An art exhibition titled ‘The Veils of our Soul’, which features works by Masuma Halai Khwaja, opened last week at the Canvas Gallery. The show will run at the gallery until Thursday, September 8.
“Textiles and fabrics have always been a part of my artistic trajectory, whether it be replicating the folds of a long fabric wrapped around the human form, embroidering on digitally printed canvases or creating intricate collages by cutting up embroidered textiles and reconstituting the pieces to form new imagery,” the catalogue released by the gallery quotes the artist as saying.
Masuma says that fabrics and garments have the potential to be structured in myriad different ways, and possess the ability to narrate events in culturally relevant contexts. “This body of work analyses regional, cultural and political scenarios by investigating the provenance of garments, embroideries and fabrics, and weaving into them narratives that, though rooted in the context of South Asia, hold universal relevance.”
She says that not unlike our skins that bear witness to the vicissitudes of our lives, if read carefully, garments too hold many stories.
“Like the Maya women who recant stories through their embroideries or the Hutsul embroiderers of Ukraine who claim to write shirts rather than embroidering them, I have chosen the sari blouse, used by women across the subcontinent, as a receptacle for embedding unaddressed traumas.”
She adds that exploring a vast landscape of overt and veiled subjugation, garments like the Afghan burqa and the Arab abaya have on many occasions been used as tools for establishing political hegemony.
“Painting figures by zooming in on the subject, I play out the paradox that exists between covering to remain unseen and the strong visibility created by herd identity. Text and motifs layered over imagery explore the role of garments as tools to espouse religiosity and at times create strife.”
She also says that store-bought fabric, though bereft of interesting histories, manages to place into context current trends, even socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I have used locally manufactured fabric as a means to steer focus towards the sociopolitical changes taking place around me. Apportioned geopolitically, embroideries and garments, in fact, traverse man-made boundaries, seamlessly connecting through histories, lore and traditions.”
An artist and a curator with a strong network in the art community, Masuma is a graduate of the National College of Arts, Lahore.
Her artworks address sociopolitical and cultural issues. She works with South Asian garments like the sherwani, burqa and sari to position incidents in culturally and politically relevant contexts.
She also uses kilims, carpets and embroideries from Pakistan and the region to reference physical and virtual connections between people and places.
In addition to five solo shows, her artworks have been part of group shows in Pakistan and abroad. She has exhibited her work at the 9th, 10th and 11th editions of the Fiber Art Biennale, ‘From Lausanne To Beijing’, the first Art Embroidery Biennale in Chaozhou, and the Dafen Art Biennale in Shenzhen.
She has won many awards, the most recent being the Excellence Award at the 11th Fiber Art Biennale in China in 2020.
In 2021-22 she curated the first retrospective exhibition of Aisha Khalid in Karachi. She has also worked with the Trade and Development Authority of Pakistan to set up art exhibitions during their trade shows in Belgium and Sri Lanka.
In 2020 she worked with Mediamatic-Amsterdam towards a project that looked into the spice trade of the Dutch East India Company under their umbrella project ‘Olfactory History of Oosterdok’.
In the same year, she collaborated with a Bangladeshi cultural practitioner on a series of digital podcasts for ‘Transforming Narratives’, supported by the Arts Council of England, and the British Council. In 2018 she co-authored a book about public art in Karachi, titled ‘Public Art, Thriving in Urban Chaos’.
Currently a member of the Advisory Committee for the Public Art Festival in Karachi, she is a founding member and former trustee of the Karachi Biennale, 2017.
She served as chairperson of its Public Outreach Committee and initiated the ‘Reel On Hai’ project that was one of the largest public art outreach programmes in the country, aiming to convert a hundred empty, discarded cable reels into artworks through an open call to artists, architects and designers who worked on site to engage the community living around the area.
She has also worked as project manager for ‘I Am Karachi Walls’, a project that involved covering the hate graffiti with murals made by artists, art students and craftspeople.
She has also been a panellist at talks in forums at the Aga Khan University, the Citizens Archive, T2F, the Karachi Literature Festival and the Habib University.
She has been a mentor to many emerging, young artists both in a formal and informal capacity. As a coordinator for the History and Heritage Programme at the National College of Arts, Lahore, she traced Pakistan’s rich heritage and led the effort to incorporate it in both classic as well as experimental art.
She also invited subject experts to engage with the student body to provide them with greater access to leading artists and learning to produce critique-worthy portfolios.
She has taught visual art at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, where she was also the thesis adviser for two years, and the University of Karachi’s Visual Studies Department.
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