The Americanization of Pakistani-born painter Hiba Schahbaz’s career is a mistake. Given that identity art, usually based on race and gender and sexuality, has dominated political discussion in America for decades now, it would seem rational to include Schahbaz’s nude self-portraits as another example of a marginalized female artist of color working to uncover prejudice. But this is actually far from the case. Schahbaz is not a political portraitist in any deliberate way; instead, her series of nude self-portraits here, which involve her taking on the pose of figures in iconic Western paintings, propose an internalization of Western art history. In an attempt to build a dialogue between the art she sees now, as a working painter in New York City, and the art she encountered while a student of miniature painting in the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan, Schahbaz is hardly presenting a persona of alienation and outrage. In fact, she has made it clear in her conversation that the works are personal in nature. Even so, the gallery’s support of her is highly political; the press release speaks of “post-colonial marginalization” and “patriarchy” as issues the artist faces. But is this really true? From the works themselves, it looks very clearly like Schahbaz is exploring not a political identity but a private one, in which art historical issues are personalized in the attempt to make sense not so much of cultural politics but of the artist’s life.
Between the righteous indignation of political correctness and the equally rigid values of the cultural right, artists, writers and curators find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Certainly, it has been very important to promote the work of artists who for reasons of race, class, nationality, and sexual preference have been deliberately left out of the conversation. But in New York, this is not the problem it used to be (although of course prejudice still exists). We have now a highly sophisticated system of spaces, curators, writers, and audiences attuned to the specific difficulties of artists who before did not fit in. Indeed, there is a readymade sympathy for the hardships these outsider artists endured in their long climb to recognition. But the sympathy has been blanket-like in its complete acceptance of all difference; it is as if cultural contrasts are, by themselves, sufficient to bias the interpretation of the work that may well not address these issues with intentions the artists do not have. One might argue that cultural difference is enough by itself to occasion a social reading of the art that comes from outside the pale. But what if such an interpretation has little or nothing to do with the artist’s motives!
Seeing Schahbaz as a militant opponent of patriarchy in the Muslim world, or as a disgruntled participant in a Western, white male art world, does not do justice to the complexity of her art. True, she always paints herself in the nude—a decision that more or less excludes her from showing in Pakistan. It is also true that Schahbaz is a Muslim now living in America, where sympathy and understanding of her religious culture are not high. But within the context of New York, where she now mostly lives and works (she regularly visits her home in Pakistan), her context is hardly hostile. Schahbaz has slowly but surely been making her way as an obsessive artist, depicting her naked body for the gaze of an audience whose sympathy is instantaneous if not always accurate. Inevitably, if the viewer foregoes a political reading, it makes sense to work out an understanding of the paintings as a statement of real vulnerability: Schahbaz is not metaphorically undressed, but actually so.
The lives of some artists, like Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock, are so closely attached to their work that it is impossible to generate an opinion about their achievement without taking into consideration the details of their experience. But Schahbaz has not made her private life public in any particular or notorious fashion. She is simply an artist whose skin happens to be brown and who is a Muslim from Pakistan. Her consistent use of herself as the subject matter, along with her unvarying treatment of herself without clothes, looks more like a statement of emotional transparency than a demonstration of ethnic otherness. It is a shame that Schahbaz has had to submit to an understanding of her work that promotes only a politicized view. She, like any other artist, deserves the freedom to pursue her interests, no matter what issues they reflect. This can be done without losing a commitment to social justice; it can even be done in tandem with an outlook that does accept a reading emphasizing identity. But in Schahbaz’s case, her paintings look like an attempt to make peace with, even redeem, a private self by posing without clothes. This decision obviously serves as a private trope much more effectively than it does as a statement of public intent.
Indeed, one finds it difficult to notice an active sexuality in these paintings. The artist’s face is serious to the point of being somber. And her body, however beautiful, is rendered straightforwardly, rather than in a transparently erotic pose. It must be acknowledged, though, that the painting of a naked woman inevitably carries an erotic suggestion, especially in the West, where the tradition of the female nude in art has usually been seen as at least partially sexual. This does not mean that Schahbaz is intentionally seducing us, only that the tradition she is incurring is established as erotic. Still, it must be said that, in this show, in which so many of the paintings are versions of Western artists’ work, Schahbaz’s viewers cannot simply see the art as a translation of one cultural vision to another. The sexual part of the paintings may well be consciously restrained, but for many viewers the artist’s beauty is stimulating, especially given the putative exoticism of the artist’s person.
