Most women in Pakistan are bound by tradition, customs and norms, and comply with these till the next generation is ready to inherit their place and role. However, recent decades have witnessed a change in women’s position and status here. Now you see women as active participants in society, performing tasks along with their male counterparts: from marching with the army squad in the Independence Day parade, flying commercial planes, heading banks, running major businesses, managing educational institutions to serving food at coffee shops and working as traffic wardens etc.
This may seem like a positive change for a society that subjugated women in the name of tradition. Yet this scenario may well be an illusion rather than a true picture of women’s situation. Because, in the current scheme of things, reality is not what is presented or projected through media. Women are still chained within a system that consists of norms, ethics, morality and honour (anyone who dares to deviate from it may meet her fate in the form of fatal end of Qandeel Baloch).
Apart from the brave souls and victims, there is a silent majority that lies low in the name of safety. Tradition keeps them oppressed and marginalised. Sadaf Naeem addresses this segment of society, through her meticulously constructed canvases from her solo exhibition ‘Surrounded’ (March 28-April 3, 2017) at Chawkandi Art Karachi. In her work, she creates a scenario in which a woman is engulfed by something which could be of her own choice or provided to her. Silhouettes of women behind screens of patterned fabric remind of women in veils, hijab or burka — not a new subject in painting nor an exhausted visual. As long as girls ‘opt’ to cover themselves in a culture, this issue in art and other fields of knowledge will be addressed and in diverse formats.
Sadaf Naeem approaches the subject in another manner. Probably one can understand the artist’s position about gender through her choice of name. Usually married women are expected to change their second name after marriage. In some cases, it is the woman’s preference. No matter what the reason is, the fact is that women acquire a different ‘identity’ along with a new house and lifestyle after signing the marriage contract. This happens not only in the third world but across the world. Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Amal Clooney, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro are just a few examples.
In some cases, changing the second name is a way of making a compromise with the new environment in which the task and responsibility of the wife is defined — as the keeper of the house and of values. The domesticity and tradition are perceived in a certain manner which, more than personal selection, comply with the consented notion of conduct in a culture. In a subtle sense, Sadaf Naeem invokes that state through her carefully crafted imagery.
If one deconstructs the elements of her visual vocabulary, one stumbles upon a certain recurring motif: the presence of a net-like blind through which one sees the world, yet not clearly. For the artist, this pictorial segment is so important that it emerges in many of her paintings. Transparent tapestry, composed of patterns against human beings or landscape that really do not hide nor reveal, is significant in order to comprehend the art and aesthetics of Naeem.
In most of her surfaces, one comes across this screen of curtain-like fabric that overlaps with a portion of a lawn in a house and figure of a mother with her child, plants, hedges, and flowers. In fact, all these denote how a perfect household or an exemplary female could be viewed in the larger scheme of things. So the portion of a garden, part of a plant and some vegetation is visible, but still leisurely concealed behind that web of motif in a piece of fabric.
Her work can be admired for the remarkable skill in rendering the ‘outside’ world, yet it is more significant for its depiction or suggestion of inner self. Through her use of pictorial components representing nature and culture as metaphors for being free and being ordered, Naeem alludes to that state in which we start presuming nature as a tamed entity. Nature or the visible outside can be the nature of woman. A crucial conjecture that is addressed through her carefully picked body of images, in which you feel that women are still part of garden, vegetation or the inner sanctorum of one’s living.
Many years after the Zia’s reign and the fading memory of that Islamist regime, one still inquires about the subject of women’s stature and place in today’s Pakistan; especially because nobody forces a female to adopt hijab. The link between ‘free will’ and ‘imposed act’ is important in Naeem’s works, since in some cases it is not about religion or state but more about customs and general practice — all traced to man-manipulated conditions — that present the ‘option’ of covering one’s face or body only if you are a female.
In Sadaf Naeem’s paintings, that sense of veil is substituted with curtain that overlaps and overwhelms a woman’s surroundings. Perhaps her work is a subtle comment on the practice of concealing the other gender, that is imposed by men but it blinds them as well. Naeem is seeking to claim her rightful position that will help men to come to terms with women; because as Camille Paglia says: “women will never know who they are until they let men be men”. In the same lieu, men will never know who they are until they let women be women!