A black and white geometric
composition by artist Nasreen Mohamedi inspired by Islamic
motifs and geometric shapes
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
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
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
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
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at email@example.com)