Text | Hammad Ali

Visuals Courtesy | Noor Ahmed

Issue 53|54

A woman’s head in profile, a nonchalant expression and military cropped hair. She peers into nothingness, legs gathered, crossed, and folded in a deliberate attempt to attract the viewer’s eye to such an uncomfortable positioning. Her androgyny alludes to subversion and her body perverts its encapsulation and representation. The body acquires a dominant space – spilling beyond its confines. She is naked and true, forcing one to unlearn the gendered aesthetic. This is Youth, 2019 by Marium M. Habib, one of the two participating artists in Body Memories curated by Noor Ahmed. Held at Art Chowk Gallery from February 26 to March 7, 2020, Body Memories was a group show by Rabia Ali and Marium M. Habib. 

In her curatorial debut, Ahmed interrogates and responds to the most intimate belongings one possesses – the body and its memories. She sets out to re-tell, and re-imagine gendered stories that deal with the issues of society, consciousness, sexuality, and body, treading on the internal and external nature of the flesh. The show culminated in an array of large scale pieces, with two smaller ones by Rabia Ali. Ahmed’s curatorial eye juxtaposed Ali’s Drunk Tank Pink, 2020 and Argent, 2020 with Habib’s massive Zuljanah, 2019 to throw off the viewer via scale, reiterating that all memories are valid, from the disembodied insignificant quark to an embodied juggernaut.

Rabia Ali, through her abstract expressionist canvases, explored the intricacies of the human mind. Her research and visual vocabulary was informed by her own brain scans which she studied in different stages of well-being, emotional and otherwise, to extrapolate a fluid potential of memories and their relationship with the body. Drunk Tank Pink, 2019 comments on how our environment, unconsciously yet dramatically, shapes the judgments and decisions we make every day. The textured bubblegum pink reliefs and bodily forms allude to sexuality, structuring the conscience and placating the anxieties within – aiding one to make informed, yet often abstract judgments based on one’s immediate surroundings. Most of us go through life believing that we are in control of the choices we make; however, it is our visual and sensory perceptions that replicate in our actions.

Ali deconstructed the obvious and alluded to the subverted gendered representation of womanhood. Her stellar Venusian Beings, 2020 is an ode to sexuality, to the visceral and corporeal human experiences entrusted to a highly sexed body, such as hers. Using the ethereal tropes of women as goddesses and otherworldly, she warps memory, and uses her creative liberties to debunk the sexualization of the goddess figure. 

Ali’s cerulean under painting is seldom discernible beneath her fluid whimsy of texture and investigation of color. She confidently paves her path and triumphantly overcomes the societal shackles on her sexed body through this provocative work. Anamnesis, 2020, the eponymous hero of them all, holistically encapsulates the curatorial thematic and extrapolates the trajectory of personal histories and their relations with the embodied experience. The crimson underpainting, artless and raw, acquires a liminal space between the audacious expressions of bawdy and the austere patrolling of the body. Ali’s fluidity of applying color and her corporeal transitioning through space and time resulted in strong and informed layers of cold greens and neutral pastel peach to signify the surveilled body that exists within the confines of heteropatriarchy, excavating personal archives as catharsis. 

Marium M. Habib investigates relationships and agency through her allegorical, largescale chalk pastel works. Viewers come across Zuljanah, 2019 as they enter the premises, which underscores Habib’s common thematic thread of gender and agency. The horse takes a center stage as men flock around it, touching it in reverence. One can almost hear the hubbub of an Ashura procession, the recitation of verses and thudding of steps reverberating from the image. The men’s faces are discernable, just like their actions; their skin is made visible and they are allowed to acquire the space. Amidst them, exists an ominous figure clad in a burqa. She is a woman and her body is evident, yet her actions are not. Habib’s agitation around the issue of invisibility and the active marginalization of women from public spaces is seen in her strokes. There is a sense of urgency and paranoia in her work embodying the emotions identical to that which women feel when out in public. 

Ring Master, 2019 and Going Stag, 2020, installed right opposite to each other in the gallery sparked conversation around relationships and gendered expectations around them. The difference in subject matter, representation, and times of production indicated the shifting dynamics in Habib’s romantic relationships. Ring Master, 2019 features a lean shirtless man with his muscles as defined as his eschewed gaze. The bear, with her harnessed face and pink tutu, tries to catch his attention, her gaze defined, just like her performance. A beast in actuality, she allegorizes the surveilled and controlled body of a woman. Redolent to the taming of sexuality, Habib demarcates our inner demons and beasts and comments on the societal expectations and roles women play to please the man. 

The background, once again, sparks distress with haphazard strokes of pigment on paper. Going Stag, 2020 reverses the dynamics. With undertones of the internalized male gaze, Habib decides to give less space to the woman who sits on the sofa ignoring the roaring stag. The stag’s authority is reiterated by its upright posture; like a crown, the antlers grow beyond its body, growing beyond human scale and making it sacred. The woman sits indifferent to the possible confession and/or announcement that the stag is trying to make. She has overcome the relationship marked by docility and control. She doesn’t care anymore. The zigzagged, though systematic, movement in the background shows that the thoughts and feelings are aligned – a relationship ends, the mind is freed. Body Memories celebrated young women in a very candid and raw fashion. 

Ahmed, along with Ali and Habib told stories that were individual, but aptly replicated and morphed into an extension of the collective imaginary and experience. An all women show, feminist in its sensibilities and dense in its content, shows that more women’s stories need to be told, and a feminist curatorial lens, like that of Ahmed’s, is imperative for the fruition of this epistemic desire.

Hammad Ali, is a graduate of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts from the Institute of Business Administration Karachi with a concentration in Media and Communications. He writes for art, film, cultural events, and environmental concerns. His research interests include masculinities, post colonial queer of color and feminist studies, and visual art/culture. He is currently working at Karachi Biennale as a media and communications coordinator.

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