In New York, a Show of Pakistani Artists Keeps Its Promise


You might be forgiven for expecting rage in the works along the spare corridor of the Apexart gallery where performance pieces from twelve Pakistani women, spanning three generations, are on view through July 29. It might have been rage you heard from the exhibition’s curator, Rabbya Naseer, when, in a talk before the show, she described how one American man asked her, “Don’t you feel liberated now?” and another lectured her about how it was unseemly for a Muslim woman to shake his hand. Yes, rage would be understandable, justifiable.

But it isn’t the siren call of rage on show here. Instead it is more of a small echo, as if many, many ages ago someone had roared into the depths of a cave and only now had the sound bounced back, reaching us where we stand. The exhibition’s title, “Promises to Keep,” seems to indicate the true risk of the showing, the high chance of failing in its pledge to bridge the distance between these artists and this American audience.

Ultimately, these works do translate. The echo resonates; the varied voices collect, however unexpectedly, into a consonant chord. One moves from piece to piece and comes to an easy realization: that women everywhere — disparate though their social, familial, or religious circumstances might be — are confined to shadows, in service to narrow roles, to duties, to promises.

Such constraints are visible in Hurmat ul Ain’s Great Sacrifice, a live performance, recorded at the show’s opening, of a woman threading goat testicles — a delicacy — by needle in preparation for pickling, applying a strange violence to this traditional, domestic task. A similar theme is found in Ayesha Jatoi’s Residue, a video of the artist patiently folding 134 white cloths, each representing a child murdered in the 2014 Peshawar school attack. Between them, the force of the show becomes clear: There is fortitude in the small, deliberate work assigned women.

There is a delicate anger to the works, a subversive though gently rendered commentary on culture and sexuality. There’s power in them. And that power could, despite its faraway origin, be leveraged: It could be hers, yours, mine.

The Pakistani art scene, up to about a decade ago, was dominated by women. At the time of Naseer’s dissertation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in 2010, there were, by her count, only five examples in total of Pakistani performance art, all made by women. At the show’s opening, Naseer related an anecdote about how, in Lahore, she’d told her father of her intention to pursue architecture. He was unhappy; it was, in his view, a male profession. When she declared her switch to the fine arts, he was pleased and said, “That’s for women.” And maybe it is. “Women’s concerns are so much to do with…residing in this body, so when you’re employing the body in a work, it became more relevant for women to do that,” Naseer said.

Naseer’s work reveals the influence of prominent Pakistani artist Salima Hashmi and a piece of hers that has achieved renown in that country. The farcical 1970 television performance How to Boil an Egg, included in the Apexart show, records Hashmi as she narrates, in a comically pitched voice and from the set of a popular sketch show, the steps to boiling an egg. Speaking in badly accented Urdu (a sign of her upper-class status, distinguished by excellent English), she breaks probably a dozen eggs and, though the performance is three minutes long, never actually tells the audience how to boil an egg. At a time of political instability, government censorship, and violence, Hashmi had criticized her country with sharp irony on national television.

So it’s the presumption of harmlessness that gives Pakistan’s female artists, operating mostly within the strictures imposed upon their gender and according to the expectations of their homeland, license to their power. And even in its absence, power is the object here, as in one video work entitled Clothesline in which the artist, Jatoi again, is seen setting dark red laundry to dry on a fighter plane proudly displayed at the center of a public square. It’s a subtle criticism of nationalism and violence made sharp in the context of an unthreatening female chore.

That’s a theme across the works, manifested with wit, humor, irony, and pure subjectivity, making the viewer feel as if she’s fingering the edge of a blade. Take a decade-old piece of Naseer and Ain’s, White as Snow, which occupies the northeastern wall of the gallery. The work is concealed from the visitor at first by a partition but manages to permeate the space with a rhythmic repetition like the recitation of prayer. The girls in the video speak in a strict, uniform cadence (“I am a girl…my mother is a housewife…I cook very delicious carrot pudding…”). Their restricted, repeated movements mirror the voices, yet they seem almost pleased, dim, expressionless — virgin maidens inflated with empty moralizing.

Another piece superimposes their talking heads on those of Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas. The painting is the same, but their mouths are moving. “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,” they repeat, over one another.

Another of Jatoi’s pieces, Mirror, Mirror, projects onto an open, blank notebook the story of a girl whose father, “fearing her charms,” locks her in the basement, where she tragically occupies herself — with crying, with dancing, with reading — before she’s forced to address her withered reflection. It reads like a perverse fairytale, and the viewer is pulled into her cell, becoming trapped along with her, stuck in her inexorable decline, until the story begins again; although one then knows her fate, one hopes desperately, futilely, for another outcome.

With works collected for the first time in a single place, and sometimes liberally altered (with the consent of the artist) for the exhibit, Naseer quietly but boldly claims the universality of the Pakistani female experience — and with it the universality of the female experience in general. The offering she’s presented is, in the end, something like being caught in that ancient cave, jagged rock on all sides. It’s black and tight, but its confinement is complicated once you’re inside by cool pockets of air and a discrete tunnel of light, one that reaches back, back, no end in sight.