This decade celebrity culture in Pakistan has exploded, on our feeds and in our lives, in a way that we’ve never seen before.
The response to this sharing of personal lives has been quite immense. For perfect pouts, cute captions and countless boomerang shimmies later, celebrities have racked up a following in the millions. But how much of what they show us is indicative of what is really happening, in our universe or theirs?
While most of Pakistani visual culture is likewise trying hard to be pretty, cutesy or otherwise gratifying, it is a relief seeing artist Maria Khan’s paintings getting attention for exactly the opposite.
This Lahore-based artist's work has been described as “grotesque,” “ridiculous,” and“strange,” amongst other adjectives, but is still being bought by art lovers and collectors across the country.
In fact, her second solo show opened at Canvas Gallery in Karachi last week to much critical acclaim. This show consists of her latest works, which also includes her signature “scary” women: usually overweight, older women with deep lines on their faces and fat bulging out of their bodies, drawn out in charcoal. To top it off she often puts them in slinky lingerie and places them in fantastical outdoor settings in the nighttime where they roam free like lions.
It feels like it was only yesterday when I first spotted a painting by Maria Khan. It depicted a large middle-aged woman grinning from ear to ear rendered like a caricature. She had an exaggeratedly large head, enormous teeth and broad shoulders but ridiculously tiny feet stuffed in painfully small shoes. Her hair was slicked back into a tight bun, and she stood very still wearing a beautiful floral shalwar kameez, almost as if she was posing for a photo for a weekly glossy, only this was an X-ray version. Her need to look good was as potent as the discomfort of her tiny shoes, and her smile as fake as could be. I couldn’t stop staring - here was an aunty trying to stuff her larger than life personality into society’s tiny set of expectations.
It was sad and beautiful and brave, all at the same time.
Maria Khan's work has been described as “grotesque,” “ridiculous,” and“strange,” amongst other adjectives, but is still being bought by art lovers and collectors across the country.
When I went home and looked up more of her work, the women became more and more absurd. In most of her paintings these “older women” – a symbol of maternal warmth and affection in almost every Pakistani household – were exposed in all kinds of vulnerable situations, literally and metaphorically.
“The woman Khan draws is not the idealised woman. In her work Khan draws a portrait of womanhood, rather than a single woman. Her work is a commentary on the state of women in Pakistan, as an object of desire, but also someone who can be manipulated and exploited,” explains art critic Quddus Mirza, who was also Khan’s teacher during her master at NCA. "She's celebrating the complete woman, vulnerabilities in tow.”
As Khan gains more recognition in the art circles, her paintings increasingly creep up on our Instagram feeds and we can’t help but stare at them.
Whether you find it ugly, distasteful or downright scary, a wrinkled old Pakistani lady walking through a garden at night with a sheer bra on is sure to demand your attention.
“As a woman I can’t help but constantly be drawn into the expectation of looking 'perfect',” says Maria Khan
“As a woman I can’t help but constantly be drawn into the expectation of looking 'perfect',” explains Khan. "This preoccupation is what made me initially explore the idea of what to us is “beautiful,” and what constitutes as “ugliness". I heard women calling other women “ugly” all the time and when I really concentrated on what these “ugly” women looked like I noticed a pattern: old and fat. So the woman I chose to draw automatically became ones with lines on their face and fat bulging out of her, but for some reason I put them in the sweetest lingerie, or sexy heels, and placed them in a rose garden. Because why not? Why should I show them as weak, fragile creatures?”
At some point Khan’s fascination with beauty and ugliness soon became secondary and every character that she created told their own story, one of freedom and restriction, pain and joy. “There are huge women that I put in uncomfortable shoes, or even in children’s clothes” explains Maria. "There are women who are wearing necklaces wrapped so tight around their neck it is reminiscent of a noose, and it's obvious that their story is one of pain. Pain, a love, a loss…a void, anything.”
According to critic Mirza, who has followed the evolution of Khan’s work, her work often tells us more about society than of the woman herself: “Her characters' physical, cultural and sociological environment is all part of the story,” explains Mirza. "There is dark humour in it.”
This theme of being out of touch with reality, or putting on a façade, was recurring in some of the really memorable pieces by Khan.
Now she’s veering towards a direction that is different.
“As I mature the women I make mature too. They’re confident and comfortable with their bodies, at ease with themselves. I don’t know why it’s happening and can’t really explain it, to be honest.”
And it’s true. As I observe her latest work I can’t help but hope that a future like this exists for my grandmother, mother or even myself when I'm older – uninhibited, ecstatic and in complete control.