Promises To Keep
Promises to Keep examines the close relationship between self-portraiture and performance in the construction and (re)presentation of "identity." Exploring the use of the artist’s body in the self-representational acts of twelve female artists from Pakistan, the exhibition looks at how self-parody, activism, nationalism, popular culture, and feminism cross paths. Originally it was a document that was written in 2010 as my master’s dissertation at SAIC. Those two years of living in the US as a Pakistani-Muslim-Woman-Artist informed much of my artistic and scholarly practice. Because of an identity inscribed on my body and in my accent, my conversations with a random person in Chicago would begin with the question "Where are you from?" And my answer would involuntarily start an often superficial discussion on terrorism, extremism, Islam, and treatment of women. "Don’t you feel liberated now?" was a question I was often asked towards the end. Those exchanges left me invariably dissatisfied in my attempts to defy easy categorizations and I began to ponder over: - the production of an image of identity. - our responsibility to those with whom we share a certain identity. - how we perform or represent these identities in our everyday lives. These interests came together in my writing on performance art practice from Pakistan. I discovered that almost all of the works that employ performance as a medium for making art are made by female artists and are preoccupied with addressing the issues around the construction and (re)presentation of identity or identities. Each performance is an act of self-representation that plays out a dislocated and a fragmented self. Each performance aims to redefine identity/image-of-an-identity and addresses cultural stereotypes that manipulate the roles we play. Each performance reveals the conception of the "self" as an imaginary construct. Each addresses the body as a hybrid between the political and the private. Through employing a language that is easily relatable to the common language of the streets, these works aim to dissolve the distinctions between high art and low art. Consequently they minimize the gap between Art and everyday-life by borrowing the language of the later. The works reflect on memory, negotiate the past, engage aspects of lived experiences, and critique cultural norms and narratives. They investigate the subject of embodiment and the embodiment of subjectivity in an understanding of the self as both "subject" and "object." The document produced in 2010 included five or six such examples. And now, after seven years, because the subject of "performing an identity’’ continues to inform my everyday life and my practice, that dissertation has taken the shape of this curatorial project under the same name. For this exhibition I dug out more works. I wasn’t surprised to discover that there is a plethora of works produced by artists from Pakistan that explore the relationship between self-portraiture and performance from many different perspectives. And still, the majority of the artists are women. What you see in this exhibition is only one possible configuration of works that addresses this subject. In this exhibition I have included fourteen works by twelve female artists who span three generations. In what follows I will very briefly talk about how memory, history, gender, and socio-political/cultural constructs co-exist within the same space when performing these self-portraits. Bani Abidi’s video trilogy addresses the question of national identity through a nonsensical conflict with her own reflection. Confounded with the sameness and difference between the self and the other, Abidi challenges the notion of the portrait as a simplified likeness of one’s self and the impossibility of representing a true self. I have paired this work with the English translation of a short story titled Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hassan Manto. Manto, like Abidi, uses satire to talk about the profound physical, social, and emotional scars left by the partition of the subcontinent. Mehr Javed’s documentation of a live performance called Air Hunger addresses the body in a purely existential way. The everyday act of breathing, ritualized by Javed, tests both her body’s power of endurance in a self-inflicted hardship and the viewer’s endurance to withstand her pain. Lali Khalid’s visual essay Songbirds Flying Home is purely autobiographical. She follows herself with a camera and plays the role of the observer and the observed, the photographer and the photographed. Khalid developed her work for this exhibition with photos selected from various series produced over the last five years. In this work, the distinction between performing the self in her everyday life blurs with performing for the camera to create a self-portrait. The photographs are both a document of real (everyday, mundane, lived life) and a representation of the real. Ayesha Jatoi’s Mirror Mirror questions the identity of the artist and the artwork in relation to medium and form of the work. In this short autobiographical story, Jatoi and Miniature Painting both struggle with the idea of a true identity against their distorted reflections in the mirror. "She" is an invented alter ego for both Jatoi and Miniature Painting. Jatoi is not a medium-specific artist, but her work nevertheless is in dialogue with the form of miniature painting. Working/living in-between mediums/selves, marking differences while the boundaries are under continuous negotiations, what sort of new identity comes out of this union of the inherent and the acquired (for both Jatoi and Miniature Painting)? Amber Hammad’s Maryam addresses the parallels between religious iconography and popular culture. She