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Women’s voices need to be heard: Saulat Ajmal on curating art exhibition ‘Intimate Conversations’

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Intimate Conversations is a group exhibition by eight brilliant women artists rooted in the subcontinent and spread around the world being held from February 25 to March 10 at the Royaat Art Gallery in Lahore.

The exhibition will feature seven new paintings, eight sculptures and nineteen works on paper which explore themes of love, life, metaphors of home and being a woman in today’s world, through abstractions of the human body and evocations of sacred iconography.

With eight artists speaking of their experiences of life and the process of making, the works defy a broad stroke social construct or an umbrella term to describe them all. The works stand for their individuality and yet they all speak to each other on a level that’s deeply personal. They are as similar to each other as the abstract expressionists’ works in their quest for making art that comes from within and just as different in their appearance.

The curator Saulat Ajmal, speaks exclusively to Pakistan Today regarding the artwork.

-Tell us about your background in arts, Saulat.

I’m an artist, educator, curator and writer trained in all matters of the arts from Hunter College in New York and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond VA. I’ve been working in this field for over a decade and a half in the US and have recently moved back to Pakistan.

I’m currently a permanent faculty at National College of Arts.

-You are an artist yourself, how did you venture into curating artworks?

Being in the creative field means that you constantly are looking at other artists that are part of the beauty of this field.

I have been teaching and curating shows in the US as well, but to move back and continue to create opportunities for artists to come together and show work here, to see a selection of some brilliant artists under one roof, is a win-win situation for me. I love to see what artists are constantly up to. Going into their studios is like being invited into peoples most sacred places. Talking about their works and bringing out what I choose to see as a collection that speaks to me, is the most intriguing element of curation for me. When you’re passionate about the arts this just makes sense in every way.

-Tell us about ‘Intimate Conversations’ and its relevance/relation to our country’s context. 

“Intimate Conversations” was inspired by a reading I always refer my students to. “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Helene Cixous. Cixous is a French philosopher, feminist writer and literary critic who talks about “écriture feminine” as the concept of women writing their own stories. If they don’t write them they will get erased from history and only be known through someone else’s lens, which is the male lens more often than not.

This is a very crucial concept for any society but especially in a society like ours, where women are juggling many hats and accomplishing feats and yet they are constantly being pigeonholed into stereotypes of the submissive gender.

-What mediums have the participating artists used in their artworks? 

There are paintings on wooden panels and canvas, works on paper and wasli, prints, sculptures made of resin and cut up cartons of alcohol and other found material.

-How is it that all participating artists happen to be women? 

This show is gender specific but I choose to work with women not to speak of their uniformity as a specific gender but rather to highlight their differences in their approach to life and art making. Life and art are not separable and I have specifically chosen artists that share a passion to express their innermost concerns of being alive. It takes courage to speak of your core concerns and women’s voices need to be heard. Being from a certain gender will always shape your experiences in life and inform your work but gender is never the only thing that defines you as a person. It’s your individuality that trumps all and that is what the show explores through these eight women artists.

I believe in the power of storytelling. When you spend time with someone’s work you get to know a lot about them and it’s always a pleasure to know what concerns artists are tackling and how they choose to portray them in their works. To get to see works by eight brilliant women at different points in their careers, juggling multiple hats and hopping continents, talking about their lives in the most beautiful visual ways, why would I not want to make those conversations seen and heard?

I tend to work with themes when I think of curating shows and this one stems from a very dear place for me that speaks to my own experiences as a woman, an artist, curator and an educator.

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ART Alert!

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Escape Through Art II curated by Mahaa Malik. Featuring the brilliant artists from all over Pakistan!

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Weekly roundup

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Here’s all the latest scoop you need on what’s been happening around town and across the globe. (June 8th – June 16th)

1 – It’s more than just a game – Fans around the world are tensely hoping the weather stays clear during the most anticipated World Cup 2019 clash between Pakistan and India 

2 – The newlyweds, Iman Ali and hubby Babar Bhatti are on their honeymoon in Istanbul 

3 – Photos of KP Minister of Information Shaukat Ali Yousafzai and his fellow officials sporting cat ears and whiskers went viral on Friday night after the social media team running the live broadcast on the official PTI KP Facebook page forgot to disable the cat filter

4 – Instagram accounts turn blue as people all around the world Standing in solidarity with the people of Sudan who are being forced to endure countless horrific atrocities

5 – North west turns 6!

6 – On Saturday, Notre Dame Cathedral held its first mass since the devastating fire that tore through the building two months ago on April 15.

