One day sixteen years ago a woman appeared on a wall near cantt railway station in Karachi. She was put together with mehndi hand prints as if someone had gone and put their chaap on the wall. It was like suttee lacework. She was missing a head.
It was an outrageous piece of work. It was badtameez and its artist, Naiza Khan, was oh so clever. She was insolent. I loved it. Let me tell you why, since that day I have followed her work. Today is a good day. We just got the wonderful news that she is going to be the first Pakistani artist to represent us with an inaugural pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, the world’s most prestigious art event.
Most of the writing about art with a capital A is academic and important-sounding but completely incomprehensible. And so, allow me to sidestep its fancies and interstitials and liminals and inquiries to talk about Naiza Khan’s work as it has “wowed” me over the years.
The woman on the wall at Cantt station, called Henna Hands, has probably since disappeared. I am always confused by artists who make art that doesn’t last because I grew up believing that art was always painted on canvas and hung on a wall. You could sell it. It aged. What was Naiza Khan thinking when she used henna or mehndi because it fades. She couldn’t sell it.
This is the first time I was forced to reckon with public art that wasn’t framed, pretty or had a price tag. So what was it there for? What were we supposed to make of it? Why did Naiza Khan do it?
To write this, I went to her website and looked at the photos of Henna Hands. Mehndi or henna is mostly associated with women in Pakistan (although men use it too). It is a ‘female’ cosmetic. With it, you make patterns on the skin as a way to paint on ‘jewelry’ to celebrate. Naiza Khan flipped this (or in a fancy word I like, she subverted it like an improper fraction). The wall became skin. The pattern was not put on a hand, it was turned into a body of many hands. It was a slap, a firm print? What did I think of a woman making a woman on a wall. Not only did the artist disappear from sight after making it, but she made a woman that would also disappear with time.
How rude to paint on a public wall. But then, men had painted there too. Some of it was faded graffiti and others were ads for hairdressers and the like. Around Cantt station you will see messages urging people to call if they feel suicidal or have weak sperm. Men write on walls all the time in Karachi. Men pee on walls too. Why was I so unnerved by a woman leaving her mark?
The Henna woman on the wall is naked and she doesn’t have the outline of a sexy young woman. There is a slight bulge at the thigh. She is standing up straight. Even this seemed like an affront. Henna is also so private, something we do at home, and yet Naiza Khan went public with it. The shock that she did this so brazenly is subtle because it just made me uncomfortable and it took me years to reconcile with it. I am still always a little shocked when women do something they are not supposed to do in public.
Even more badtameez were the next works that I saw, produced roughly five years later: bare the fact/bear the fact and The Skin She Wears.
You could see glimmers of Naiza Khan’s old work pushing into the new here. Henna Hands woman appeared on canvas, again as a mehndi print but Naiza Khan was adding pools of watery colour. She was drawing with charcoal and acrylic. Lingerie appeared. It was transformed into corsets of metal, bodices, chastity belts. When I interviewed Naiza Khan in her studio long ago, she mentioned reading Bahishti Zevar by Thanvi, that classic guide to being a good woman. Her art works were thus aptly titled Heavenly Ornaments. Till today I want to own one of them. They are punishing to look at and I was delighted a Pakistani artist had made something that we experienced as women.
The metal corsets are fixed and do not move or let you move unlike lingerie which moves with your body. Henna Hands woman had disappeared here but Naiza Khan was still working with skins and layers. This time it was shiny, beaten metal. Each object was a constraint, a limitation. The body was missing from them but informed their shape in a ghostly presence. Each object reminded you of what shape you should take and forced you to take it if you wore it. It prevented anything from harming you and yet strangled you in its medieval protection. How could one object make me so fearful and unafraid at the same time. Again, Naiza Khan had given me discomfort. What galled was that her art was so gentle as well, and indeed, if you talk to her, she is so soft-spoken herself. How could such a ‘womanly’ woman be hiding these things in her, I wondered. The chastity belts with their zippered teeth were Saxon BDSM. The cutting metal bra was industrial-level bondage. They were a comment on society but invoked terror because I could not make sense of how they could be created. Naiza Khan frightened me. But she spoke the truth. They were terrible beauties.
The scored lines and watery pools, the henna body maps of on the wall, the outlines of metal layers we put on, were all moving in a direction that you will see in her later work that culminates in the Manora Field Notes project curated by Zahra Khan that will be at the Biennale.
Naiza Khan has been going to Karachi’s Manora Island for roughly ten years to research, document, map it as she studied how Karachi’s harbour expanded. And I cannot think of any subject more appropriate to take to show the world about Pakistan. “The project for Venice is a culmination of several years of exploration and research, looking at the material culture of Karachi, a port city, and its surroundings,” Naiza Khan’s statement said. “Ideas of friction, optics and atmospheric climates emerge as central to my current concerns. I feel honoured to represent Pakistan and to share this new body of work, situating it within a larger conversation that links Venice to the Persian- Indian- Arab peninsulas through histories of empire and maritime trade.”
The work from the harbour and Karachi is ethereal, ghostly and layered. Buildings appear in their watery landscapes. This work is less easy for me to explain or understand. It is much more mysterious. Should mapping Karachi or Manora not make it more easy to understand, visible? But Naiza Khan’s maps and drawings from a place are obscured with water and the buildings or cranes or silhouettes of physical things are not rendered clearly. Are they broken wooden chairs? Are they lighthouses? Are they abandoned buildings on the island? Manora is a forgotten place for many of us in Karachi even though it has a fascinating history. Naiza Khan’s work hides it. It is a buried city at the bottom of the ocean. She went diving into the wreck. We peer at it foggily from the surface.