SAND DRAWINGS 4 (detail), 2000–15, digital print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 40.6 × 54.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai. 

Tranquility Amid Turmoil

Lala Rukh

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

In September 1981, an 18-year-old pregnant woman and her husband were arrested in Pakistan after they had eloped. The woman’s parents filed a case against the newlyweds, Fahmida and Allah Baksh, stating that their marriage was illegal. Under the newly implemented “Islamicized” laws—called the Hudood Ordinances—of general-turned-president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the couple’s supposedly adulterous union was deemed to be a criminal offense. Fahmida was sentenced to 100 lashes and Allah to death by stoning. Against a worrying backdrop of increasing restrictions on women’s rights, this was the galvanizing incident that prompted a spate of emergency meetings to take place in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, resulting in the formation of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). According to a Human Rights Watch report in 1999, the WAF was the first nationwide women’s movement in Pakistan to be so comprehensive and effective in opposing Haq’s policies. Artist, activist and teacher Lala Rukh was at that initial, impromptu meeting in Lahore and became one of the founding members of this revolutionary group. “We suddenly understood what the so-called Islamic laws meant for women,” she said, speaking to me in characteristically soft tones from her home in Lahore, “and we had to do something.”

This is the Lala Rukh that many in the South Asian art community will be familiar with: the committed activist and feminist who was there from the very inception of the WAF. She is also a well-known figure within the tight-knit artist and teaching circle of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where she was a key faculty member for close to 30 years. However, for a variety of political and personal reasons—including that she kept her studio-based work more private than her pedagogical and activist quests—Lala Rukh’s practice has been relatively overlooked, until recently. Since the early 1980s, her interdisciplinary work has involved the pursuit of a pared-down, silent and contemplative aesthetic, largely developed in physical and conceptual isolation from those around her. Though she has exhibited periodically in Lahore, Karachi and Dubai over the years, her full body of work—from her drawings and paintings, to her photographic prints and sound art—is just beginning to garner the international critical attention it deserves, through inclusions in Sharjah Biennial 12 in 2015, the 1st Yinchuan Biennale in 2016, and at Documenta 14 this year. Yet to simply categorize Rukh as another lone South Asian woman abstractionist alongside peripatetic artists of a previous generation such as Nasreen Mohamedi or Zarina Hashmi would be to misunderstand the nuanced positioning of Lala Rukh’s particular legacy. Instead, her meditative, minimalist practice—and its potential reverberations across different histories and geographies—requires a careful tracing of the activist-artist’s path from Lahore, around the world, and firmly back.

Lala Rukh (far left) burning a chador during a demonstration organized by the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore, 1987, in protest of the killing of two sisters in Karachi. The spontaneous chador burning took place when the police prevented the group from marching any further. Photo by Azhar Jaffery. Courtesy the artist.

Born in 1948, a year after the formation of Pakistan, Lala Rukh grew up in Lahore in a politically liberal and culturally progressive household, where her mother Saeeda Khan would encourage her to campaign for women’s rights and even join her on public protests, and her father Hayat Ahmad Khan was the founder of the All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC). Lala Rukh recalls how her home would often be filled with leading classical musicians and vocalists, such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Roshan Ara Begum, performing in front of the family. From an impressionable age, she would travel for three months every summer, experiencing the cultures and music of South America, Asia and Africa. At home, she describes music as always having been a natural pastime, whereas calligraphy and miniature painting were disciplines instilled via regular tutoring. Creative and performative modes thus came early to Lala Rukh, and it was not surprising that the astute and adept young woman found her way to art school. Lala Rukh studied for her first MFA at the Punjab University, and also traveled from Pakistan to Afghanistan and Turkey on a government grant in the early 1970s. It was a time when conventions of all kinds were being upturned: counterculture movements were in full swing, feminism was taking to the streets, and art was being pushed to its conceptual limits.

The young artist decided to push her education further and travel to the United States, where she completed another MFA at the University of Chicago in 1976. This was, by her own accounts, a highly energized time, filled with campus discussions on influential artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Christo and John Baldessari. She recalled that while Rauschenberg opened up new avenues for the role and autonomy of art, it was Baldessari’s “very intellectual and mathematical approach” that inspired her. Artists such as these expanded the possibilities of what art could be and do. Body art was also coming to the fore in the 1970s and experiments with art, dance and theater were at their most avant-garde. Lala Rukh remembers seeing a collaborative performance by sound artist John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which she called “an abstract dance with no sound.” Though her early life had been culturally and artistically explorative, it was these formative moments in Chicago that exposed her to more experimental disciplines and released her from the conformity of her earlier training.

