Avant-garde art and feminism: late Pakistani artist Lala Rukh – artist profile

Art Radar celebrates Lala Rukh, avant-garde artist, feminist and teacher.

Pakistani artist and renowned feminist activist Lala Rukh passed away on 7 July 2017 at her home in Lahore at the age of 69. Art Radar takes a look a few of her most recent works in relation to her four decade long career in teaching and activism.

Lala Rukh. Image from Twitter.

Lala Rukh. Image from Twitter.

Drawing as a linguistic code or musical score

Lala Rukh studied fine arts at the Punjab University, and throughout the early 1970s was awarded various government travel grants in Pakistan to study in Afghanistan and Turkey. It was in Chicago in 1975, on the MFA programme influenced by John Baldessari, John Cage and other Black Mountain College artists, that her drawing and painting work began to expand into an interdisciplinary practice. Lala Rukh began to explore the intellectual, linguistic, mathematical, social and even musical character of drawing.

Lala Rukh, 'Hieroglyphics III (Roshnion ka Shehr - 1)', 2005, paint and graphite on carbon paper, 20.32 x 50.8 cm. Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh, ‘Hieroglyphics III (Roshnion ka Shehr – 1)’, 2005, paint and graphite on carbon paper, 20.32 x 50.8 cm. Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh, 'River in an ocean: 4', 1992, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 x 30.48 cm. Image courtesy Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh, ‘River in an ocean: 4’, 1992, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 x 30.48 cm. Image courtesy Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh was reportedly particularly intrigued by a performance collaboration between choreographer Merce Cunningham and John Cage. Lala Rukh grew up with some of Pakistan’s most accomplished musicians playing private concerts in her family home (her father, Hayat Ahmad Khan, initiated the All Pakistan Music Conference, aimed at gathering diverse musical practices from across the country). The early influence of music and dance would be drawn into her interdisciplinary engagement with drawing to the point that her lines and image making begin to appear, as early as the 1990s series “Hieroglyphs”, as musical notation, a dance score or a linguistic code. As the Ahmedabad born writer, Natasha Ginwala, writes,

Indeed one of her artistic journeys, toward minimalist calligraphic language, remained intrinsically connected to Hindustani music and dance. When reaching out to score a horizon line over decades, there is an expert incorporation of musicality in her practice. In her “Hieroglyphics” works—drawings which became extended circuits of rhythm and life observations—the counting of a beat is cast into infinitesimal line and curve forms that improbably manage to account for the movement of music, the chasing of light, and the interminable shifts of environmental terrain. […] They remain unknowable. As Lala would say of Hieroglyphics I: Koi ashiq kisi mehbooba se (1995), it was drafted in that vulnerable realm as a “private love letter”.

Lala Rukh, 'Hieroglyphics I: Koi ashiq kisi mehbooba se 1, 1995, ink on paper, 20 × 15 cm (detail). Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh, ‘Hieroglyphics I: Koi ashiq kisi mehbooba se 1, 1995, ink on paper, 20 × 15 cm (detail). Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh, 'Rupak', 2016, digital animation, sound, installation view, Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), Athens, documenta 14, 2017, photo: Mathias Völzke. Image courtesy Documenta.

Lala Rukh, ‘Rupak’, 2016, digital animation, sound, installation view, Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), Athens, documenta 14, 2017, photo: Mathias Völzke. Image courtesy Documenta.

The artist’s life-long dedication to exploring the possible intrinsic relations between drawing and notions of scoring and coding (in both the technological and social sense) can be appreciated in what was to her final work: Rupak (2016). On display in Athens at Documenta 14, the animation work pays homage to the multiple connections that Lala Rukh has made between drawing and social, musical and intellectual life across an interdisciplinary practice that spans drawings, photographs, videos and sound pieces.

Lala Rukh, 'Sand Drawings 2 (detail)', 2000-2015, digital print on Hahnemühle photorag paper, 40.64 x 54.61 cm. Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh, ‘Sand Drawings 2 (detail)’, 2000-2015, digital print on Hahnemühle photorag paper, 40.64 x 54.61 cm. Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

On returning from Chicago in 1978 she secured a teaching position with the Fine Arts Department at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where she was a key faculty member for close to 30 years. Despite her systematic drawing practice and prolific output, it is only now – with recent shows at Documenta 14 and Dubai’s Grey Noise Gallery – that critics are paying closer attention to her work, as opposed to focusing on the teaching and activism she is more widely credited for.

Lala Rukh, 'Masawi-Huqooq 1983–84 poster for Women’s Action Forum', 1984, offset-print 68.6 × 48.3 cm. Image courtesy the Lala Rukh Estate.

Lala Rukh, ‘Masawi-Huqooq 1983–84 poster for Women’s Action Forum’, 1984, offset-print 68.6 × 48.3 cm. Image courtesy the Lala Rukh Estate.

