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Dil Na-Umid to Nahi

A Group Show at The Faiz Festival

Zohreen Murtaza

The exhibition titled ‘Dil Na-Umid to Nahi’ was curated by Saulat Ajmal, Sheraz Faisal and assisted by Asad Ullah Khan (Rohtas Gallery). It remained on display on 8th, 9th and 10th February.

From political upheaval, subversive acts to dissent and social critique: women artists in Pakistan have seen it all and done it all. The implications of this tumult have been varied but regardless of their class or origin, many women artists have in fact, gone so far as to put their lives and careers on the line for art and its expression. What kind of art then has been produced by Pakistani women artists?  How has it responded to such complex socio-political scenarios? Can such art shape opinions about women in art? Does their art say something about the mental and cultural wellbeing of a nation where phrases like ‘gender inequality’, ‘women’s rights’ and ‘patriarchy’ are still met with uncomfortable, stony silence, unwarranted vitriol or simply regarded as controversial or contested at best? It is hard not to think of these questions as one strolls through a grand exhibition of artworks by thirty-seven women artists that opened at The Alhamra Gallery, Lahore as part of the literary talks and discussions that are held at The Faiz Festival.

The title of the exhibition ‘Dil Na-Umid to Nahi’ (The Heart has not just lost hope) has been borrowed from a verse by eminent poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The complete verse reads as follows:

The Heart has not just lost hope. But just a fight that is all

The night of suffering is long. But it is just a night after all

Some of the nuances of the gravitas ensconced in the words of Faiz—a plea that is not weary or bittersweet or even plaintive but unflinching and resilient at best, is captured in many of the works included in the exhibition. There is this tacit agreement that one must consciously attempt to honour such a contentious history and that is evident in the curation: it unfolds like a retrospective of critical junctures and debates around distinct themes. Some contain coded critique that was necessitated by periods of censorship while others are unapologetic in their commentary and expression.  The content and display is interlaced with the same tenor of dissent that defined the life and trajectory of Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Artists’ works have been clustered or spaced out across the length and even breath (many works hang suspended in the air) of the two floors of the gallery in terms of thematic displays that are to be unpacked either in relation to each other or as independent works in themselves. There is diversity of medium, style, expression—but above all a desire to share narratives, experiences or simply questions that ought to be asked or perhaps never had the chance to be posited in a public space.

The sheer number of artists is testament to the success, grit and determination of women artists who have against all odds remained prolific and consistent throughout the years. The artists include Meher Afroz, Sana Arjumand, Naazish Ata Ullah, Noorjehan Bilgrami, Faiza Butt, Ruby Chishti, Talat Dabir, Zarah David, Sabina Gillani, Amber Hammad, Salima Hashmi, Rabia Hassan, Mariam Ibraaz, Ferwa Ibrahim, Samina Iqbal, Shehnaz Ismail, Durriya Kazi, Maheen Kazim, Bushra Waqas Khan, Naiza Khan, Rahat Naveed Masud, Mussarat Mirza, Nurayah Sheikh Nabi, Sadaf Naeem, Nusra Latif Qureshi, Rabbya and Hurmat, Laila Rahman, Talha Rathore, Nahid Raza, Fatima Saeed, Farida Batool, Nausheen Saeed, Wardha Shabbir, Adeela Suleman, Farazeh Syed, Masooma Syed and Risham H. Syed.    

Family-II by Salima Hashmi (mixed media on archival paper; 2024)

Chaddar by Naazish Ata Ullah (oil on canvas; 1983)

Dil-Na-Umid by Meher Afroz (acrylic on canvas; 2024)

On normal days the Alhamra Gallery remans quiet and at special openings attracts a select audience at best. To see it teeming and bursting with an unusually large number of visitors who were of all ages and professions and who were actively engaged with these artworks says something about the relevance, scale and curatorial concept behind this exhibition. Most importantly it says something about the staying power of the works produced in what can best be described as a Show that aims to impress.

There are artworks featured in the exhibition that have rarely been seen or exhibited at galleries in Lahore or perhaps even in Pakistan. Many are internationally acclaimed while others have been firsthand witnesses to the trials and tribulations of living through some very eventful years that have defined the nation’s relationship with art and women.

The first-floor features works by stalwarts such as Naazish Ata-ullah, Salima Hashmi, Zahra David, Meher Afroz, Mussarat Mirza, Shehnaz Ismail, Talat Dabir, Naiza Khan and Maheen Kazim.

Homage to Gaza III by Noorjehan Bilgrami (mix media; 2024)

Meem Mashreq, Meem Maghrib by Laila Rahman (stainless steel, graphite and oil on board; 2018)

Ali Trade Center series V (with Orange Flamingo) by Risham Syed (2022)

The Distance between Microcosm and Macrocosm by Sana Arjumand (acrylic and oil on canvas; 2023)

In My Own Skin by Farazeh Syed (acrylic paint and chalk on canvas; 2017)

Many tackle the discomfiting question of female presence in the public sphere while some carry the ineffable weight of radical politics, promulgation of right-wing ideologies in the 70s and 80s and the strict censorship that followed in its wake. Works that capture this sentiment include Ata Ullah’s somber, painterly portrayal of a solitary figure in burqa gliding across an empty void made in 1983 and one of Hashmi’s most iconic works titled ‘Pursuing Radiance’ (2004) executed in mixed media in hues of red featuring a sensitively rendered hand radiating with a tentative desire to grasp a tainted flower.

