Publication: January 2014
NAIZA Khan, who was born in 1968, lives in the Pakistani port of Karachi where she works as an artist in various media including drawing, watercolour, sculpture and film. In 2013 she received a Prince Klaus Award, from the Netherlands, when she joined a small group of international laureates recognised for outstanding contributions to culture.
Khan is one of her country’s few contemporary artists whose work challenges existing structures in relation to gender, religion and ethnicity. As a child she lived in Lebanon and England and, as well as speaking Urdu and English, she is also fluent in Spanish and French. This international perspective has allowed her to view her own culture through the prism of nuanced experience.
In an intensely patriarchal culture, which tends towards the subjugation of women, she is able, paradoxically, to create work which slips under the radar of a censorious establishment.
In 2003 Khan created Henna Hands, composite images of women made using a repeated stencilled image based on a female hand. These quietly subversive works were made on the walls near one of Karachi’s railway stations.
In her 2008 exhibition ‘The Skin She Wears’ Khan made a series of disconcerting drawings and metal sculptures which combined the apparently opposing ideas of femininity and aggression. These armoured skirts and under-garments suggested a critique on the control of female sexuality.
Here Khan explores the culture and history of Manora island, which stands at the strategically important entrance to Karachi’s harbour, in a series of beautiful ink-and-watercolour drawings, as well as film. Manora has been at the crossroads of history since the time of Alexander the Great. Here are a Hindu temple, a 19th century lighthouse built by the British, a meteorological observatory and the more recent debris of demolished government school. In the cleared rubble Khan came across a pile of broken classroom furniture. Her film, Homage, documents how she created an impromptu memorial to children who were buried and killed here by a collapsing wall.
The island is a microcosm of a city and society; Khan has followed the well-worn credo that artists are often well advised to work with material which is familiar. Working closely with such material allows Khan to create an intimate portrait, which never descends into bathos or sentimentality. Her film of the derelict meteorological station is overlaid with readings from a weather log, which includes numbers of deaths caused by natural disasters. This allows her to offer an oblique commentary on the daily litany of death, fuelled by ethnic and political conflict.
Khan’s drawings are precise and architectural; her structures are combined with pools and patterns of delicate, multi-hued watercolour. Her films are projected into large screens on the gallery floor and walls. Together, these become sculptural and monumental, which, when seen together, offer new perspectives, both literal and conceptual.
Khan’s voice is intelligent, brave and consistently challenging. Her achievements seem all the more impressive given the obvious constraints within which she operates.