The (r)evolution of feminist public art

Aurat March’s posters from Hyderabad, Multan, Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, representing organisers’ manifestos have hit digital spaces, but is this the first time feminist artwork has taken up space?

Aurat March 2021 posters by Isma Gul Hasan, Shehzil Malik, Tooba Shahbaz, Romaisa Fawad, Aurat March Sindh, and Maha Adnan (Clockwise from left)

One version of the legend of Aurat March posters, depending on who you ask, is that it all began with Shehzil Malik, a Lahore based artist. Younger artists and designers say they look to her while creating feminist public art. Even so, when Shehzil designed the first official Aurat March poster in 2019, she didn’t realize that by 2021 these posters will have taken a life of their own, that they would have ‘poster reveals’ on social media, or that they would garner enough attention and fear to be vandalized when put up in public spaces.

But the truth is that when art speaks, it will be consumed, shared, and even celebrated. This year Aurat March posters, carrying messages that represents their manifestos, from Hyderabad, Multan, Islamabad, Quetta, Lahore and Islamabad took over digital spaces like a tsunami. Some say this is because Pakistani art associated with women’s liberation movements is sparse and these filled the void. And yet who can dare to discount Pakistan’s history of feminist public art.

Starting from the 1980s, and perhaps even earlier, Salima Hashmi and Lala Rukh’s artistic contributions to the Women’s Action Forum are still alive and accessible. Lala’s posters, in particular, could be posted alongside today’s Aurat March posters and they would engage, arrest, and offend as viscerally as they did four decades ago.

Crimes Against Women (1985) (Left) and Women’s Action Forum (1985) (Right) by Lala Rukh. Rukh began screen printing, designing and producing WAF posters calling for equal rights and freedom of women. Crimes Against Women hails from this group of posters. The image of the poster is composed of a collage of newspaper reports of crimes against women.
Masaawi Huqooq (1983–84) Lithograph Poster by Lala Rukh. “The image on the poster depicts a woman in a burqa who is shackled speaking directly to the position of women and repressive laws they were subjected to under Zia ul Haq’s government” (Caption from The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Aisha Khalid’s paintings, Farida Batool’s photographs, Ayesha Jatoi and Adeela Suleman’s interventions and installations, Bani Abidi and Rabia Hassan’s videos are all feminist in nature; Naiza Khan’s ‘Henna Hands’ (2000–2003) falls into the genre of feminist public art no matter how you interpret it.

So then what makes this year’s Aurat March art novel? Isma Gul Hasan, an artist volunteering for the March’s Islamabad chapter said: “The themes and concerns depicted on these posters are not unique, it’s the scale and the diversity of the artwork that is unprecedented.” She describes the collective Aurat March artwork as “visual storytelling that represents women’s lived experiences that has been crowdsourced from across the country.” Of course, she recognises that it is the internet and social media that allowed for this unprecedented scale.

Farida Batool, Lahore-based artist and senior faculty at the National College of Arts, said this year’s posters depict an inclusivity that makes them novel and exciting. “It’s a good effort because you can see all kinds of diversity in the illustrations, the posters are bring created in large cities, but they haven’t left out marginalized communities,” she says. She is referring, in particular, to the attention given to the plight of the Baloch women in several posters.

Aurat Azadi March Islamabad poster by Isma Gul Hasan, taking up public space (Left). This poster highlights the struggle of the women of Balochistan and their nonviolent movement against the injustices they continue to face (Caption from artist’s Instagram). Aurat March Lahore volunteers distributing fliers by Shehzil Malik (Right).

Kanza Naheed, who volunteered for the Karachi chapter, said that inclusivity and diversity was one of the guidelines for the artwork. Perhaps that’s why there is a rainbow in the backdrop of her illustration. Aisha Nazir who volunteered from Multan showed women working in farms, offices, and streets, as well as disabled women. But she also localised her poster by including the Bahauddin Zakariya shrine in the background. Similarly, one of Hyderabad’s posters depicts a river in its background, paying homage to the Indus.

Aurat March Hyderbad posters from their Twitter page

Aurat March’s artwork is representative and inclusive, but as a collateral advantage, it also makes women from across the country feel included, and honoured to have their work shared. “Of course there are senior artists involved, but there are so many amateur artists whose work is being shared; there are women who can’t join the march but can feel like a part of it through their art contributions; art is an expression of one’s feelings and Aurat March is giving us a chance to share ours,” says Aisha.

Another exciting aspect about Aurat March’s cultural production in the shape of posters, videos, animations, and illustrations is that they are breaking down the boundary between art and design. “Up until recently art was considered as elevated and high-brow and in comparison design was considered on a lower rung, but these works that were created collaboratively between activists, volunteers, artists, and designers have collapsed that distinction between art and design,” says Shahana Rajani, an assistant professor at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and an organizer of Aurat March Karachi.

According to her, this collapsing of boundaries is important because Pakistani art has a history of being depoliticized and disconnected from society; often art gets trapped within gallery spaces, while design has a wider appeal and circulation.