Zahra David, with her economy of strokes explores the subjective forms and silhouettes of burqa clad figures while one of Naiza Khan’s metal sculptures from her ‘Armour Skirts’ series provides a fitting contrast with its industrial shine; where can we begin the conversation about female bodily autonomy when all these aesthetic iterations of the female form executed in metal , clay, oil and textile on this floor portray it simultaneously in stasis and in  flux.

As one segues into the hall leading to the first floor one is accosted by the arresting scale of the artworks. Wardha Shabbir’s gargantuan drawing of a tree is alive with stories, myths and nature while Laila Rahman’s circular paintings are like compasses that bleed life, death, colour.  Quasi sculptural and part self-reflective, the dialectical views emblazoned and represented through text and colour speak of celestial changes and a cosmic reimagining that challenges the unequal definitions of ‘East’ and ‘West.’ Much of the works featured in this section engage with nature-based imagery and associations whether it is Bilgrami’s Lilliputian creation of intimate spaces with folded fabrics and arrangements that explore the relationships between colour, history and intimate self -reflection or Talha Rathore’s ebullient seed drawings.

Notable works in the next gallery include Rahat Naveed Masud’s rather witty inversion of the male gaze and portrayal of female figures as they relax with their cell phones and personal belongings under shaded trees or near the edge of verdant landscapes. Farazeh Syed’s bold depictions of post-colonial anxieties are disquieting but also mildly triumphant: she brings in identity politics and subverts the male gaze by posturing and posing triumphantly in “a man’s world.” Meanwhile Sana Arjumand’s gorgeously painted plumed birds with their iridescent eyes and indomitable pride resemble metaphors for an untenable spirit that emerges phoenix-like after a long, triumphant cosmic journey.

The body and its relationship with nature, earth, colonialism, society and class is a theme that recurs in various manifestations whether it is Naushen Saeed’s poignant portrayal of a patterned figure sculpted and stitched together from fabric. The zip and handle on its spine is incisive in its critique about the ‘object” ification, movement and migration of people as bodies with no identity and what it represents as it remains in inertia. It is a rare treat to see one of Bushra Waqas Khan’s diminutive gowns displayed in all its glory and breathtaking detail in a glass case, Khan’s works are delicate conversations about the baggage of colonialism ,  and territory. Her works are usually appear in exhibitions across the world in international galleries. Metaphor, allegory and storytelling are an integral part of Masooma Syed’s exploration of objects as she dismantles their materiality. The luscious mane of hair shaped like the razor edge of a knife in Syed’s reinterpretation of an object of possible violence creates a discomfiting association with the sensory experience of simply “looking” at a female body. This is reiterated equally in Sadaf Naeem’s arrangement of knotted torsos that hover uncomfortably between corporeal presence and fragmentation.

Farida Batool’s morbid voyeurism and fascination with the forms and contours of a fragmented body and bodily fluids extends this argument as she zooms in erratically to lead the viewer down a sensory and tactile journey across the terrains of the physical body.

Whenever sculpted, painted or drawn, the representation of chairs in the works of Pakistani artists often carries a coded pun that is usually laced with masculine associations with structures of power. Samina Iqbal’s somewhat undulating chair in patterned fabric, lovingly stitched together shifts this debate towards female representation/misrepresentation and its resultant power structures.

The Journey of Memory by Faiza Butt (archival ink on Mylar sheet; 2024)

Lamellar Variable by Bushra Waqas

The battle cries of women chanting  ‘jin jiyan azadi’ (women, life, freedom) still reverberate,  the clampdown on women’s education in Afghanstan continues and even an international exhibition that has revisited the debate around “Third World” Feminism originally conceptualized by Ana Mendieta, Kazuko Miyamoto Zarina Hashmi with ‘The Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States’ is being revisited. All of the works in this exhibition are relevant and their concerns dominate discourse about feminism and the role of women in art, regardless of geography.

This incendiary fire, the indomitable spirit and ethos encapsulated in this exhibition have served as fuel for action, change and a creative response for Pakistani women artists in the past. Pakistani women artists both local and diaspora have had to position, shift and reshape their art practices in relation to events that have attempt to wrest their destinies from them. ‘Dil Na-Umid to Nahi’ (The Heart has not just lost hope) narrates the story of this struggle.


Zohreen Murtaza is a visual artist, writer and academic. Currently she is a Lecturer in the Cultural Studies Department at The National College of Arts, Lahore. She completed both her BFA and MA (Hons) Visual Art from NCA.

Since then Zohreen has branched into teaching, researching and writing extensively on art. Her writings have been published regularly in Dawn newspaper, and her reviews have been published in The Friday Times, Artnow, ADA Magazine and The Karachi Collective. Her writings have also appeared internationally in Canvas magazine Dubai and TAKE art magazine, India. Zohreen was the recipient of the Nigaah Art Award for Art Critic in 2022.


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