Becoming a Woman

Noor Jehan Mecklai takes us through some of Qinza Najm’s work displayed at Karachi’s Chawkandi Gallery

Becoming a Woman
A bombshell has exploded in Karachi’s art world, in the person of Pakistani-American artist Qinza Najm. She is an interdisciplinary artist who has presented her courageous show, “Becoming a Woman,” at Chawkandi Gallery. She has also presented both sculptures and an extremely innovative and psychedelic dance titled “Tabdeeli,” along with 8 other dancers (mostly from NAPA and trained by her), in the Karachi Biennale, indicating total involvement in her subject. She has really caused a stir, with the profundity and the wealth of underlying meaning in her work which piques the curiosity of the viewer. Her originality is impressive, as is her courage in venturing into openness about taboo subjects. Many of her painted subjects possess the same defiantly inelegant air, especially in her installation titled “Claiming Space,” though they bring with them a considerable variety of meaning. Their provocative pose and the lack of actual femininity and beauty, however, is secondary to the points she wishes to make. For example, she is interested in the human capacity for transformation, empathy and awareness, and aims to raise questions about “how we might transcend and combat cultural stereotypes, prejudice, Islamophobia, and racist and sexist norms.” And she adds, “I would like my work to serve as a conversation-starter for topics which we generally find hard to talk about - i.e. zipped-up topics.” As to the exhibition title, this echoes the 20th-century French writer, feminist and intellectual giant Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” And Qinza hints at this in her description of women’s plight. The exhibition was curated by Nimra Khan.

Is she a feminist?

To this, Qinza replies, “I believe each gender has its own qualities and should be cherished as such. Violence comes in when gender is exploited. Through difficult dialogues, awareness and openness we find the only way forward to heal the traumas of society and humanity.”

'Khabees Aurat'

Originally from Lahore, and for a time a practicing psychologist, she gave up this career despite the criticism of many around her. She then studied art at Bath University and at The Art Students’ League of New York. Her work has been exhibited both in Pakistan and in cities such as New York, Dubai and Seoul. What is more, following this exhibition at Chawkandi she is dashing off to take part in the art biennale at the National Museum of China in Beijing.

“When I was younger, art was my outlet for self-expression,” she confides. “Drawing was therapeutic as it allowed me to create my own alternative universe. It was then that I learned to tell stories, and discovered the power of expression.” Dancing, though, was forbidden by her mother. Later, she presented a well-received piece regarding gun violence for a museum in New York, and she is currently developing art work in the form of large installations created from found objects.

Asked whether being a qualified psychologist influences her work, she answers, “It definitely enters my work - at times consciously and at times subconsciously. Apart from artistic pursuits, my work nowadays involves working with communities, especially marginalized ones, and being a trained listener helps me connect with them, and bring my own truth and theirs forward in my art work.”

Meanwhile, we are daily confronted by news items describing incidents of gender discrimination and gendered violence, which are worldwide phenomena. And nearer home we are confronted with the act of killing for “honour,” of dowry deaths and other ways in which women are pushed back against the wall. Qinza uses artistic means to create empathy and understanding between societies and cultures to address the deepest social traumas. Regarding her present exhibition, she says, “I often use motifs of bodies stretched, deconstructed, distorted and pushed beyond their limits. A manipulated body is a reflection of how power is exerted on our being. However, I am more interested in the depiction of human potential - an extended body claims space beyond its expected role, both physically and figuratively. In practice I aim to raise questions about how we might combat cultural stereotypes, prejudice, Islamophobia, and racist and sexist norms.” And the message conveyed by many of her subjects is, “Stretch and get out of your current misery. Tap into your own inner strength and resources  and transform your life.”

'Whose Property'

Now let us regard the humble zipper, yards and yards of which, as a material for soft sculpture, may be seen in certain of her works, in particular “Khabees Aurat” (vile woman) in a tangle of brazen red zippers, and its companion piece, “Naik Parveen” (pious woman), showing a woman sitting meek, poised and modest in white zippers. The meaning echoes that of the overall show - about women taking their rightful space and emerging as fully-fledged human beings. Elsewhere in her show, a single zipper underlines meaning. Asked why this appeared so often in her works, Qinza explains: “It is a very simple, democratic object  used in many countries by both genders. It suggests many things, such as consensual and non-consensual relationships, and vulnerability. When I worked as a psychologist I found, for example, that some people could not express themselves and needed unzipping, whereas others would blow things up, over-emphasize them, and needed some degree of zipping up.”

Among the artists Qinza admires are Sadeqain and Picasso, many of the latter’s works featuring women. And look - it is Picasso, well known as a skirt-chaser, who is presented as the culprit in her piece titled “Womanizer”. In fact this painting is based on a work by Picasso, and his face appears here within the silhouette of a woman sitting in a bold pose. The position of his face, with its unflinching gaze indicates clearly his intentions, bound to disturb the object of his attention. The piece also alludes to the objectification of women throughout art history, and how the only space they have in art is as a two-dimensional object. This idea seems to be tied to the two-dimensional mind function rather than to the three-dimensional mind function that we humans exist in mentally.

Then at first glance, “Tough Love” brought to mind a huge black spider up in the rafters, waiting to give its prey a tough time. Surprisingly the rafters are yellow - a colour normally associated with things like freshness, honour, loyalty and joy. But not this time. Look closely and you’ll find that the “rafters” are actually finely-toothed zippers, while the tied-up and torn canvas makes for a brutal image, and the black figure on top is not predatory but is fighting for space, attempting to break free from violence and violation.

The question “Whose Property?” composed in a pleasing colour combination leaves little to the imagination, but one asks whether the woman in white (apologies to Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins) suggests the innate purity of the female of the species. The title of the composition is of course a play upon words, referring to the well known and much resented idea that a woman is first the property of her father, then of her husband. The piece also raises questions regarding the right of women to own and inherit property in much of Pakistani and other societies.

The peeping Tom has a bad name internationally, but his influence is multiplied in “Reverse Gaze,” since the eye peeping through the narrow opening is society’s gaze, internalized by women and used to censor and police their own behaviour to fit expectations. The slashes and gashes of course represent the various forms of violence that women have to face. And the child in this diptych is about 3 years old - the age when social conditioning begins. Meanwhile, the composition titled “Internal Surveyor,” somewhat sinister in its textured black appearance, is similar in meaning, but this time the peeping Tom is the woman herself, revealing her victim mentality, her complicity in her own victimization. Like the child who dreams of a wolf under his bed, she reveals unnecessary fears, the worst of which is embodied in a dagger-like object which is merely another humble zip.

To the final question, “What is the greatest mistake an artist can make?” Qinza’s answer is, “There are no absolute mistakes. These and failures are a great vehicle for learning and moving forward. They are rich experiences, and for myself, a very curious individual who likes to get her hands dirty and to experiment, mistakes are part of my daily vocabulary.”

This idea ties her to thinkers down the ages.