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July 2, 2011 / the s.a. project

Naked – literally & figuratively

Untitled - (Artist's name withheld)

It’s Shocking. It’s Raw. It’s Fascinating.

My post today is going to be controversial at best. I’m not going to try and water it down, or conversely spice it up either. I merely want to look into the concept of nudity and sexuality in Pakistani art and what it has meant or represented.

At different times, different artists have addressed all kinds of aspects of such representation. Nudity and sexual imagery have existed in the art of the Sub-continent for eons. However, when looking at the art of Pakistan, post 1947, the art world has had a very different approach.

Nudes, mostly only female, have been made by male artists. And quite a number of them. These are highly romanticized and, as I have said before on many occasions, the sexual nature in most is very disturbing. These women have mostly been propped up against steaming stallions or docile doves/pigeons/bird, etc. – a curious case of human-animal sexuality.

Perhaps the most iconic representations of nudity/nakedness/sexuality have been seen on the surreal designed spaces of Colin David, the other worldy ‘whores’ of Iqbal Hussain, the heavy-bossomed pigeon ladies of Jamil Naqsh and the horse ladies of Mashkoor Raza and the riotous nudes of Ahmad Zoay. Aside from the censorship and other usual controversies, these have usually been seen as kosher works in the private market and been widely accepted in the art circles. They have also brought in massive sales at commercial galleries –  more so now than ever. The casual buyer has now opened up to purchasing nudes, in comparison to the private collectors of yore.



More recently, Saeed Akhtar has deviated from his demure ladies to an almost pornographic depiction of nubile young nymphs in exaggerated postures. However, this too has been widely absorbed almost willingly without even a flinch on the gallery-goers behalf. The image references given in this post of Saeed Akhtar’s is from his Sketchbook show at Ejaz Gallery, the first of which depicts three naked women entangled in each others arms, caressing each other sexually. (photographs courtesy Amina Art Ansari)


So now, go back to the TOP to look at the main image, and recalculate your shock? Is it still as justifiable? Why – because it’s…REAL? Well then, if we just stick to painting (and not REAL images), why is Anwar Saeed‘s work still barely palatable by many? The shock, therefore, lies in the unexpected more than the imagery itself.

Anwar Saeed. The Other Ways of Love I and II

Here lie the questions: Which artists, male and female, have been portraying  the male nude? Which female artists have been using nudity and sexuality as part of their subject matter and/or imagery?  AND, putting aside classical reasons, why is the female nude so much more acceptable to the Pakistani audience than the male one?

Lets look at some very direct representations, as well as some subtler ones. I do have a sort of vagina-weariness with the ‘subtle’ representations of it in a million paintings and miniatures: Rips in patterns, flower petals, seeds – every gallery you walk into today (in Lahore at least) there is the ‘pretty vagina‘.

I noticed that in posts for her blog art ka pakistan, Nadia Hussain (who teaches art at the NCA Rawalpindi Campus) has discussed the importance of understanding the value of sexuality in an imagery and an awareness of the physicality of the human figure – she laments the lack of interest that her students display, stemming probably from the discomfort we are taught to feel with anything relating to sex.

Read here an interesting article by Quddus Mirza on censorship in the Zia era and the representation of the female figure in print and electronic media as well as the arts.

Today, a few young male artists have started to deal with sexuality and the male figure. Perhaps, the most sexual nature of work I have seen is in the male nude studies of Ali Kazim and Irfan Gul. Ali Kazim’s work has actually started a whole style of young emulators who paint obviously suggestive images of ripe seeds, bursting flower pods, rips in the ground, and much much more.


(images courtesy artist’s website)





RASHID RANA has gone on to use the digital medium’s shock value to its maximum potential and made his photocollage series titled Veil (2004) combining thousands of pornographic images showing women engaging in sexual acts. These are oddly reminiscent of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin (1996) – a painting of a black woman surrounded by photo clippings of female genitalia and naked bottoms – but whereas Chris Ofili’s sparked fierce hue and cry, I have yet to hear/read anything unfavourable disregarding these images. In fact, I have yet to read anything about these images in Pakistan. So far, mum is the word.


What about the FEMALE ARTISTS?

“By uncovering the female form, women artists were taking charge of the form. They were uncovering the duplicity and hypocrisy of the dominant fundamentalist order. They challenged the male gaze in a way that the male painter’s female nude could not. It became instead a celebration of self, an ode to her rights of ownership, an act of rebellion.”  WE SINFUL WOMEN – The Story of Pakistani Women ArtistsSalima Hashmi.

As the quote above suggests, women in Pakistan have dealt with the nude form, female/male, with a bit more aggression and meaning. (Not to say there aren’t those who have also been guilty of rehashing the women-pigeon-formula!) But they have only begun to explore themes of sexuality and gender so openly in the recent past. Their imagery invokes everything from a docile domestic existence to sexual intimacy to physical assault. They overturn staples of objectivity and bring in something more deep and personal – and they have done it with equal amounts of seriousness and humor.

