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Challenging the masculine rubric of progress: Saba Khan's art practice

During a time of ecological devastation in Pakistan, we catch up with Lahore-based artist Saba Khan, whose work looks at bureaucracy, gender, public space and hydro-ecologies.

by Niyati DavePublished on : Oct 31, 2022

When Saba Khan tells me that her first exposure to “art” came when, as a child, she would be stuck in traffic behind exuberantly painted trucks on the way to the Pakistani hill-retreat Murree, it somehow makes sense.

“Growing up in Lahore, we didn’t have galleries — you didn’t go to the museum with your parents on a Sunday or anything like that.”

Cake in the Drawing Room from Rosy Dreams, 2015 | Saba Khan | STIRworld
Cake in the Drawing Room from Rosy Dreams, 2015 Image: Courtesy of the artist

While she went to the Lahore Museum once in a while, she says her excursions to older parts of Lahore, where old buildings, colonial structures and the workshops of craftspeople and artisans jostled for space, informed her public art practice most directly.

This influence is evident in the almost anthropological eye with which Khan appropriates and deploys local visual references in her practice. Her works balance an exuberance in expression — an expression that has gleaned the visual idiom of streets; painted trucks; government offices; and the aspirational grandeur of Pakistani middle classes as expressed through architecture and design —  with rigour in research.

House and Garden from Rosy Dreams, 2015, Saba Khan | Saba Khan | STIRworld
House and Garden from Rosy Dreams, 2015 Image: Courtesy of Saba Khan

Take her work for Monuments and Other Follies, from 2019 and Rosy Dreams from 2015. Rosy Dreams expresses the exuberance and excess of an aspirational upper class, consuming their way towards a dream life. Furniture, confectionaries and visual excess abound, with each object serving as a Bourdieu-esque exercise in the consolidation and communication of status and taste. Operating at the interstices of middle-class aesthetics and bureaucratic notions of public space, Monuments and Other Follies reveals a series of cookie-cutter, generic numbered series of miniature models, titled Dream House.

An archetypal image of a Government officer, Monuments and Other Follies, 2019, Saba Khan | Saba Khan | STIRworld
An archetypal image of a government officer, Monuments and Other Follies, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Saba Khan

The blandness of these dreams is offset by a series of sculptures that serve as plans for monuments commemorating ‘undecided events’. Accompanying these are archetypal sketches of The Clerk, The Bureaucrat, and The Security Guard as well as bureaucratic files detailing civic interventions, underscoring the hierarchies of taste and political power that shape urban landscapes in postcolonial cities. It brings to mind the work of recent scholars such as the geographer Asher Ghertner who has written extensively on how aspirational efforts to transform Delhi into a world-class city show how the aesthetic norms of an elite upper-crust can be mobilised to shape and govern space and take precedence over thoughtful social design and inclusive urban planning.

Charting out the trajectory of the concerns she addresses through her practice, she says, “I am inspired by Gautam Bhatia's book, Punjabi Baroque. Even our houses need to show which class we are coming from and how much money we hold. And then you go on to think about how the allocation of resources also mirror discrepancies in classes — and then how are big institutions like the World Bank, the government also appropriating resources and the sort of world that is shaping.”

A detailed plan for a monument commemorating an “undecided event” from Monuments and Other Follies, 2019, Saba Khan  | Saba Khan | STIRworld
A detailed plan for a monument commemorating an “undecided event” from Monuments and Other Follies, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Saba Khan
Installation shot from Monuments and Other Follies, 2019, Saba Khan | Saba Khan | STIRworld
Installation shot from Monuments and Other Follies, 2019 Image: Courtesy of Saba Khan

If Khan’s earlier work engages with the scale of the rich city-dwellers home or the inept bureaucrat’s office, much of her work with the collective she founded — the Pak Khawateen Painting Club — takes these concerns about how power shapes our material realities to the scale of the national, even the geological.

“We look like housewives — like good girls. Nobody suspects us of any wrongdoing,” she says when I ask her to tell me more about the club. The name of the club translates roughly to “Good Girl’s Club” — with the Pak standing for Pak as in pure and possibly as a shortened version of Pakistan. The wordplay is sly — signalling towards a nationalistic femininity in its notion of pureness, while also making a slant reference to the idea of ‘purity’ as in a lack of pollution, a lack of disruption to nature. It also brings to mind the nomenclature of the many “hobby” ladies groups in South Asian cities of mostly upper-class women coming together to do ikebana or origami.

Wearing coordinated salwar-kameez based on Pierre Cardin’s 1960s design for Pakistan International Airlines’ air hostesses, the group undergoes expeditions to investigate how hydroengineering has always been a site of control and mastery over geographies and the division of resources. Engaging with the colonial histories of water systems in the region, they also investigate how the rebirth of large-scale dam-building and other infrastructural projects are facilitating displacement, and ecological devastation as well as an erasure of landscapes and indigenous ways of life.

Pak Khawateen Painting Club at Mohenjodaro, Saba Khan | Saba Khan | STIRworld
Pak Khawateen Painting Club at Mohenjodaro Image: Courtesy of Saba Khan
The Club at Tarbela Dam, Saba Khan | Saba Khan | STIRworld
The Club at Tarbela Dam Image: Courtesy of Saba Khan

It is both a ‘feminine’ practice and a feminist practice as the club deploys and mobilises cultural understandings of a particular Pakistani femininity: ‘good,’ bourgeois, gymkhana-going, middle-class, bored housewife on holiday. Playing with these codes of meaning, the group manages to gain access to incongruous, gendered public spaces to then comment on them. It is specifically this conflation of “harmlessness” with a particular female body that allows them access to spaces where male bodies would have been seen with suspicion. It is simultaneously a comment both on the dismissiveness implicit in this assumption while also being a sly sleight of hand — a satirical playing along.

PKPC plein-air painting at Taunsa Barrage, Saba Khan | Saba Khan | STIRworld
PKPC plein-air painting at Taunsa Barrage Image: Courtesy of Saba Khan

Much of Khan’s work is similarly nuanced and incisive — playing with double entendres, humour, and keenly observing the realities of the many dysfunctions that real life in South Asia is plagued by. I am surprised, however, when she is quick to say that she does not believe in the power of art to create any concrete change. Over the years, her many expeditions — from the banks of the Indus River to the glaciers of Gilgit-Baltistan — have given her an acute insight into understanding water systems across Pakistan, how flood and drought have been induced and have affected populations unevenly, how many of the people working on the ground for these projects are simply doing their jobs. The problems run deep. Upon further probing, she says, “I see myself as somebody who's archiving these conversations with people and communities and even recording what spaces look like. No — I would like to believe that it would make a change. That’s why you keep going on making work because you believe, you want to listen to all these voices, or want to see what's going on (firsthand). Maybe this archive will help somebody make future works. We don't have any archives in South Asia; our archives are gone. They are sitting in the British Library or the British Museum. For people 20 years from now, maybe they'll look at my work and make something new out of it.”

Tap on the cover video to watch the full conversation.

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