Family Hall
Family Hall

For centuries, representations of women in South Asian visual art have defined female experience through difference, weakness, sexual availability, domesticity, passivity – objects to be represented in art as opposed to the makers of art. However, today “the canons of fine art practice in Pakistan are being challenged by a number of contemporary artists, mainly women who find prevalent art forms unable to address profound personal experience.”[i] Part of this chorus of female artists, rebutting the sexism and patriarchy that lies beneath the landscape of South Asian art history, is Karachi-based Haya Zaidi. The artist produces work that untangles the relationship between women, art, identity and patriarchal power-relations in Pakistani society.

Showcasing her works at Sanat Initiative, Haya Zaidi imbricates the historical and the imaginative in bold, densely packed, multi-layered surfaces. Drawing on found images, stories, memories and objects, the artist builds fantastic worlds from both local everyday experiences and classical cultures that resist dominant narratives of South Asian history in cleverly evasive ways.

Characterised by bold colours and lines, Zaidi’s work pushes against two-dimensionalities, veering into the territory of collage. Ink splatters and acrylic washes are gestural and intensely expressive. In contrast, the lines and brushstrokes drawn across the work are highly visible —throughout and intentional. Composed of both easily decoded, more effusive and ambiguous imagery, Zaidi’s works speak to the constructed female identity, driven by her own personal experiences. Women’s domestic and family roles along with gender hierarchies come into play through materials used including tea stained, shredded and faded fabrics. Cut-outs of cutlery, like the one seen in Disassociating from self at night, 2021 (Fig2), further emphasise gendered labour. Often, Zaidi’s ways of rendering her subjects — as well as the multitude of objects that occupy her pictures — challenge historical modes of representation. Juxtaposing classical iconography with a rudimentary cartoon-like aesthetic, her practice proposes a more pluralistic approach to femininity.

(Fig 2) Disassociating from self at night, 2021, hand drawn digital illustration printed on archival acrylic sheet 20in x 24in

The works presented in Family Hall carry a sense of nostalgia emphasised by the use of scavenged fabrics and magazine cuttings amongst other elements that were collected and associatively re-presented. This style of work is often regarded as kitsch – a fairly modern phenomenon.[ii] Adding to this Kitsch reverie are clothes-lines upon which some of these works hang. A rope holds the pieces up onto the white wall of the gallery space, scraps of fabric hang loosely alongside, further indicating the domestic roles of Pakistani women.

“As a bystander of South Asian culture, working with feminine identity, I have found my work to be inseparable from the so-called ‘Kitsch’ culture. In my visits to local grocery vendors, corporate shopping malls, slums I’ve never found myself present in a minimal space devoid of lustre and glint.”[iii]

This lustre and opulence when it comes to art works can be traced back to Mughal miniature art – a technique deeply embedded in Zaidi’s work. Drawing from her training at Lahore’s prominent art school NCA, Zaidi’s work involves the use of wasli, a material used ‘traditionally by miniature painters in Indo-Pak’ [iv], bringing into account a sense of historical consciousness while maintaining a new, witty visual dialogue. “The department of miniatures [sic] at NCA has had a reputation since its inception as an orthodox and rather patriarchal program that has involved a rigorous copying of existing works from Mughal courts as its primary form of pedagogy.”[v] What is striking about Zaidi’s work is the unapologetic way in which she harnesses this narrative genre from the Mughal era to serve the interests, expressions, desires and sensibilities of the 21st century Pakistani woman. There is a distinctive sense of humour and satire present in her work that laughs at the ironic juxtapositions of everyday life. By driving home gendered themes and viewpoints, Zaidi’s work while revives miniature art, does so in a way that in spirit is subversive and disruptive.

(Fig 4) An Endless Desire to Disappear Forever, 2020 Ink, acrylic, false eyelashes, collage, spray paint and contact paper

This challenge is posed not only to form but subject too. Unlike the women represented in traditional miniature art that are often idealised, oriental, exoticized and represented through a male gaze, Zaidi’s works depict South Asian women in a different light, wearing loose clothing with fuller bodies. Decoratively-dressed and loud, the females represented gesture ironically to historical precedent – allowing for a revision of what it means to be a woman. Marked by this intrinsic playfulness and whimsy, Zaidi’s work tackles with slippery concepts that may be difficult to grasp singularly. Weaving them together through an array of mediums the artist creates a collage, that comes together to form a collective dialogue leaving audiences with a complex conceptual impact. To view it in physical form, under close scrutiny demonstrates the artists precision and attention to detail which layers works with hard hitting truths. Engaging with politics of representation, Zaidi’s works challenge the way in which we consume imagery, giving agency to truth, poetry to process and power to intent.

Haya Zaidi’s show ‘Family Hall’ was showcased at Sanat Initiative from Tuesday, 9th March 2021 to Thursday, 18th March 2021.

Cover image: Family Hall, 2021, Neon Lights on acrylic sheet, 24in x 36in


[i] HASHMI, Salima. “A Wished for Song: Craft and the Work of Pakistani Women.”   2003.
[ii] Morreall, John, and Jessica Loy. “Kitsch and Aesthetic Education.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 23, no. 4, 1989,   pp. 63–73. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Apr. 2021.
[iii] (Zaidi)
[iv] Hassan, Fatima Zahra. “Brush and Wasli Paper for Mughal and Persian Miniature Painting.”
[v] Mathur, Saloni. “Raiding the Miniature Tradition: Art of the South Asian Diaspora .”

Myla Essa is a Karachi based Interior designer and a graduate of The Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture. Her work specializes in creating holistic spaces and furniture pieces that facilitate intentional living through mindful design. She also writes frequently for Libas Now magazine and is the co-founder of Vile, a platform that seeks to curate culture and heritage alongside contemporary design.

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