Salima Hashmi traces her 25-year journey as curator, speaking of the contribution of women artists in Pakistan

On February 12, 1983, The Punjab Women’s Lawyers Association in Lahore organised a protest against the proposed Law of Evidence. They were set upon by the police. This and the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, led to the formation of The Manifesto of Women Artists of Pakistan. In an illustrated talk, held at the British Council recently, Salima Hashmi, noted curator, painter and daughter of the revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, spoke of the impact such movements had on women artists in Pakistan. “The women who signed the Manifesto were apolitical. We wanted our work to reflect on our experiences,” explained Salima.

The first slide displayed was of sculptor Durriya Kazi’s installations focusing on women. Sailma said male artists, such as Iqbal Hussain and Afshar Malik, were also disturbed by the attack on women. “Iqbal lived in the red light area of Lahore. He was the only person in his locality who was educated and an artist. His work on the women in the red light area of Lahore was a reflection of his experiences. When his exhibition was taken off from the gallery, it was held on the sidewalk.”

Over the years, Salima says, women’s art went through a transformation. “Women began taking the lead. There were discussions on form and material.”

Salima next displayed artist Ruby Chishti’s life-sized installations of comic-strip buffaloes, stuffed with cloth and straw, and explained. “In this work, Ruby explored the proximity between fine art and material.Ruby looked after her ailing mother for 10 years and didn’t do any art in that time.” Ruby’s experiences are tied with her art. Salima spoke of one of her installations of women huddled in a circle, weeping. “This piece of work, My birth will take place no matter how you celebrate it emerged after her mother told her there was weeping after her birth.”

Then there is Masooma Syed who has worked with fragile material. “Such as wisps of hair, necklaces made of discarded human nails. These are things we cast out of our bodies, closely linked to womens’ experiences.

Salima next displayed an image of Ayesha Jatoi’s work, Clothesline, of hanging her laundry on a decommissioned fighter plane and the tongue-in-cheek work of motorcycle gear for women by sculptor Adeela Suleman. The other artists’ works such as those of Rashid Rana, Faiza Butt, Ayaz Jokhio, Imran Qureshi, Anwer Saeed, Naiza Khan, Ali Raza, Huma Mulji, Farida Batool, Aisha Khalid, Risham Syed, among others, were also displayed.

Salima also spoke with fondness of one of Pakistan’s most well-known artists—Zahoor Ul Akhlaq. “He was one of the first artists who fused tradition, as we understand it, and life in the subcontinent. He looked closely at the Indian collection. He rejuvenated the miniature department in National College of Art. Zahoor Ul was murdered 11 years ago. We lost a very wonderful presence.”