Bano’s Companion to Feminist Art: Women, Art and Politics in Pakistan
By Sadia Pasha Kamran
Ruman Art Initiative, Lahore
Sadia Pasha Kamran’s book Bano’s Companion to Feminist Art: Women, Art and Politics in Pakistan is an out-of-the-box narrative on women and art in the country. To explain who ‘Bano’ is, Kamran writes: “Bano represents all the curious young women eager to understand the meaning of life and their existence in this world.”
Kamran’s approach stems from pedagogy as a lecturer on art history, combined with the desire to make the reading of art accessible to both art and non-art audiences — it is no mean task for a scholar to anchor complex histories and convoluted jargon in ways that make sense to the average reader.
The book’s opening essay is a preamble on the nature of feminist art in Pakistan, locating it within the cultural context of Kamran’s times. Hers is a passionate embrace of female artists, whose struggle for women’s rights inspired her and her colleagues and seniors at the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore.
Kamran herself graduated in studio arts from the NCA in the mid-1990s. This was a time after women had come out of the studios and art institutions to protest on the streets. “In the hide of Islam,” she writes, “General Zia enabled a convoluted version of Shariah Laws. The Hudood and the Zina Ordinance (1979) particularly scrutinised the status and role of women within the society, restricting them within the chadar and char dewari — a metaphor for the household away from mainstream life.”
An art historian urges readers to take her out-of-the-box book as a means to rethink what is feminist in the cultural context of Pakistan
Kamran notes that, in 1983, Gen Zia introduced the Shariah law, “according to which a woman’s legal evidence was valued half as compared to the man’s testimony.” The ensuing remonstrations marked “the first time that women artists had overtly identified their work with the political struggle for female emancipation.”
That same year, 15 artists, including many from Karachi, signed a manifesto voicing their outrage in Lahore. Zubaida Javed, Abbasi Abidi, Salima Hashmi, Lala Rukh, Talat Ahmed, Shehrzade Alam, Rabia Zuberi, Jalees Nagi, Birjees Iqbal, Riffat Alvi, Nahid Raza, Meher Afroz, Qudsia Nisar, Mamoona Bashir and Veeda Ahmed all put their signatures on the document drafted, interestingly, by human rights activist I.A. Rehman.
Though the manifesto was not published, it provided the impetus for the artistic form to break away from being a ‘gallery and museum article’. Female artists and educationists, along with lawyers, poets, social workers and activists, empowered art institutions to become places of dissent against oppression and censorship. Many were well connected with those in the corridors of power and thus were in the privileged position of being heard.
Salima Hashmi, an active member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), became the voice for rape victims, her outrage expressed in her shrouded female nude figures, such as in the 1984 work ‘Alive in My Time’ and countless others. She is quoted in the book that “art was challenged in the retrieval of meaning, the construction of alternative imagery, the exploration of medium and scale and in sensitising their audience.”
Naazish Ata-Ullah’s series of prints titled ‘Chader’ (1987) appeared as profoundly significant emblems of protest — feminine and intimate, but highly political. In the imagery of her prints, Ata-Ullah provided the stage for classical dancer Nahid Siddiqui at a time when dance was banned in Pakistan.
One can safely say that many of these histories are unknown to non-art audiences and to a younger generation of art practitioners. Thus, Kamran’s intention to fill this gap is to be applauded.
A glaring omission, however, is Karachi-based artist Lubna Agha’s iconic painting ‘Final Journey (Doli)’, which shows several men carrying the coffin of a bride, wrapped in red cloth, on its last journey. The painting was part of ‘An Intelligent Rebellion: Women Artists of Pakistan’, a significant show co-curated by Hashmi and Indian-British art historian and writer Nima Poovaya-Smith, at the Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, in the United Kingdom in 1994.
One also wishes that Kamran’s circle of connections in her opening chapter had been wider. The influence yielded by women artists was not confined to an insular circle. There is a dearth of literature on the shift in artistic practice by women in the 1990s and the influence it yielded thereafter.
The subject of the female body and its depiction has not been simplistic, or aligned to her counterpart in the West, or a question of the male gaze alone. Cultural specificity is central to Kamran’s reading.
The footage of Lala Rukh’s participation in protest rallies, for instance, became part of Lala Rukh’s art. She was simultaneously able to transcend the turmoil around her, exploring the larger meaning of life, as visible in her minimalist drawings of the ocean and land. Inspired by the rhythms of music and nature, Lala Rukh located her expression in a meditative, abstract space into extraordinary realms. It became a philosophic search, sans body.
The notion of ‘body’ is woven throughout Bano’s Companion to Feminist Art and Kamran’s style is to put it out there for her reader to make her or his conclusions. This is the case, for example, in Ruby Chishti’s performance shot of her 2012 work ‘Sublime Architecture’, where she dons her work as a dress, her physical body completing the contemplative architectural form that she sews by hand from discarded pieces of used clothing.
The non-linearity of Kamran’s narrative comes in the section ‘Her Stories as Told by a Friend’. These are inviting conversations with artists she knows, which she re-narrates by injecting fictional “stories” or situations. In this more poetic and engaging part of the book, each piece of writing gives a reading right into the heart of the artist’s core. It is a sensitively curated space, and Kamran the storyteller opens this space to a world of anecdotes and ideas often overlooked as peripheral in the reading of women’s art.
The section titled ‘Her Letters to Bano’ allows an intimate and uncensored baat cheet [conversation] among women. One gets a sense of their lives and their thoughts, which are narrated without any particular direction, message or purpose.
In this section, Lahore-based artist Risham Syed introduces us to “someone very dear” who was “often found humming a verse or two from Sufi poetry, Bulleh Shah or Khawaja Ghulam Farid.” Printmaker and painter Meher Afroz’s Urdu text is about her naani [maternal grandmother] who would keep herself occupied in sewing “chatapati ghararay, rang barangay laehriya dupattay, got lageey dulaaee…” — all forms of Subcontinental women’s traditional clothing and blankets — and so on.
This is as much Kamran’s story as it is of any Bano — a common nickname given to girls and “the female protagonist of every story” during the 1980s — although the author stresses that the stories and letters are only from people she has known personally.
Bano’s Companion to Feminist Art is a cartography of lives and ideas and provides a delightful orientation around the art. Replete with visual documentation of artworks, it can also serve as an important reference to researchers. But, Kamran writes, the book is “not an attempt to provide a single definition of feminism or feminist art. Nor does it aim to give the reader a history of feminism.”
Rather, she urges readers to take it as a means “to rethink” what is feminist in the cultural context of Pakistan and, more particularly, within the creative ethos of the NCA.
The reviewer is an art critic and curator based in Karachi.
She tweets @amraalikhi and is on Instagram @amrali1
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 19th, 2023
Dear visitor, the comments section is undergoing an overhaul and will return soon.