And yet there are those who say that Aurat March’s creations aren’t necessarily ‘art’, much less ‘public art’. And perhaps, if we want to toe the traditional line, they have a point. An argument could be made that these works may instead fall under popular culture. But the whole purpose of Aurat March is to bend genres, and make breakthroughs, and by forcing their way into digital, material and physical spaces across the country these posters are harnessing emotions, attention, and a call to action.

Who gets to decide what art is, asks Seher Naveed, the head of the Fine Arts department at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. According to her, art is something that has aesthetic appeal and gets a reaction. “Any kind of visualization in the public space becomes art. It can be created as a form of resistance or creative expression, or both,” she says. And who gets to decide what feminist public art is? According to Farida Batool, even the act of women lovingly placing chadars at Bibi Pak Daman can be considered as feminist public art, perhaps even one of the longest standing examples of it. Public art doesn’t have to be limited to posters, it includes installations on roundabouts, awkward sculptures of Allama Iqbal, advertisements for mardana kamzoori, religious propaganda, poetry and imagery at the back of rikshas and so on.

These artworks, however, have done even more than break the boundary between art and design, they have challenged our internalized male gaze. According to Laura Mulvey, who coined the phrase ‘male gaze’ and used it to critique traditional media representations of female characters in cinema, the male gaze is the act of depicting the world and the women in it, from a limited, masculine, heterosexual point of view that represents women as sexual objects that exist solely for the pleasure of the male viewer. Think Lollywood posters of busty females sprawled across the façade of Bambino through the 1980s. Think Jamil Naqsh whose long-necked women morphed into pigeons or maybe the other way depending on your perspective. Think kajal-lined, seductive eyes painted on the back of a truck. Think fair skinned, passive women serving tea to men, plastered on billboards.

Aurat March Karachi poster by Areeba Siddique (left) and Aurat Azadi March Islamabad poster by Mashaal Sajid (right).

None of these women exist in the Aurat March artwork. The women in Aurat March’s arresting works aren’t required to be sexy, airbrushed, or embellished by make-up or pigeons; they are unique, important, and complete on their own, as one of the posters so poignantly says. By challenging the male gaze in their illustrations, the artists have successfully imagined and expressed a different world, perhaps one that is safer, inclusive, and more equal for women.

The six chapters of Aurat March did not coordinate on their artwork. Despite this, there are striking similarities in their creations — in style and theme. The first is the spirit of collaboration. Aisha Nazir, who made the poster for Multan said her creation was a result of extensive collaboration and feedback. Similarly, Isma Gul Hasan said her imagination of the Baloch women she illustrated didn’t only come from watching videos and observing photographs of the women but also from speaking to Baloch women, activists, and organizers who have been advocating for Baloch women. “It’s a collective idea that I brought to life, it wouldn’t have been possible without everyone’s input,” says Isma.

In posters across all cities sharp and dark reds, yellows and purples are used generously. The arresting colour palette is deliberate; as is the idea that the artworks are powerful in their simplicity. Maryam Akram who created animated comics to answer the public’s questions about the March says “When you are creating art to reach a wide audience you can’t be subtle, you have to stick to simplicity.” Tooba Shahbaz who created the Karachi poster agrees. She says art that is meant for activism has to be close to realism, instead of being metaphorical, it needs to be simple and relatable. Tehreem Binte Zafar, a designer who volunteered art for Islamabad says the idea is to show, not explain: “The posters we’ve made, the placards the marchers will bring, the slogans they will chant: the public doesn’t need to like any of it, they just have to get it.”

Another similarity between posters from different cities was the influences the artistes cited; some mentioned looking to Russian soviet posters for inspirations, others were motivated by Parveen Shakir’s poetry; but many referred to WAF’s iconic protest photographs and Lala’s posters from the 1980s and early 1990s.

Lala’s posters stand as mirrors to the ones we are surrounded by today, and yet another parallel lies in the behenchara that Lala practised then. Her posters were laboriously screen-printed, a process that although complicated can be carried out at home. Bearing this in mind, Lala developed a screen-printing manual, titled ‘In Our Own Backyard’ and travelled across the region disseminating this knowledge to activist organizations and grass-root communities for women’s empowerment.

Decades later, in the same spirit of behenchara volunteers and organizers for the March are teaching each other how to subvert the male gaze, imagine feminist public art, paint murals, pick walls for graffiti, plaster posters to public spaces and most importantly, how to persevere when the artwork is trolled, torn down or painted over.

“I have learned to manage my expectations,” says Shehzil when asked if she expects the murals, posters, and graffiti to last. “Cities across the world take pride in public art, they often host tours to show people the expressions and feelings of those that reside in the city, but that’s not the case here,” she says. Here, Aurat March artwork is torn down or vandalised within days, and in some cases even hours. Last year, Shehzil told Vice News: “I see it as a sign that men are very uncomfortable with women, both as human beings and as depictions of art.” But of course, aesthetically pleasing, agreeable women who are selling fairness creams and cooking oil do manage to sustainably tower over our cities. Perhaps it’s the feminist part of feminist public art that still irks us.

A version of this article was first published in The News on Sunday on March 7, 2021

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