Naked – literally & figuratively
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 Artists, Salima 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.
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.