In the large work entitled Self-Portrait with Joined Hands (after Picasso) (2016), Schahbaz offers us a standing pose beside a tree or tall vine with a few flowers. She is nude of course, but her hands cover her sex. Her look is wide-eyed but emotionally neutral. There is, to be sure, the suggestion of erotic liberty in the artist’s treatment of her black hair, which cascades in waves down the middle of her back; and in the aureoles and nipples, painted dark brown against the light tan of her skin. The image takes place against a pinkish background, which forms darker pink stripes that follow the curves of the tree. The portrait is clearly an art historical recognition of a Western modernist, yet the emotion borders on the grave—surely a difference from the confident, openly expressed desire of Picasso, her model for this work! This happens often in Schahbaz’s paintings; she undermines our expectations of erotic frankness—in order to emphasize privacy and personal angst even as she makes available a view of her entire body. The contrast between the physical visibility of her body and the emotional distance she communicates makes the painting memorable. It cannot be said that this is an erotic portrait—unless we insist on the exotic nature of the artist’s features, color, and body as inherently stimulating.
And at the same time, we remember that Schahbaz has chosen to portray herself in these roles, which consists quite literally of inserting herself into the iconography of a culture different from her own. One can hardly blame her for doing so—here it would be difficult, if not impossible, to insist on pursuing a pure version of the miniature, whose tradition remains outside the purlieu of our own. Schahbaz’s self-portrait, after Ingres’ Grand Odalisque, stunningly reiterates the great Western painting but also makes it profoundly other with its depiction of the artist in hair that grows like vegetation along the length of her body, and the strings of pearls around her neck, tying her to the tree behind her. Here again, we view a work, central to the Western painting tradition, changed—if not violated—by the presence of a body not belonging to Western convention. If this is in fact a contentious reading of art history by Schahbaz, it is also an ironic one in the sense that the artist is paying homage to a history that hasn’t belonged to her—until now! The appropriation of art history in America is a common occurrence—look at the work of Mickalene Thomas—but Schahbaz comes from a great distance away, and until fairly recently has been remote from the culture she quotes.
In the show there are a number of miniature works too. This category of painting is well done in Schahbaz’s hands, being the medium in which she was taught as a student. Eve in the Garden (2017), a particularly successful example, shows the nude artist backed by an overhanging tree, from which a long snake with an extended tongue is suspended. The images move beyond the frame of the painting and include apples suspended from the tree’s branches. Flowers and plants embellish the green grass on which Schahbaz stands, backed by a deep blue sky. Fully frontal in her nudity, the artist stands on a patch of leaves. This image represents another example—a highly successful example—in which Schahbaz has borrowed the iconographical history of a culture she has only belonged to as an adult. Her theft, though, is exquisite in its imaginative re-creation of the outsider as central to a powerful, actually religious, imagery so different from the imagery and stories of Islam. It takes more than a little confidence for Schahbaz to be bold enough to re-envision oneself as Eve! At the same time, it is of course a homage by a gifted painter to a tradition that she obviously respects.
In light of all this appropriation, what are we to make of quotations that take from traditions distant from the artist’a upbringing and education? Is such borrowing an expression of insecurity or poise? Is Schahbaz truly the casualty the press release suggests she is? My own reading is that these paintings demonstrate a complex position, in which the artist belongs and does not belong to her chosen culture. She is neither foreign nor assimilated. But this does not mean that she needs to be pigeon-holed into the category of dissidence. Instead, it is likely accurate to see Schahbaz as using nudity to portray herself primarily as vulnerable, even when the erotic interest of such nudity cannot be denied completely. In America now, we have little tolerance for artists, who are almost always educated and entitled, borrowing from a colonial or indigenous culture. Yet from Schahbaz’s perspective, all of Western painting is an open field, filled with images for the taking. In such a light, political concepts such as patriarchy and being marginal fade before the privilege—educational, economic, and psychological—necessary to make this kind of art. It may well be, then, that Schahbaz’s show demonstrates not the sense of being caged, but rather the ability to do what she wants. Thus, her move to America may be a rejection of Pakistan, just as her decision to work here can be seen as a tolerance of the very mores thought useful to reject her—which has not happened! She is not the victim she is said to be.
Writing by Jonathan Goodman
Photographs provided by the gallery.