Artwork: Hiba Schahbaz, Self Portrait as Grand Odalisque (after Ingres), 2016. Tea, watercolor, and ink on indian paper 60 x 83 in.
Growing up in a family of artists in modern Pakistan, Hiba Schahbaz intuitively picked up a brush and began to paint. As she entered her pre-teen years, she became interested in painting the female nude, as her art began to explore more mature themes that reflected her own physical, emotional, and spiritual growth from child to adolescent.
But in the conservative Muslim country, it was impossible to find a woman willing to pose so Schahbaz did what any enterprising visionary would do: she used herself as the subject of her work. At the same time, Schahbaz was well aware of the prohibitions against her work. “There was a stigma attached to painting myself nude,” she told Crave. So to avoid being identified, she painted her body, but not her face.
“It was bad enough that all there were all these nudes. I’m sure people were aware that it was a self-portrait but if I put in my face, it would be very troublesome to my family,” she recalls. “It was a survival tactic. You paint what you need to paint but not get into too much trouble and make sure everyone is safe.”
Trained in the Indo-Persian, male-dominated tradition of painting miniatures, Schahbaz cut against the grain, slowly abandoning the conventions of the form to pursue her own path to self-discovery. She left Pakistan and headed to the West, settling in Brooklyn six years ago. Here, in a new world, Schahbaz created the literal and figurative distance that she needed.“A year or two after I got here, I felt safe enough to paint my face,” she reveals.
By claiming her identity as a woman, as artist, and as muse, Schahbaz has successfully subverted two traditions in one fell swoop. In the East, here the female nude simply does not exist, she has defied the prohibition, owning and embracing femaleness without fear or shame.
In the West, where the female nude has become a visual cliché to feed the limitless appetite of the male gaze, Schahbaz adopts the classic poses of Manet’s Olympia, Titian’s Venus, and Ingres’ Grand Odalisque and takes this classic iconography to the next level by installing the female gaze inside the painting.
In the Indo-Persian tradition of miniatures, figures are painted exclusively in profile or three-quarter view, never making eye contact with the viewer. In Western art, the subjects will look at the viewer, but often times it’s really just the artist they are looking at, as seen in the cold hard gaze of Olympia, scornful of Manet’s commodification of her body for his own use.
In Schahbaz’s paintings, she gazes back at herself, finally able to make direct eye contact with the person who had been faceless for years. This eye contact came about last year when Schahbaz scaled up from the traditional miniature size paintings of 10 x 5 inches to paintings that were both life sized and larger than life.
Suddenly, her nudes became more than portraits of herself: they became portraits of the Goddess whose presence overwhelms and envelops the viewer in a feeling of serenity that is as sacred as it is empowering. “I think I’ve spent like 90% of my life trying to accept that I’m a female and that’s OK,” she told The Huffington Post, giving voice to a dynamic that women struggle with on an intimate level.
Schabaz tells Crave, “As a woman in Pakison, my identity was in regards to everyone else. There were all these rules as a woman and none of them involved self-expression or being an individual. Here in New York, women are so powerful. We are allowed to have opinions, our own thoughts, our own lives. I’m just internalizing that in a way, coming emotionally to terms with my life and learning how to interact with the greater world.”
One of the best ways for an artist to engage is to share their work with the world. It is both a milestone and a release, a sense of completion of one chapter as they head to the next. And so it is that she has organized an exhibition of these works in Hiba Schahbaz: Self Portraits, currently on view at Project for Empty Space, in Newark, NJ, through May 5, 2017.
The paintings are mesmerizing meditations on the feminine, of the beauty and brilliance of transgression in the name of liberation. They work on several levels simultaneously, appealing to the sensual and spiritual aspects of humanity. In her paintings we feel a passion and a power that reclaims the very essence of life, of Nature in all her glory, innocence, and wisdom. “I think beauty is our privilege,” Schahbaz observes. “But even that has been taken away from us and who were are supposed to be.”
Until, once again, it is restored.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.