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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- On Religion, Tradition, Politics and Multiculturalism: Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas – in conversation – October 2016 – Pakistani artist Hamra Abbas talks about her life as a “multicultural journey” on view at Dubai’s Lawrie Shabibi Gallery
- Imaginary worlds: the visual vocabulary of Pakistani artist Atif Khan – artist profile – August 2016 – Pakistani artist Atif Khan’s iconography traces its lineage back to the aesthetically rich Mughal empire while providing a contemporary twist
- Visualising taboo: Emerging Pakistani sculptor Humaira Abid – interview – July 2015 – Seattle-based emerging Pakistani artist deftly combines sculpture and miniature painting, discussing her most intimate experiences and laying bare socio-political issues
- Turning tradition on its head: Aisha Khalid and Imran Qureshi – interview – May 2014 – Art Radarspoke with Pakistani husband and wife artist duo Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid about their connection with the miniature painting tradition
- 11 influential South Asian neo-miniaturists – January 2014 – Art Radar finds out who are the most influential artists who have been inspired by South Asian miniature art working today
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