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Muslim women creating new artscape

Wednesday September 14, 2011 02:42:08 PM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

A black and white geometric composition by artist Nasreen Mohamedi inspired by Islamic motifs and geometric shapes

(Photo: IANS)

New Delhi: Using icons of Islam, a small group of Muslim women is creating a genre of art that seeks to address contemporary socio-political issues and concerns related to empowerment of women.

"They are innovating on elements from Islam to interpret what is happening to them and it goes beyond religion to become utterly human and secular," Ashok Vajpeyi, the chairperson of the Lalit Kala Akademi, told IANS.

"Traditionally, not many women have existed in the field of art. It is an interesting emergence in the sense that there have been women writers in the 18th century. For a long time, it was thought that Islam did not allow visual representation."

Two stalwarts in this world of Islamic art are Zarina Hashmi and the late Nasreen Mohamedi, who have re-interpreted Islamic calligraphy, geometry and spiritual linguistics on their canvas to engage with the 21st century world.

Karachi-born Nasreen Mohamedi, who died of Parkinson's disease in 1990 in India and was often described by critics and reviewers as progressive, addressed issues of urbanisation and the correlation between space, structures, time and dislocation in her grid-like works that were uncharacteristic of a Muslim woman artist.

"Both Zarina's and Nasreen's canvases are very secular. They should not be viewed as Islamic artists," said Vajpeyi, who is also chairperson of Copal Art, an emerging art platform.

Copal Art had recently organised a dialogue which turned the spotlight on the significant role women artists are gradually playing in the contemporary world of Islamic art.

A mixed media installation by New York-based senior Indian artist Zarina Hashmi at an ongoing exhibition, "Home Spun", in the Devi Art Foundation in the capital is a set of eight letters written by Zarina's sister Rani from Pakistan but could not be mailed.

The Urdu letters documented important socio-political events in the subcontinent during the 1940s and 1950s.

Hashmi superimposed the pages with Islamic calligraphy to create new metaphors that spoke of "everyday life in Pakistan and India from an Islamic perspective at a time when the country was in a transformational state".

As an artist, Zarina Hashmi who left India for New York in 1976 was a rebel, says art critic, curator and historian Roobina Karode.

"Initially, she was upset by the fact that American viewers expected her to offer Indian cliches - like vibrant colours and ornamentation. Her sparse, frugal and white canvases were seen as 'un-Indian'. When she reached New York for the first time in 1938, the feminist (women's suffrage) movement in the US was at its peak. Zarina was inspired by American feminists like Adrienne Rich, Nancy Spero and Amy Sillman," Karode told IANS.

A new generation of women artists are carrying this legacy forward.

Shabnam Shah of Indore uses a "black and white" colour palette to interpret Islamic icons while designer-artist Nida Mehmood breaks new ground with her brand of popular and kitsch art to address contemporary realities.

Karachi-based multimedia artist and photographer Bani Abidi, married to Delhi-based Indian graphic artist and novelist Sarnath Banerjee, comments on cultural diversities in the subcontinent from the perspective of a Muslim woman and practitioner of Islam.

"I definitely think there is a large body of women trying to create a new language of modernity from the Islamic background, finding a voice of their own with their own tools," Amal Allana, eminent theatre personality and director of the Art Heritage Gallery, told IANS.

Agrees Salima Hashmi, the dean of the Visual Arts Department of the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore. "It is an act of courage on the part of these Islamic girls to come out to tackle subject matters that were taboo earlier - like female sexuality, ownership of the body, violence against women and democracy".

Several of her women students, like Faiza Butt, Masooma Syed, also married to an Indian, and Ruby Chisti, address radical issues without deviating from the matrix of the greater Islamic religious ethos.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at 






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