More so than her overt artistic practice, it was Lala Rukh’s intellectual approach that was most impacted and enriched by her time at art school. In Chicago, consciousness-raising groups and conversations about feminist writers such as Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chesler and Kate Millett had been all the rage. Upon her return to Lahore in 1977, Lala Rukh began to read these authors’ texts on second-wave feminism, such as Chesler’s Woman in Madness (1972) and Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970). In the context of Pakistan’s increasing oppression of women, such radical ideas acquired new relevance and momentum. Within South Asia, the 1980s was a very active decade for women’s movements in general, with several new organizations around the region working collaboratively and productively. It was a time of feminist camaraderie and solidarity—with Lala Rukh often at the center of it. In stark contrast, however, the artistic path that she had pursued since her time abroad had left her feeling alone. In the US she had felt that drawing was not just a medium; it could be a practice in its own right. Shows such as “Drawing Now: 1955–75,” held in early 1976 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had argued for its position as more than just a representational method or preparative tool. Back in Lahore, however, when Lala Rukh began to emphasize the line in her own work, with a move toward minimalist drawings, she found few artists working in a similar way and even less of an audience that appreciated this shift.

“My drawings were laughed at in Pakistan . . . I was completely isolated,” she told me. “But that was liberating in a way. It gave me an intellectual freedom and I became totally autonomous.” As part of her new, solitary routine in Lahore, Lala Rukh studied anatomy textbooks and began to call a male life-drawing model to her studio three times a week. She would draw him, using Conté crayon on white paper, with the utmost regularity, precision and intensity. The artist would think about how to capture ideas such as movement and dance, and ask the “figure” to move every 30 seconds while sitting for her. “That was her riyaz [rigorous practice],” explained artist Mariah Lookman, who was Lala Rukh’s student and later a teaching colleague at the NCA. “She was not prescriptive, but she always demanded attention to detail,” Lookman said of Lala Rukh’s approach. Over the next 13 years, Lala Rukh methodically and meticulously continued this routine, alongside her teaching and activist practice. Somewhere along the way, she found that the more she drew, the fewer lines she used. Many of her untitled drawings from as early as 1980 contain sparse markings—hinting at flexed limbs or edges of torsos—that already start to resemble parts of calligraphic script or fragments of musical notation, presaging her future interests.

RIVER IN AN OCEAN: 4, 1992, from the series “River in an Ocean,” 1992–93, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 × 20.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

RIVER IN AN OCEAN: 3, 1992, from the series “River in an Ocean,” 1992–93, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

This gradual deconstruction of the figure had to do with Lala Rukh’s underlying interest in emptiness and form, which was fueled by her scholarly exposure to the many philosophies of minimalism and abstraction. American minimalism had been a mainly male-dominated discipline, however, and was characterized by a mechanical, impersonal and process-orientated aesthetic. Hers seemed to possess an intimacy and intuitiveness, more aligned with the language of post-minimalist artists such as Eva Hesse, whose abstract drawings often took organic forms, including the body, as a starting point. Like Hesse, Lala Rukh’s early practice was that of a “hand-drawn minimalism,” which retained traces of corporeal authorship—as opposed to the works of Judd, Stella, LeWitt or Andre, who in their own ways sought to remove them.

While Lala Rukh’s approach integrated certain Western art historical perspectives, it is important to remember the other, more indigenous modes and references that she was attuned to. She told me that the regularity and rigor of her method had a lot in common with that of miniature painting, and that she loved the precise way of working that the medium demanded, as it suited her temperament. Miniature painting’s strong affiliation with naturalism, use of flat perspectives and traditional painterly tools would all filter into her later work. Her student and fellow minimalist Ayesha Jatoi also pointed out that Lala Rukh’s deconstructed language began with the figure, which many artists in Pakistan and India were working with at the time. As for alternative sources pointing to minimalism, Jatoi told me about an ancient shastra (precept, or teaching) inspirational to both her and Lala Rukh that roughly translates as: “It’s a waste of breath to make details.”