presents the viewer with an Islamized, 21st century version of the Virgin Mary and child (who is referred to as Maryam in the Quran). In order to claim her authority, Hammad performs the popular icon of femininity and the archetypal maiden, and assumes the central space in history by replacing the image with her own localized version. Rabbya Naseer and Hurmat ul Ain’s White as Snow performs the ideal woman, the archetypal maiden, born of myth and stereotypes, prescribed by the society. The title symbolizes the ultimate state of moral perfection, as pure and unsullied a white as possible, and refers to the tale of innocent and beautiful Snow White. The work is accompanied by a short, anonymous story found on the internet, a feminist critique of the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales. Naazish Attaullah’s Transparency of Time and Nilofar Akmut’s Virginal Vaginas address the relationship between the body and the self. The work examines: what happens when a self takes on a body or a body takes on a self, is the self independent of the body, what roles do the body’s limitations and temporality play in defining the self, what demands do society, culture, and religion place on the body? While Umber Majeed’s Two Fridas examines women artists’ autobiography with relation to the body, as a collective experience across geographies. Ayesha Jatoi’s Clothesline and Residue are two works that were performed 10 years apart. Using a fighter plane that stands as a proud monument in a public square, to dry her laundry and folding white children’s laundry to mourn a terrorist attack on a school that killed 134 innocent children, Jatoi’s seemingly unthreatening womanly tasks, act as public criticism of what we celebrate and what we lament as a nation. Zoya Siddiqui’s untitled video examines the self through the presence of the Other. In order to explore her interests in identity, performance, representation, and the role of the camera as a witness, Siddiqui mirrors, or rather switches the roles of the observer and the observed. This video displays people performing their portrait for her. It draws on the parallels between performance and portraiture to demonstrate the endless construction and deconstruction of selves within the context of predefined social roles that surround us. Rabbya Naseer and Hurmat ul Ain’s Crow Effect Project addresses similarities (and also differences) between individuals across borders, whether national, gendered, or cultural. Naseer and Ain invite a complete stranger for a three-course Pakistani meal, only in countries outside Pakistan. Temporarily becoming hosts in a country where they are otherwise guests, they switch the roles and power relations ever so subtly. Naseer, Ain, and the guests are the only viewers, participants, and witnesses to this event. Traces remain in memory, post-dinner emails, and a single photograph with each guest. Salima Hashmi’s Hunda Hubalna (how to boil an egg) is a comedy sketch originally made for Pakistani television in the 70s with the company Taal Matol, which produced social, cultural, and political satire during a period of military dictatorship. Through the use of self-parody and humor, Hashmi violates, mocks, and criticizes the state, state-run television, and their modus operandi. In order to say things that were otherwise prohibited at that time, humor became a very effective tool for rebellion, activism, and practicing authority over the parodied. This work also points out the differences in prescribed gendered roles for women between various social classes in Pakistan. Forty years later with an increasing interest in performance art, Hashmi now performs this work live at art galleries. Hurmat ul Ain’s Great Sacrifice refers to the story of Abraham’s great sacrifice. This masculine story is remembered every year by Muslims and is re-enacted on the annual religious festival Eid-Azha. On the day of the sacrifice, Muslims break their fast with a feast prepared using meat of a sacrificed animal. Ain’s work uses the sewing and cooking of goat testicles as a metaphor to highlight female labor associated with the celebrations. She switches the power relations to respond to ideas of sexuality in contrast to merits of profanity through examining actions performed by women in their everyday lives. A short story of Abraham’s great sacrifice (in which Abraham’s wife is mostly unacknowledged) accompanies the work. The overlap between national and gendered identities is a predominant theme. It perhaps suggests that the predicament of women is parallel to the political situation of the country. The opposition of the sexes mirrors the opposition of power relations. Pakistan with her continued colonization and women with their continued subjugation, both struggle with the patriarchy that controls their lives. These works explore the possibilities for a proactive engagement with the socio-political issues through art, a role that was formerly reserved for poetry and literature (and to some extent street theatre) in Pakistan. During trying times in the past, lyrical expression has enlightened, stimulated, and even mobilized the masses to the government’s dismay. Promises to Keep examines the context for performance art practice in Pakistan and its relationship to the history of performance art in the West (as an extension of conceptual art, feminist concerns and activist agendas). More importantly, it intends to generate a discussion about the obligations and responsibilities of belonging and the risk of reinforcing stereotypes during the process of challenging them. The works selected for this exhibition encourage a dialogue about the definition of selfhood and its distorted reflections provided by the looking glass, vis-à-vis popular culture.