I come back to the title image of this post. A relatively regular feature in the western art scene, such works of nude self-portraiture (especially female) are next to impossible to find in any gallery in Pakistan. The artist has requested me to keep her name out of this post because she is aware that it will immediately result in a negative backlash, and that if it gets any attention from the conservative elements in the country, she could be targeted for her boldness…or her shamelessness. I expect many of my regular readers, and casual by-passers, not to understand the need for such an expression either. Judging by the reaction of my husband to the image, many at first might not even connect it to a Pakistani artist. And when they do, will not be able to understand why it had to be the way it is.

But I would disagree. I personally find the wild abandon of the sprawled female nude extremely intriguing. It is immediately sexual and a-sexual at the same time. It’s an exploration of the self that invites the viewers in from a very covert angle, making them uncomfortable of their own intrusion. The image had me completely enthralled. But I am a little crazy so I would leave you to your opinions.

Here are some images of works in different mediums that I have seen in exhibitions, college studios and publications. This limited selections offers an insight into work being produced by both renowned artists (locally and internationally) as well art students. The interesting thing is that the body of work of these artists is vast and the majority of them are not specifically dealing with the nude, unlike the senior male counterparts listed above, who have made their entire careers out of it.

Artists: Farida Batool, Hamra Abbas, Huma Mulji, Naiza Khan, Nausheen Saeed, Nadia Hussain, Karen David and Amra Khan. Roll over mouse on the images to see the artist’s name.





I’m not judging or making any direct statements for once. But I would like the reader to think about what they see and make decisions based on individual reasons rather than what they have been taught into seeing and accepting. Because art is free.

Disclaimer: All of these images are easily available online and I have collected them from various sources. I have not sought any permission. Sue me.


Leave a Comment
  1. nyrah / Jul 2 2011 7:04 pm

    well about time someone brought this up !! THIS IS THE BEST PIECE EVER !!

  2. saba ansari / Jul 2 2011 8:25 pm

    Personally, nude images can be beautiful or ugly depending on my mood or the image itself. However most of the time, people dwell on them because they cannot vocalize about sexual matters due to social restraints or their own inhibitions. The human body is at one level an object and an artist should be at liberty to portray that object in whichever way he or she prefers. freedom of expression applies to all mediums.

  3. Amina Art Ansari / Jul 2 2011 11:57 pm

    (first posted on facebook)
    Interesting!!! I did nude drawings back in London and seen many daily nudes in diff walks of life, be it museum or be it at school, and it was never a big deal to ponder on this topic or exggerate over it, however I do witness how one lashes out in my peer group, and he was in printmaking… in his case it was about self-findings.

  4. Safi / Jul 3 2011 10:28 pm

    Good tha!

    • the s.a. project / Jul 5 2011 5:55 am

      Thank you so much for sharing your album here. I hope others see it too.
      My post has only a limited preview of the work that is actually out there and so I put in enough to explain my points at different times.
      Thank you for reading also! 🙂

  5. Mansoor Ahmed / Jul 5 2011 5:57 am

    (first posted on facebook)
    As the author concluded “art is free” whatever sell goes and nudes have mostly been female specific since centuries in Europe and religious specific to cultures in the subcontinent. As an art collector it’s surprising that there are almost no female artists. Why is that?

    • Usman Dawood / Jul 5 2011 5:58 am

      (posted on facebook)
      Saira is undoubtedly more vocal on the topic (I sense a guerrilla girls attack in the offing), but in my opinion, there are just as many female artists (if not more) than male, but they haven’t received as much recognition and exposure from those with the resources to “sell” them to the world.

      • Mansoor Ahmed / Jul 5 2011 5:59 am

        (posted on facebook)
        Be that as may be, but take any art history movement, rennaisance, Impressionism, surrealism etc etc – the big names that come up are always male – michealangelo, degas, Dali, Picasso etcetc and in pakistan Gulgee amongst several others. Same is the case in contemporary art in China, India. Freida kahlo is the only name I recall in recent history?. By the way majority of “classy” art galleries in Karachi are owned by women? Not men.

        True the IVS and NCS crowd is there, but where do they end up? Advertising, jewelery design. Quite sad.

        Poets yes, suicidal poets and authors more so (Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson amongst several others) the hippie and feminist movements – yes. But recognized names in art – No.

      • the s.a. project / Jul 5 2011 6:02 am

        (posted on facebook)
        well thats a very huge debate. and a very well explained one as well. women – female artists – have been very deliberately kept out of galleries and art history for hundreds of years. there is proof of this as well as proof of many great women artists who were deliberately kept under wraps. like dawood has already said, you can look up guerilla girls and the entire debate on how major museums like the MOMA and all kept women out of their collections.