About the early 1980s, Lala Rukh stated, “Drawing was something that I just had to do, and kept doing. The rest of the time I was teaching at the NCA or I was actively involved in the women’s forum.” By 1983, sociopolitical tension had mounted under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, and the WAF held their first major public demonstration against the discriminatory “Law of Evidence,” which required the testimony of two women to equal that of one man. The protest resulted in Lala Rukh being arrested and temporarily detained in the police station. Such political activity was not allowed under martial law, and Lala Rukh ran the risk of losing her government teaching job if found out. When the artist-activist was summoned to the college principal’s office the next morning and asked if she participated, she replied no. “Then why are you on the front page of the newspaper?” came the reply. Lala Rukh had been captured on camera while trying to document the protest itself. Although in this case the university turned a blind eye to Lala Rukh’s activities, there were other faculty members who had to leave their jobs over similar incidents. “That was the atmosphere and those were the stakes,” she explained. “It was exciting and it was dangerous.” Despite such peril, she continued with the WAF’s activities. When Lala Rukh found printers unwilling to print the forum’s subversive material and newsletters, she decided to take up screen-printing. Some of the WAF’s provocative posters from this time—most of which were designed by Lala Rukh—include those on promoting equal rights and the freedom of women. Later in the 1980s, she also began teaching printmaking workshops to women in similar movements in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. “Of course the line drawing and screen-printing impacted my later practice,” she said to me. “Nothing that you do goes to waste.”

RIVER IN AN OCEAN: 6, 1993, from the series “River in an Ocean,” 1992–93, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh’s next series evolved from her earlier drawings but also encompassed techniques from her photography, printing and miniature-painting pursuits. “River in an Ocean” (1992–93) was conceived after a trip to Peshawar where the artist glanced out of the plane window and observed the way light snaked and glimmered on the water’s surface. “It looked like this brilliant river shining silver in the dark,” she said. “And it stayed with me.” She developed a series of small-scale works on photographic paper that were darkened and made to look almost translucent, then gently painted on with tiny wave-like brushstrokes. The result is an ethereal pattern of silver light against a moody, gray sky and deep-black sea: a glimpse into a brooding, wondrous and miniature landscape. Lala Rukh found uninhabited landscapes immensely appealing and would often escape to deserted beaches in Goa, India, and on the south coast of Sri Lanka. It is easy to see, as Ayesha Jatoi pointed out, how the linear markings of the deconstructed figure eventually became those of the horizon. “River in an Ocean” continued Lala Rukh’s abstraction from real elements—but this time drawing its impetus from bodiless spaces rather than the actual body.

This series resonates powerfully with abstract painter, photographer and printmaker Nasreen Mohamedi’s silver gelatin prints of the sea from 1970, which capture the same snaked pattern of light on the waves. There is also a stillness, silence and restraint in these beautiful works, which echo with the transcendental practice of abstract painter Agnes Martin, who also had an affinity for solitude and natural environments. Lala Rukh admits, with some frustration, that she only became aware of the affinities between artists such as Mohamedi, Martin and herself years after making these works. “All of these women, whose work I got to know and admired much later—Nasreen, Agnes, Zarina—were all on the outside and isolated in some way.” One particular reason that Lala Rukh created a protective and reflective space for herself was the immediate sociopolitical situation she faced in Lahore and the way it affected her psyche. For many years, there was a strong distinction between Lala Rukh’s two worlds: her private studio practice and her public activism. The loud aesthetic of the protest posters also seemed far removed from her quiet drawings—but somewhere down the line there would be synergies between the two. As curator and scholar Shanay Jhaveri has argued, against the backdrop of state-sponsored Islam where figural representation was generally condemned, the continual depiction (and dissolution) of the male figure by Lala Rukh can itself be read as a political gesture.

Poster for the 1st Women’s Action Forum, 1982. Designed by Lala Rukh. Courtesy the artist. 

