In her recent show at Canvas Gallery Karachi, Nausheen Saeed transforms the female form to hint at how the body is perceived in a culture
By Quddus Mirza
A photograph recently published in many newspapers shows Greek women, dressed in ancient costumes, as if they are from 2000 years ago. They are preparing to perform for the ritualistic inaugural ceremony of the Olympic Games. Their dresses remind of classical Greek sculptures, which still serve as models of aesthetics, beauty, proportion and ideal representation of human body.
These sculptures are known for an incredible level of realism that the Greek artists managed to grasp, achieve and create for the first time ever. It is this idea of perfection contained in the statues that still fascinates millions.
Apart from the contours of human form, the sculptures also reveal how the artists dealt with drapery as an outer layer of the body, almost a substitute or extension of human anatomy. One of the best examples of this blend of body and cloth is seen in the Nike of Samothrace (circa 190 BC), in which wet fabric is wrapped on the body of the victory goddess in a way that one gets the sensation of moisture, water and even wind. Besides its significance for historical, archaeological and cultural reasons, the sculpture stands out for its pictorial quality.
This transformation is not about material only; it takes place in the realm of concepts which are connected to one or the other material. This is evident in the works of contemporary artist Nausheen Saeed. In her recent sculptures (from her exhibition Untouchable, held from Sept 24– Oct 3, 2013 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi), she blends the body with another entity — polythene bags. Female figures in the state of nakedness are enveloped by large scale polythene bags — all fabricated in fiberglass (clear polyester resin, to be more precise!).
So, like her Greek predecessors, Saeed too combines two different entities and transposes them into a third one. Hence, a viewer looking at her sculptures hanging on the wall, suspended from the ceiling, or put on the pedestal hardly notices the presence of polyester resin — the actual substance in front of him — but experiences the existence of female body and a shopping bag that are both absent.
This trait of alluring a spectator’s gaze onto another object which is not physically there is a feat of magicians, shared by the artists. Some do it in an unbelievably immaculate way. However, what distinguishes a sorcerer from a sculptor or an artist is intentions: a magician conjures up his act for a quick and short-lived effect, while the artist seeks a longer, wider and deeper result and impact.
In that sense, Nausheen Saeed’s endeavour to change the body into a form trapped inside a transparent shopping bag is not about a shift in material only; it hints at how the body is perceived in a culture.
The most obvious and immediate message is the state of women in a male-dominated society which treats females as products of pleasure, consumes them sexually, morally and domestically. For an ordinary man, a woman is not an independent individual; he usually associates her with a male-designated relation: mother, sister, aunt, daughter, wife or even mistress. A single woman, a professional who is pursuing her career without the clutches of a man, has been seen for years as odd as a female driver on the roads. Just as newspaper photographers at one time seemed fascinated with a woman holding a cigarette which was printed prominently with the caption ‘A woman smoking in a function’. There was, of course, nothing odd about men in a similar situation.
Categorizing men and women in a particular way extended to segregating professions. That is how gender roles prevail in a majority of minds. Yet apart from the specific place allocated to them, a woman is regarded as an entity made of flesh who exists for the sake of man’s gaze or delight. And even the woman in clothes is judged as enticing as without them. Thus, it is considered mandatory for them to further cover themselves in burkas or chadars.
So regardless of whether women choose to or are forced to wear a veil in any form, they do feel vulnerable despite their physical strength or psychological supremacy. Nausheen Saeed suggests that state by transforming the women into body-bags — objects that exist between a female form and an ordinary polythene bag used for carrying other items. It can easily be ripped, thrown away, and does not have a particular body, shape or presence — like water acquiring any form. An idiom that perfectly describes the situation of many women who are supposed to assume a new persona and identity once they move to a new family, beginning with altering their last name.
Saeed can hardly be classified a feminist because she does not believe in labels but her work is about exploring the condition of women and simultaneously revealing the issues with men. As she said in her much quoted interview with the Hindustan Times, ‘Men are the problem’. Instead of adopting a position or a combative stance, she seeks to investigate the inherent problem and poses it in the diction of art. So the suspended bodies, hung forms, and displayed torsos are part of a narrative that is paradoxically painful as well as indispensible and desirable.