7 – It has been seven years since the Ghazal King Mehdi Hassan passed away but his absence failed to fade away and his ghazals rule over many hearts even today

8 – Mawra Hocane met Rishi Kapoor in New York 

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Entertainment

GAME OF LAWNS Summer is Here

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On a cold February night while mindlessly scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across a lawn advertisement. The next insta post showed socialites wearing sleeveless lawn suits at a launch event. Now I see these same women smiling into the camera almost every hour featured in different elitist magazines and posts. I could have sworn they were wearing jackets and carrying designer bags just yesterday at a polo match.

For those of you not familiar with lawn it’s a fabric to be worn in summers. It’s the finest form of cotton weave which has a soft almost luxurious feel to it. Its comfortable, airy and breathable to give women (never heard of men wearing it) much needed respite from the sweltering heat.

Some of the top brands which are magically sold out at Cinderalla time on their prebooking dates are Elan, Sana Safinaz, Faraz Manan and Sobia Nazir.

 “Please take care of yourselves, don’t put yourselves or others in harm’s way, be happy and stay safe.” Khadija Shah, designer of Elan addressed her customers on Instagram, preparing them for the battle ahead.

Lines are formed outside flagship stores the day of the pre-booking only to be broken as soon as doors open. Social media gets flooded with videos of violent women destroying anything and everything that comes in their way. Salesmen scarred both emotionally and physically.

 “A furious customer smashed a salesman’s head,” said Tahir who works as a driver and was an eyewitness to the incident.

 The disgruntled man had queued up for Elan 3A since 6am. When he finally reached the salesman, he was told they had run out of stock.

Now why do a certain class of people, mostly educated, behave like this is beyond human comprehension. Pushing and shoving are considered milder forms of aggression when it comes to buying their chosen design.

There is method to this madness. First the social media campaigns start. Then you see pictures and videos of unbelievably tall and beautiful women with fair skin and European features wearing long shirts, flared trousers and flowing silk dupattas (long scarves worn traditionally in Pakistan). Some are basking in the sun on a cruise in Italy with their fluttering dupattas following them everywhere. Others lying on a sofa in a French palace and some staring blankly while walking in a forest. The designs and campaigns of different designer brands each year have started looking eerily like each other.

Then the catalogues come out. Hype is created and countdown to online pre-booking starts. Women look through endless pictures while holding their breath and write the codes to their favorite designs for pre-booking. Its status symbol and the race to wear it first rather than the love for lawn that drives sales. There is frenzy around this time. Girls try to ask their friends which one they will buy while casually mentioning they will not buy any designer lawn this season as not to disclose the codes of the suits they are trying to get.

I vowed not to get into the designer lawn trap but unfortunately succumbed to buying just one suit. When I went to collect it, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who took me to the side and started whispering that she had the ‘out of stock’ lawn joras. She handed out her number on a piece of paper and disappeared as swiftly as she had appeared.

Out of curiosity and partly because the design my mother liked was also the first to run out, I called that number to ask about availability. To my horror, the woman quoted almost double the price for the same suit! Talk about creating a business opportunity out of women’s desperation to wear their favorite design before their friends do.

Now I know, designer lawns are nowhere in the affordable range. Most are around Rs 7,000 for a three-piece suit which include unstitched fabric for a shirt and trouser, a dupatta and some random patches (with little to no information given where each patch belongs). But paying double of that seemed unreasonable and wrong.

If you thought the ordeal ends here, wait till you take this lawn suit for stitching. The otherwise friendly tailors during winter months start showing attitude during this season. The prized packet comes with a paper indicating contents in English (I wonder why not in Urdu) and a picture of a model wearing it. When you open it, random cloth pieces much like a jigsaw puzzle keep coming out. Surprisingly this baffles the customers, but the tailors exactly know what fits where. For their services, they charge exorbitantly. Appliques, patches, hem, trimmings, home delivery, stitching early are some of the add-ons included in the final stitching bill which is not meant for the light-hearted. Stitching costs can go up to Rs 3000 or more for a suit.

The Pakistani rupee hit an all-time low of around 146 against the dollar and further devaluation is expected. People are complaining about inflation and rising food prices but there is silence on the topic of exorbitant designer lawn prices. How can so many people afford something so expensive?

More and more textile mills are collaborating with designers to come up with their lawn collection each year. This year low-priced alternatives by coveted designer brands like Muzlin by Sana Safinaz and Zaha by Elan were seen in the market but not met with that much enthusiasm by the seasoned lawn buyers. The whole concept of designer lawn works on looking expensive and showing off otherwise the veterans of lawn like Al Karam, Gul Ahmed and Nishat Linen still have the softest and purest form of the fabric.

Lawn mania doesn’t end here. Now that Eid is around the corner, all the brands are coming out with their formal collection. Did I mention Volume II and III will follow?

The saga never ends…   Maha Shah is a freelance writer, journalist and HR professional who has worked for Google and Bloomberg and has lived in Jordan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar and now Pakistan

By Maha Shah

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