Body Becoming: Mainstreaming performance art | Pakistan Today

Body Becoming: Mainstreaming performance art

 A first for Pakistan

Performance art, as a concept, is alien to Pakistan. For afficiendos, it is a vague concept. An outlier so unfamiliar and so far removed from the Pakistani reality that it is thought of only as some advanced, new age art form to be stored away in the back of the mind. For connoisseurs, performance art is a thrilling but unexplored avenue within the country’s artistic circles.

But whatever and whoever it is that may come across the idea, performance art maintains its aura of mystery. After all, without seeing it, one really cannot hope to understand it. So the art form continues to be misunderstood and shrouded in uncertainty.

One of the major misconceptions that first timers might have about performance art is that it is some sort of theatre. After all, it involves people performing – something so inherently theatrical that the assumption is one that just cannot be helped. While performance art can take many forms – seen, seen and heard, seen but not heard, heard but not seen – the factor that remains constant is the participation of the artist’s body in the artistic process. The body is the central cog of performing art. It is both the canvas and the paint. Again, comparisons with theatre are warranted. But with theatre, the body is simply a tool being used to exercise a script or a trope. In the process, tools other than the body such as stage, direction and even audience are a part of the process of equal importance. The body is not by any means the core component of theatre of any kind.

Performance art, on the other hand, is nothing but a bodily experience. The body of the artist is not just the vessel of the art, but it is the art itself. The shapes and forms that the artist’s body takes, the way it reacts, the way it is constrained or situated or told to interact with the world becomes art. The entire space it occupies, the colours and objects it appropriate, everything it does and can do and everything it does not and cannot do all meld to form art. So to speak, the body becomes the art.

It was perhaps with this in mind that the House Artist Residency led by artist Natasha Jozi titled a curation of performance art that took place over the course of a year ‘body becoming.’ A fascinating experiment that has brought the concept of performance art to Pakistan for perhaps the first time in a professional and nuanced fashion, House’s curation brought together a group of relatively young artists that put on some intense and mesmerising performances.

The ‘body becoming’ exhibition culminated with two events in Lahore, the first of which involved the artists putting up a show at Olo junction and the second being a talk discussing that exhibition. The event itself was unique to say the least. The artists, all deeply engrossed and in their element during the performances, all almost conjoined in the limited space to bring to the audience a special experience. Hosted inside what is essentially a house, the experience was at times almost uncomfortable, so private did it seem.  Yet the artists being so lost within themselves was something that emboldened the audience, helping them engage with and even interact with the art on display.

Yet the exhibition and the talk were just the conclusion to what was a year long excursion. The rest of the year, under the guidance of House, artists in different phases went out into the City of Lahore, and made it a living, breathing part of their performance. This part involved the artist all literally going to different areas of Lahore and putting up their performances –  no pre planning and no idea what could or could not happen. The results were astounding. 

Some of the performances were inspired. Aleena Qadeer’s reading of a story about child abuse and murder through a loudspeaker in the old city was an unpredictable one. As expected, a crowd did gather. But they seemed to at least listen, and propped on a small crate Miss Qadeer managed to make her point. Another performance that mesmerised was Abeera Saleem, who tied herself to a tree in Baghe Jinnah. What made this performance especially peculiar was that it ended up being a collaboration, for the artist engaged with a local tea boy – Abu Hurairah – who was the one to actually tie Ms Saleem to the tree. Another chilling spectacle was the performance of Nayyab Naveed, who in her own words ‘re-lived her traumas’ in her art. Standing in the middle of a road with the branch of a tree in her hand, the exercise was bold and powerful.

Many of the performances also took on relevant themes of gender, oppression and conformity. Hidayat Marwat’s adoption of an androgynous character roaming the streets of Lahore was one of these powerful pieces. Another was the one by Ahmed Khan, which drew on his Pashtun heritage as well as the shattering of norms by riding a motorbike in a blue burqa. Nofal Omer’s extremely personal display in which his hair became the center of the art contrasted with the performance of Risham Syed, who took on the mannerisms and actions of an old city barber, and made it her own. Then there were two spoken word performances, one by Khalid Sherwani, and the other by Sabahat Aziz, both taking on gender norms and the patriarchal status quo.

Other performances were more interactive, such as a fascinating experiment by Anas Abbas, who asked for advice on how to pose for pictures as part of his performance in Jinnah gardens, thus making unwitting critique what moulded the art. Sarah Mumtaz put on an audio performance in which she repeated the single phrase “stop and smell the roses,” while Sabeen Ahsan actually sat down in front of the commanding building of the Quaid e Azam library and waited to see how many people would take the empty seat in front of her.  

Over all, the maturity with which a medium as new in Pakistan as performance art was handled was impressive. Great credit for this has to be attributed to House and the curator Natasha Jozi. On the surface, House’s work may seem to be little bang for the buck, but the time and the effort put in to ‘body becoming’ was tangible.

Another thing to appreciate about House is that they are tech savvy. While the artist community can tend to think they are above such things, the people over at House seemed overly concerned with getting everything recorded and on facebook. This shows an appreciation for the audience and a realisation of the times that we live in. And while they may not be big as of yet, it is still early days. And with quality products in hand, persistence will mean that this group of artists are bound to eventually find their niche.

Abdullah Niazi

Abdullah Niazi is a member of staff currently studying Literature at LUMS. He also writes and edits for The Dependent.