        Yesterday at 2:05am ·
        remember the artists is only that big or that famous as he/she is made to be. when you’re erased from history you’re erased from memory.

        Yesterday at 2:05am
        AAALSO, my grandmother Zubeida Agha was the pioneer of modern art in pakistan and had the FIRST solo exhibition ever by any artist in this country. She also trained in Paris and under Picasso’s student and also supported some of the later greats like ahmed pervaz. How many know of her? She has been kept out too. so…

        Yesterday at 2:07am
        There are very famous women surrealists, impressionists, dadists, photographers, scultpors. just need to dig in some REAL history to find it.

  6. Ali syed / Jul 7 2011 3:23 pm

    nice work……but wana clear you that the reason to portray female body is just because its something you called nature’s beauty….despite of the other hangovers of landscapes etc etc
    the nude graphics of female is not much encouraging in pak but its widly considered as what ppl called it “”ARTS””…or Body Art”…and female body art may apper to some one admorable or pleasent but mens body art definatly appers to horrifying for many of them…:)

  7. zoay / Jul 10 2011 2:28 pm

    lingam yoni pippal pre-aryan harrappan pantheon river ravi punjab. induslands;

    • the s.a. project / Jul 11 2011 9:03 pm

      cryptic sexual words and places from ancient history.
      but that’s about all i got from this comment!!

  8. Kamil Hamid / Jul 16 2011 4:11 pm

    Absolutely brilliant post. I really enjoyed reading this.

    I’m sure many of us can agree with (or at the very least, see the reason in) the notion that the constraints placed on art and artists in any society speak volumes about the society itself.

    In Pakistan, we have an odd paradox. On one hand, most readers of this blog will probably be able to appreciate the return to a more expression of sex, sexuality and body. Unfortunately, said readers likely come from a highly select segment of society. I’d even be willing to wager that many of them run in the same circles.

    The rest of the public? I can’t see them being ready for such expression. And here, I refer mostly to the “typical” nude females you posted about earlier. Sadly, the idea of female sexuality (and by extension, the female body) being fluid and malleable is likely to appeal to a much broader audience, even amongst the aforementioned select few of your readers.
    The male body, as well as explorations of male sexuality however, is likely to be met with raised eyebrows (if not outright resistance).

    I’m very glad you’re writing about this. I truly hope it inspires more aspiring Pakistani artists to incorporate such themes into their work. Maybe we’ll see another Zubeida Hamid in our generation?
    Even as the child of an artist, I’ve grown up with mostly abstract designs and some images of nature floating around. My mother, despite specializing in miniature art at NCA, has always used the human body as more of a “prop” to add to the picture, rather than have it be the central focus.

    Anyhow, hope that wasn’t too convoluted.
    Hope you’re doing great!

    • the s.a. project / Jul 21 2011 12:41 am

      Thank you so much Kamil for your words.
      They were not convoluted at all and in fact pointed out some very legitimate points.
      I plan to keep on writing about the home scene and much more. Keep coming back to say hello! 🙂

  9. Sarah mumtaz / Dec 13 2011 9:08 pm

    i honestly think this is the best topic that u brought up….i was just wondering that if an “Artist” in Pakistan or any other country just do a photoshot like veena…what was that called Art or Vulgarity…i am Not Against Nudity in Art but i don’t understand the standards of our society

  10. Maria Khan (@MariaKhan16) / Dec 15 2011 9:35 pm

    this is an awesome article! me and Amra Khan were this last week after the Veena Malik incident that.. WE ARTIST DO THE SAME! so why is everyone going all bonkers about her showing herself nude.. and lalalallalaa…

  11. Maria Khan (@MariaKhan16) / Dec 15 2011 9:36 pm

    and i love your selection of paintings/painters!

  12. Sameera Raja / May 15 2013 5:01 pm

    Glad you addressed a topic which is generally not discussed . However , to reply to your question as to which artists portray the male figure, immediately a few names barring the ones you mentioned, come to mind…Ali Azmat , Komail Aijazuddin , Muhammadali , Mughees Riaz and Salman Toor.You will notice they are all male .Does that mean female artists depicting males have been sidelined ? I think not . Did artists get recognition and patronage based on their gender in the past? I believe so yet I do not believe the same applies to the current scenario. The images in your article are mainly of works that have been displayed at relevant galleries locally.Most important galleries in Pakistan are run by females . To say that there is a bias towards showing male artists works over females would be factually incorrect , without even getting into the debate about why artists need to be differentiated on gender lines. An artist is just that…an artist.

  13. Mun / Oct 29 2017 4:37 pm

    I believe the nudes and nakedness should never be frowned upon but be accepted as our right in Pakistan. I believe we all need to experience being nude in the open once before rejecting it. It is quite exhilarating.

    I love nude art. To be part of it and also to make some. As it depicts that very openness and liberty that we all deem to want to have and experience. Something to strive for.

    I think the author has done a great job of talking about it even though I read it many years later.


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