation from her parents during the Lebanese civil war of 1975 has also fueled much of her creativity. In the video Measures of Distance (1988), the artist uses actual footage of her mother taking a shower, her body retaining partial privacy because of the steam-frosted shower glass. The video’s voice-over is by Hatoum who narrates her mother’s letters to her. These letters speak of displacement and the difficulty of corresponding in politically harsh times.
The idea behind the ‘body’ as a vehicle to discuss social, legal and political equality has been actively demonstrated in art since the 1960s, when the US and Europe were experiencing social upheavals concerning equality for women. ‘Feminist Art’ emerged as a result; it observed the use of more unconventional media as opposed to mainstream methods of painting and sculpture. Performance art, conceptual sculpture, body art, and posters aimed to change the way bodies of women had been portrayed in art.
For instance, in 1985, seven anonymous women in the US formed the feminist-activist group called Guerilla Girls. The group created engaging art and digital posters that highlighted inequality among men and women in the art sphere. One of the group’s most famous posters of 1989 recreates the bare-backed female figure from the painting ‘La Grande Odalisque’ (1814) by renowned French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). In the Guerilla Girls’ modification, however, the woman’s face is covered with a mask. This mirrors the anonymity of the Guerilla Girls members while raising concerns about women being painted as sexual subjects by male artists in art history. The poster also raises alarm over the percentages of male and female artists represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern art section at the time (95 percent male and five percent female)!
The works of many contemporary women artists focus on the female body to raise awareness about patriarchy
In Pakistan, the role of women in society has been questioned by many important female artists. Naiza Khan has created many sculptures, paintings and drawings that allegorically argue the visibility of women’s bodies and the supervising of their bodies. ‘Belts from Another Age (Khamosh)’ (2006) is one such screen print. The word Khamosh (Urdu for ‘silent’) is spelled in red across a female pelvic area and the genitals are covered with an ornate metallic chastity belt. Similarly, Mariam Agha’s bold tapestries and astonishing thread works that stylise the female genitalia speak of religious taboos. Both Agha and Khan contextually emphasise women’s representation, civil liberties and state-sanctioned rights that many Pakistani women continue to fight for.
Performative works by many renowned Pakistani artists, including Roohi Ahmed, Sheema Kermani and Sara Pagganwala, where the body of the artist is in greater focus, have also widened the conversation on challenging subjects such as death, distance and gender roles. For instance, viewers were spellbound with Ahmed’s performances ‘Sew And Sow’ (2012) and ‘Out Of Bounds’ (2018) where she painstakingly (and bloodlessly) sewed her hands with a red thread. The performances intended to highlight gender associations and womanhood.
The conversation around women rights and issues has a long way to go as art by female artists continues to enthrall, inspire and motivate many. Since the past two years, we have been looking at Pakistani illustrator Shehzil Malik’s bright digital posters for Aurat March. With the face, hands and the body as core parts of the illustrations, Malik’s works capture the spirit of a growing movement that has gained national momentum by calling an end to patriarchal, social, legal and economic systems and institutions.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 3rd, 2020