Happiness is a warm gun
– The Beatles
“I think he showed me a cover of a magazine that said ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun.’ It was a gun magazine. I just thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you just shot something. Like heroin into your arm.” – John Lennon
What is it with guns? Heroin for John Lennon. But what is it with guns and women (or women with guns)?
Now you might be wondering: what is she on? I’m wondering about that myself. There has been a lot of discussion (with students, mostly – I have 5 young women in my final year Painting class) about feminism for the last year or so. Recently, somebody really got me thinking about it. What is feminism, really? A doctrine that advocates equal rights for women. Is that so? A movement aimed at equal rights for women. Equal rights, then. Female empowerment (the act of conferring legality, sanction or formal warrant/authority of the same etc.) and so on. Sure. I like that. Does that mean violence – physical or emotional? It’s something I have been thinking about a lot recently. Do I have a right on my body? I know I have a right on my mind – an intangible beast that warrants freedom. But my body exists in tangible form within this world of other tangible things. The physicality of it takes away many liberties. I fight all kinds of imprisonment but my body is never free. Do I have a right to have a body? That is a question I have been asking for years.
I don’t like being categorized as a feminist. I don’t like being categorized period. But I am inclined towards certain doctrines within this category. Infact, I lean a lot towards feminism. But sometimes, I don’t care (as usual) about anything at all and I crawl into my bed and hide.
It seems I only have questions these days. Recently, I was interviewed by a student at IVS for her dissertation. She had all kinds of questions that I barely had answers for. My responses are barely coherent in my opinion:
Could you briefly describe your practice?
In answer to this question, perhaps you could focus on my statement on my website. It has been consistent for many years (though, I did add to it):
Her work began as an exploration of the randomness of nature; at times, rendering our bodies dysfunctional and therefore vulnerable – and yet paradoxically evoking the brute strength of our essentially animalistic, almost obsessive need for survival. She had hoped that it would then perhaps be possible to demystify love, desire and other such abstractions as functional necessities.
At the same time, it reflected an attempt to understand issues of identity and femininity in this environment. She had hoped to discover some element of truth from experiences and from nature itself. However, with time, it focused more on the raw and sometimes humorous nature of emotions and narratives representing her experiences. The process is ongoing, and from needing to understand the nature of things, she started looking for narratives and had encountered a need to look beyond pretensions, creating characters, self-portraits and stories that best represent situations.
I’m afraid I cannot be brief in this matter. It is indeed, very difficult to define any practice which is mostly a pursuit. The best I can say is that even now, I am very curious about the body and how it can represent what is felt or internalized from the outside.
What would you say the aim of your art practice is?
Again, my practice is a pursuit born out of curiosity. I am curious about the human soul. Mostly, I am curious about my own (human) soul. Perhaps also, about the female soul (coincidentally, I am female so I don’t have a choice in the matter of choosing the gender for my soul. Many would argue that the soul need not be of any gender but mine, I feel, is determinedly female). This pursuit is not sentimental but almost clinical. I have been looking for the soul in the body.
Your question is a hard one. What is the aim of my practice besides my own curiosity? I believe, I might be creating coded pictures of what my soul looks like which is a bizarre, but valid pursuit. If I needed to see my soul with my own eyes, I would make a picture of it.
How do you understand the term feminism? What does being feminist mean to you?
I am still unclear on how to really understand feminism. Looking beyond the female archetypes (Maiden, Mother, Crone, Queen etc.) and accepting the fact of woman would be feminism to me. What if every stereotype all rolled up in one woman is truly a fact? What if that many-woman is the norm? What if she is completely acceptable with every aspect of her revealed without shame or guilt? These are important questions to me.
Would you call yourself feminist?
I would call myself female. Does that make me a feminist?
Is your work, in any way, a reaction to the society you live in? How?
Yes I believe it is. After all, I do exist in the society I live in. I also like to believe I am an active member of the society I live in. I perform my social duty by teaching what I know. However, I have often felt unwanted or unacceptable on many occasions in my life within this society. It could have been from something as silly as being told that ladies cannot smoke in the park outside Quaid-e-Azam’s Mausoleum or something as serious as being fondled on the street.
I wouldn’t say my work is a direct reaction to the society I live in. But it is a reaction or based on situations within the social structure – masked and blatant sexuality and gender politics. Wearing my soul on my sleeve, I live and love in this world. How could I deny that the society has no effect on my work? Essentially, every situation that has pushed me to make pictures has come from reactions to situations – many of them directly linked to the social structure.
Have you ever come across “anti-woman” sentiment throughout your practice?
Personally, I come across “anti-woman” sentiment almost every single day. A rude stare from a taxi driver is about as “anti-woman” as somebody telling me women cannot smoke (though they have lips, a mouth and lungs they want to destroy as much as any man). I feel people drive me to want to prove it’s alright to be a woman with all her woman-ness.
How important do you think it is to address issues via your work? If yes, then how do you do that?
It must be important if it’s in my work. Any issue that cannot be resolved by words, shows up in pictures, I believe. I suppose the issues that concern me show up naturally in my work.
In 1983, a group of fifteen women artists signed a Feminist Manifesto in Lahore in order to protect and elevate the role of women in society. Do you think there is a need for this kind of activist element in the society of today?
I feel the artist community is too scattered for anything like that to ever happen again. Also, there is a greater sense of female empowerment – in those days, things were different. But yes, if such activism does occur, it would make life more interesting and meaningful. Women artists do what they can in their work. I’m not sure if anyone would want to lean too far into activism. The capitalist structure of everything has changed the way people look at art – it’s for sale. Ideas are for sale. I think feminist art is also for sale. That changes the dynamics of everything. But perhaps, I’m just being cynical here. In all honesty, I’m not sure.
Do you think artists can actually make a difference to the status of women in Pakistan? If so, how?
I think women can make a difference to the status of women in Pakistan. They need not be artists at all. As artists, we try to bring out the issues that concern us because we can’t help it mostly. Some people are more focused on intentionally addressing certain issues. I feel that artists do not have the kind of power needed to actually make a difference with just their art-work because it is not as accessible as perhaps television. But artists can be involved in other activities like education and outreach projects and actually bring the important issues into the light.
Do you think contemporary female artists are different in their approach toward feminism? In your opinion, is it a successful approach?
I believe they are. I can’t say for sure if it’s successful or not. I think it will take a while to actually see what results they achieve from their work. If contemporary art work is a critique on society (which I believe it is mostly) then at least we have a record of how things are right now. In the future, when people look back, they will have something to look at. Sometimes, that is all you need to bring a change (if a change is indeed what we are looking for).
The female form and the female nude occur frequently in your work. What intent is behind that?
If I speak entirely from my own experience, then I must speak in my own voice. Since I am a woman, the female body best represents what I’m doing/thinking/feeling. This is my premise. As for my intent – well, everything isn’t intentional. Sometimes, I believe I use the female form and the female nude from habit. But mostly, it is intentional.
I do not expose the body (male or female) because of its aesthetic value. That is something I am quite certain of. I barely ever make any hair on human bodies either. I think it is the best way I can say what I really mean.
I don’t know what I’m on these days. I find myself isolated in my introspection. It’s time to get back to aunties, maybe.