“Why have there been no great women artists?” asked American art historian Linda
Nochlin in a landmark 1971 essay.
Four decades later, her question still stands: while a handful of Western female painters,
sculptors, and performance artists—Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, Marina
Abramovic—have achieved the same level of fame as their male counterparts, the West’s
elite art world continues to be dominated by male artists, curators, dealers, and collectors.
Look elsewhere around the globe, however, and women are thriving in some of the most
dynamic up-and-coming art scenes. They’re even achieving widespread success in a
country not exactly known for women’s rights: Pakistan. Female artists from the
developing Muslim nation have been recently feted in exhibits like last year’s Hanging
Fire at New York’s Asia Society and the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in Japan. Women also hold prime positions of influence in Pakistan’s art system, running prestigious galleries such as Karachi’s Canvas and Poppy Seed, and heading key art institutes such as the School of Visual Arts at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore (under the direction of Salima Hashmi), and Lahore’s National College of Arts, which is overseen by Naazish Ataullah.
One reason for the unusually high ratio of female artists in Pakistan has to do with the
fact that the art industry has not traditionally been viewed as a lucrative business by men,
says South Asian art historian Savita Apte, who administers the internationally renowned
Abraaj Capital Art Prize. Until very recently, creatively inclined males tended to focus on
fields such as advertising or illustration, leaving the art field wide open for some very
And these women have been taking the art world by storm: for last year’s inaugural
Jameel Prize, an award given to Islamic artists at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum,
both finalists from Pakistan—Hamra Abbas and Seher Shah—were female. (The winner,
Afruz Amighi, is an Iranian woman.) And at the Hong Kong International Art Fair this
year, Pakistani painter Shahzia Sikander won the SCMP/Art Futures award.
Female Pakistani artists may also be drawing international buzz because of the way they
defy gender stereotypes about their country. “Because of the perception in the Western
press, which often portrays [Muslim] women as covered, when the world looks at
Pakistan, they want to go into the minds of women,” says Amna Naqvi, a former
investment banker, founder of Karachi’s Gandhara-Art gallery, and an important
collector whose work has been lent to museums around the world.
One of Naqvi’s favorite artists is Aisha Khalid, a painter in her 30s who is married to the
prominent artist Imran Qureshi—although Khalid is considered to be the bigger name.
Khalid’s Birth of Venus paintings depict fully veiled figures against a backdrop of Islamic
symbols. Another work combines grandmotherly embroidery with pointed sexual
commentary, such as sewing pins stuck through a coat, with sharp needles exposed on the inside.
Even for artists whose work does not deal with overtly feminine symbols, the link
between their creative drive and their place in Pakistani culture is evident. Sikander, who
was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2006, says: “Women in Pakistan in general
wield a lot more power than what is perceived from abroad. In Pakistani society, women
are less coddled, which makes them much more resilient, resourceful, and original.”