Sara Aziz is a young Pakistani artist whose aesthetic is inspired in part by the considerable artistic tradition of the region, yet her practice remains poignantly contemporary and engaged with the critical issues facing women today not only in Pakistan, but in many regions of the world, particularly places where women continue to experience a lack of access to education, medical care, and franchise. In these cases, women’s primary value is often physical, a commodity of womanhood. This emphasis on physical beauty to the detriment of developing any other personal or economic values means that women are pressured to constantly remake themselves in order to fit into an ideal of normative beauty.
Sara confronts these very real issues in work such as Beauty Contraptions or the Painfully Beautiful wearable pieces designed to transform the woman into a model of feminine perfection– hence making them more “beautiful.” What makes these pieces so unique is the fact that artist says that with continuous use the wearer may in fact, achieve ideal beauty. This is so explicit and strange that one feels simultaneously intrigued and repulsed.
The series is opulent and ornate, and draws from the historic metal decorative technique Meenakari. The gold-plated Neck Elongator is a wearable neck brace with adjustable supports to be gradually lengthened gradually. Other self-explanatory pieces include The Pouter, the Face Lifter, the Frown Fixer, and The Nose Mould.
The works are made to appear “beautifully seductive; precious and rare. Each promises you more beauty but this is beauty with a price. Depending on how you see it, they morph into sharp edges and hard metal – glittering torture devices.”
Incisive, beautiful and intriguing Sara’s practice responds to the way in which feminine beauty and physical attractiveness is often the primary marker of a woman’s worth in society. Even in regions where women have more personal freedom and access to education the current of conformity continues to be significant aspect of what it means to be a female in contemporary society. Such pressure and constant disapproval means that we see a sort of systematic interruption of long-term self-efficacy in personal relationships and the workforce.
For her part, the artist notes she observes an acceleration of our desire for beauty in tandem with an ideal that is highly unrealistic and unnatural. In our conversation, she points out that in places like her native Pakistan this issue has a sobering reality that reflects the lives of real women.
“Here, in certain classes, it is still a woman’s most important achievement and asset. It may seem melodramatic, but for some women, their lives and happiness can depend on it. The challenge for me, as the artist, then becomes of commenting and questioning in a manner that is not biased or judgmental, but rather one that is empathetic and about exploration. “
Both Smile and Matryoshki Dolls were created during the artist’s studies in Dundee, Scotland and reflect her experience of being in a different place, and newly independent, in many ways being away from familiar surroundings and community, Sara was forced to confront her own ideas of self, and as well understand the perceptions of others, so often based on gender, physicality, and race. While studying for her BA, Fine Art, at the University of Dundee, the artist began explorations of the way in which the two very different societies had dissimilar expectation of feminine beauty while sharing one rather disturbing expectation, both cultures “required of women some sort of ‘modification’ or ‘striving’ to achieve the ideal feminine form.”
The drawing Smile approaches these socially inscribed expectations and standards, and the rituals of marriage and weddings that symbolize and reinforce feminine roles to the exclusion of other achievements or milestones. It is no irony that the amount of money exchanged, spent and showcased reflects the enduring economic roots of marriage whether in Pakistan or the west, after all some traditions still stay with us, namely the taking of the groom’s name, once related to the actual legal transfer of property of a woman from her father to her husband.
“The Pakistani bride is expected to be her most attractive and stunning self – the final outcome of days of preparation a glittering, painted, radiant mirage of her usual self. On the other, a strict protocol of modesty governs her every move, even down to how wide a smile is appropriate. This work functions as an inquiry into whether a girl can actually ‘own’ the ‘happiest day of her life’.”
These same questions apply very much to American culture in particular, and one should emphasize as well that even when more economically independent, women here often conform to old-fashioned traditions without a real understanding of their meaning.
RB: Are there any architectural, decorative or folk art traditions specific to Pakistani culture that you find important or beautiful?
SA: Lahore, the city I live in has a rich, layered heritage, it was an important center under the Ghaznavids, Turks, Mughals, Sikhs and the British. The architecture here, therefore, is enchantingly complex, though under appreciated. However, if you can find it within yourself to look past the ruin, pollution and graffiti, you can sometimes be surprised with a peek of the most delightful fresco, jaali (screen) or jheroka (wooden balcony). We have a treasure of extremely skilled craftsmen, though sadly this is also becoming a rarity with changing technology, inflated prices and increasing sociopolitical problems.
What is the artistic community like in Pakistan? How is it to be a woman artist?
SA: This is a rather complex question. The artist community here is close-knit and a little isolated. In Pakistan, having a career can be more challenging for women in every field, and the same applies for the arts. With the public, your ease and mobility, how seriously you are taken or how comfortably you are received can all be impacted by your gender? I remember an incident once when whist conducting some research for a project, a man completely refused to talk to me because I am a woman.
Having said that, the artist community itself is far more egalitarian. Some of our most important artists, curators, gallery owners and educators are women. An example is Salima Hashmi, who amongst other things is an artist, writer, educator, gallery owner, the Dean of two of our art institutions and who has played an instrumental role in the success of many artists. A number of Pakistani women artists have been recognized internationally as well.
If Sara Aziz’s work offers a contemporary view into the Pakistani traditions of beauty and alteration and the cost of such measures, it should also reveal to westerners their own socially inscribed rules for feminine worth and value, so often based solely on a woman’s appearance.
Our current election puts a not too fine point on this issue. We may consider ourselves free, but it is only when we can see our own participation in such rituals and rules that we will be truly liberated. While certainly American women may have more access to various important sources of economic and social independance, one must agree that this is a universal problem, an archaism with a remarkable and rather detestable staying power, reflecting a global entrenched sexism. I should add that this is something we as a culture are not immune to, and it is foolish to imagine it is only “other” places” that hold women to such narrow definitions.