I am a simple man and it has never been easy for me to talk about myself or my work. What l have painted is something I have lived. In that sense, I am both the object and the subject of my work. Over the years, I have observed the women of my community suffer in silence. My most cherished works are usually those in which I could capture moments of longing or inner pain: a sense of desperation, loss and deprivation, the fear of aging, the fear of children born into a world lost of all humanity.
Long before burqa became a common sight in places which are generally considered posh, privileged and popular-like shopping malls, universities, airports, art galleries, media channels, this form of hijab was used by those who belonged to lower or low middle classes. Mostly preferred by those who wish to abide with the religious teachings. Or by women who want to protect them in public from the hungry gaze of frustrated men in this society. Today burqa is not limited to one function or a singular meaning Now it is part of a woman's attire being her choice or emblem of identity. Along with protecting her, it is seen as the sign of her independence, authority and individuality. Mainly when compared with the West (society in which female flesh is an easily accessible and assessable entity, hence women are not bothered to be seen by stranger or onlookers-and that's why they are not looked upon!), in our culture burqa is preferred for mingling and mixing with other gender in the public places and private gatherings, thus an attire that was supposed to be oppressive in nature is now utilized as a form of formulating one's freedom being an independent , confidant and competent Muslim woman. But long before this 'cultural revolution' there was another usage of burqa: to conceal a
woman's body and her identity. No one can guess the name of the person clad in black chador, so burqa was that mythical magic cap that makes you invisible as soon as you wear it. During the last days of the last century-just before the media revolution - women from the red light district used to hide their identity on entering and leaving their place of work at the walled city of Lahore. If you were a frequent visitor a fervent voyeur you identified female covered from head to toe, emerging out of their cars after dusk, and leaving in the early hours of dawn. To enter a place identified with the playfulness and sin, yet hiding their identity in long sheets, and in false names was considered a normal course. Kind of a metamorphosis, in which a porson modifies his/her persona, on changing his/her course of profession. Nor surprisingly, because professions like prostitutions, politics and painting are not acquired jobs, these are destines which picks a person. Much like how photography was described by Henri Cartier-Bresson, "It is the photograph that takes you", it is the calling of a profession that compels a person to pursue it. So for the sake of her work a woman needed to protect herself as well as to shed her attire. So the combination of playfulness of flesh, with the strict code of dressing for a woman's body , can not be seen a contradiction if one is aware of how the draconian law of a military dictator created the upheaval in the system of a society that functioned according to its devised roles since ages, with in the parameters of diversity and differences. Apart from the religious fanaticism towards female flesh (during the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq) the presence of the great Mughal mosque next to the red light district of Lahore also signifies the relationship of religion with sin. A connection that has been explored in the recent works of Iqbal Hussain, in which most women-of easy virtue, instead of appearing in revealing costumes are rendered in black burqa, chadors or clocks. These women are not just draped in black burqas or covered in dark dresses, these were the one who fought against the state of lslamic Republic on the issue of morality during the uprising of Lal masjid. The women warriors who tried to convert their surroundings according to their set of beliefs rampaged an establishment, ironically run by a notorious 'madam' who hailed from Kotli Loharan Sialkot and was the daughter of a prayer leader of the local mosque in that village. Ac tually these females, symbolising the strict sense of morality in a society, were not bound within the confines of dark cloths, because they wore garments of their own choice for the sake of their identity which served as the tool of their freedom of expression. Iqbal Hussain is known for painting women, mainly their flesh, but when he focuses on femal figures concealed behind these dark layers, it does not come as a surprise, Because either in a re vealing costume or under a heavily clad garment, the two states of women converge to one being body, flesh, merely. Both signify and allude to the codes of virtue and sin (two interrelated concepts/entities). In his recent series of paintings, Hussain depicts these moral soldiers cove red in dark dresses, holding large sticks, and demonstrating their power of righteous path, as group or as singular crusaders n. In One of his canvas they surround the painter too, because it is the genius of Iqbal Hussain who can see through the heavily guarded narrative of morality constructed in the name of religion and social order/ethics. He is conscious of the fact that both roles devised or adapted by women, of a frivolous female or a ferocious activist, in a way, are prescribed by men. It is the male gaze desire and lust that compels a woman to reveal her flesh or obliges her to conceal her body. So in both states, females are subject to tyranny associated with sexual supremacy, but it is the age old system of class and social division and discrimination, hence exploitation of gender on the basis of social order, that has made women victim to their circumstances. Iqbal Hussain, a painter who loves women as independent human beings, free from the male dominancy and appreciates their body, is now portraying the battle ground on which the conflict between sin and sensuousness takes place. His manner of rendering his subject, his theme and his position is quick, hasty -almost sketchy-reminding of Daumier's style, yet this way of painting also suggests the urgency in terms of his subject matter that demands a serious reflection about the content. It requires a series of viewing while enjoying the layers of paint applied on the can vas in the form of paying homage to woman, her body, her personality, her position but more than that to celebrate the act of painting itself.
Hussain is the first artist in Pakistan to have boldly thrown open the shutters on the erst while hidden life of the Shahi Mohalla. There, the centuries old Heera Mandi (Diamond Market), the red light area of Lahore, is located, but seldom mentioned in polite society. In past years it was an important cultural aspect of the city, patronized by gentlemen seeking the company of the courtesans famed as exponents of the classic arts of music and dance. The nobility sent their sons along to learn social skills, and the most beautiful courtesans enjoyed the support of wealthy patrons. From Heera Mandi have emerged some outstanding performing artistes and stars of the screen; but those days have long gone. It is now a primarily a seedy, run-down neighborhood with dark, narrow streets inhabited by downtrodden, exploited women born into the travails of life in the shadows and with little or no hope of escape.
Iqbal hussain is extraordinary because he says, I come from there and i don't care. Born in Heera Mandi and the son and brother of courtesans Hussain chronicles the lives of the dancing girls who remain and never make it as the stars. His life size portraits of these women in poignant poses have been auctioned at Sotheby's and regularly command price of more than Dollars lo,ooo on international markets.
Elizabeth S. Ghauri, The Christian Science Monitor