An activist and teacher

When the Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq regime (1978- 1988) was beginning to be installed, the Pakistani president introduced a series of laws called the Hudood Ordinances, which brought harsh punishments to citizens for minor breaches. A particular case in 1981, whereby an eloping couple were sentenced to death by stoning, motivated a series of meetings across Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to protest the laws and other government attacks on human and civil rights.

It was from these meetings in 1981 that the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) emerged – an organisation recognised, by a 1999 report by Human Rights Watch, as first nationwide women’s movement in Pakistan to be so effective in opposing Haq’s policies. Lala Rukh was present at the meetings in Lahore and became one of the founding members of the revolutionary group.

Lala Rukh, 'Flyer for Women’s Action Forum announcing a Jalsa event on February 10 and a demonstration on February 12', 1993, offset print. Image courtesy the Lala Rukh Estate.

Lala Rukh, ‘Flyer for Women’s Action Forum announcing a Jalsa event on February 10 and a demonstration on February 12’, 1993, offset print. Image courtesy the Lala Rukh Estate.

By 1983 the compatibility of her roles as artist, teacher and activist came under scrutiny when she was summoned into the University office and questioned over her participation in a WAF organised public demonstration in 1983 against Haq’s discriminatory “Law of Evidence”, which required that two women had to share a testimony in order to contest that of one man. Lala Rukh’s arrest at this protest put her teaching career on the line – under martial law such political organising was illegal and she could easily have lost her job. While other colleagues did indeed get dismissed, her department allowed her to stay on teaching.

Despite the risks involved, Lala Rukh was present at all of the WAF’s protest actions and played a key role producing visual material for the organisation – campaign posters and pamphlets – as well as developing a pedagogical programme to accompany assembly meetings, setting up a screenprinting workshop for women. According to Night Saeed, her close aide and WAF member, Lala Rukh remained one of the most active members of the organisation and fought for women rights into the new millennium.

Lala Rukh, 'River in an ocean: 4', 1992, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 x 30.48 cm. Image courtesy Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh, ‘River in an ocean: 4’, 1992, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 x 30.48 cm. Image courtesy Image courtesy The Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.

First Vasl International Workshop at the village of Gadani, Pakistan, 2001. Back row (left to right): KHALIL CHISHTI, LALA RUKH AHMED, JERRY BUHARI, SUMAIRA TAZEEN, RUBYCHISHTI, NILOOFAR CHAMAN, ROOHI AHMED, SHAUNA MCMULLEN, WALTER EMILIOD’SOUZA, AMIN GULGEE, LAURA PADDOCK and NAIZA H. KHAN. Seated (left to right): TANG ZHIGANG, SAMINA MANSURI, K. PUSHPAKUMARA, NAYAN KULKARNI, MARYAM HUSSAIN, ANWAR SAEED, REHAB AL SADEK and ELLEN LIGTERINGEN. Images courtesy Naiza H. Khan, Salima Hashmi, Wahab Jaffar, Vasl Artists’ Collective, Zohra Hussain, Chawkandi Art (Karachi), Naeem Pasha and Rohtas Gallery (Islamabad).

First Vasl International Workshop at the village of Gadani, Pakistan, 2001. Back row (left to right): Khalil Chishti, Lala Rukh Ahmed, Jerry Buhari, Sumaira Taken, Rubychishti, Niloofar Chaman, Roohi Ahmed, Shauna McMullen, Walter Emiliod’Souza, Amin Gulgee, Laura Paddock and Naiza H. Khan. Seated (left to right): Tang Zhigang, Samina Mansuri, K. Pushpakumara, Nayan Kulkarni, Maryam Hussain, Anwar Saeed, Rehab Al Sadek and Ellen Ligteringen. Images courtesy Naiza H. Khan, Salima Hashmi, Wahab Jaffar, Vasl Artists’ Collective, Zohra Hussain, Chawkandi Art (Karachi), Naeem Pasha and Rohtas Gallery (Islamabad).

Founding Vasl Arts Collective 

The experience in women’s rights organising was key in pioneering the first artist-run art collective Vasl. Vasl began in 1999 as a proposal discussed amongst a few women artists, including Lala Rukh, to connect Pakistani artists with international artists through a programme of residencies. Vasl is the first art organisation of its kind in Pakistan and has, since its conception, grown rapidly in size and in popularity, aiding countless artists with the development of both their work and careers, and contributing greatly to the art community in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.

Lala Rukh participated in the pilot programme in 2001, where she set up a workshop open to local participants, gathering unexpected collaborations and collectivity around her practice of drawing. On their Facebook page, the Vasl Arts Collective left the following dedication after the artist passed away:

We are deeply saddened by the demise of Lala Rukh Ahmed. Lala was a resident artist at Vasl’s first workshop/residency conducted at Gadani in 2001 and was one of the founding members of the Vasl Arts Trust. She was an admirable artist and educator and carried on her studio practice through her patent space makings and varied mediums […] Our hearts and prayers go out for Lala and we thank her for giving us the gift of her creativity.

Rebecca Close

1805

Related Topics: Pakistani artists, art and politics, artist profiles

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