“Mirror Image” (1997), however, is the first series in which we see distinct political references overtly informing the artist’s work. “This [body of work] was the first chance for her art and activism to meet each other,” remarked artist and curator Swapnaa Tamhane, who positioned the poignant series alongside works by 13 international feminist and activist artists from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s—such as India-based Rummana Hussain—in the 2015 exhibition “In Order to Join” at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai. While Hussain’s practice fundamentally pivoted in response to the impact of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, Lala Rukh’s “Mirror Image” was made to commemorate the ensuing riots that erupted over five years across cities such as Mumbai, Dhaka and Lahore. As Lala Rukh was preparing the work for an exhibition in India, though, her mother passed away in Pakistan from cancer. She found herself making two pieces, Heartscape and Mirror Image (both 1997)—which she sees as one body of work—where the first was about her mother’s death and the second about the hundreds who perished in the communal violence of 1992. For the former, she incorporated a strip of ECG paper and a series of progressively darkened sheets of photo paper; for the latter, the artist took excerpted newspaper clippings and photographs from the graphic media coverage of rioting in Mumbai and Lahore and darkened them. The viscerally numbing impact of such catastrophic moments across one geographical landmass is thus conveyed through the muted, dark-gray imagery, placed side by side against the grid of black lines on graph paper.

HEARTSCAPE (detail), 1997– , ECG, photo paper, 55 × 505 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

By this stage it was clear that Lala Rukh’s works were becoming visually darker, and that her interest in minimalism was taking her toward a flatter, blacker aesthetic. There is a definite sense that she was searching for an absence, purity or mysticism of some kind, but there remain suggestions or punctuations of form in certain pieces. Her varied and ongoing series “Hieroglyphics” (1995– ) is one of her most explorative in this sense, in which she was able to push her earlier interests into new realms. The series began one day in 1995 rather serendipitously, when Lala Rukh came across old paper resembling that of an airmail letter, and felt like writing “a letter” on it. Still interested in combining classical and minimal disciplines, Lala Rukh decided to write out successive, spare calligraphic letters in a straight line. Having been taught calligraphy, she had used the discipline in various pamphlets and posters for the WAF before—but this was the first time Lala Rukh chose to pare it down and deconstruct it into its basic units. While the linear lettering appeared to mimic the horizon, the blue of the paper seemed to evoke the sea. Though the lack of religious narrative distinguished the poetic motifs from traditional Islamic calligraphy, somewhere among them was still a search for the celestial, the spiritual and the tranquil.

HIEROGLYPHICS I: KOI ASHIQ KISI MEHBOOBA SE (3), 1995, from the series “Hieroglyphics,” 1995– , ink on paper, 20 × 15 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh continued working with calligraphic forms after Hieroglyphics I (1995), trying out different types of paper and material along the way. Once again, she found that the more she experimented with graphical permutations, the more they began to take on a reduced quality—until eventually she was left with just the qat (diamond-shaped dot). Lala Rukh started using lines of qats, to permeate and penetrate the starkness of jet-black carbon paper—her new favorite medium—and soon realized that their movement across the page resembled a kind of rhythm or musicality. The works were no longer drawn from their visual surroundings; they had become completely abstract, in the purest sense of the word. This is another moment in Lala Rukh’s practice where she unknowingly tuned into what Agnes Martin described in 1975: “Artwork that is completely abstract—free from any expression of the environment—is like music and can be responded to in the same way . . . Like music, abstract art is thematic.” The compositional theme of Lala Rukh’s own abstractions drew on her preoccupations with the suggestion of movement, the search for harmony, and the desire for nothingness.

From Hieroglyphics V (2008) to Hieroglyphics VI (2010) we see the sequentially scattered qats seemingly dissolve and blur, until they start to take on the shape of diffuse light patterns—visually resonant with, but in a definite progression from, the “River in an Ocean” series. “I realized I had been holding myself back all my life—not having the courage to do certain things, building them up to a certain stage and then stopping,” she said to me of this time. “My work was finally going toward emptiness and I was afraid of that.” From here to her next series in this evolution, “Nightscapes” (2011), we see these silver patterns gradually become darker, and then eventually disappear altogether into the inky black of the carbon paper itself. “Nightscapes,” which were first shown at Dubai’s Grey Noise gallery in 2016, served as a breakthrough moment for Lala Rukh, both a pinnacle and an obstacle in her artistic oeuvre. In one way, she finally overcame her fears and reached a total blackness and meditative silence that she had been seeking throughout. On the other hand, there was the limiting sensation of having arrived at that point, and she was not quitesure what would come next. “You can’t see anything [in ‘Nightscapes’] —so beyond nothingness, what is there?” she asked herself.

HIEROGLYPHICS IV (QAT-TAAL), 2005, from the series “Hieroglyphics,” 1995– , silver paint on carbon paper, 20.3 × 50.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

For some time, she confessed to me, she did not know what to do after this point. Her works, always made for their own sake rather than with an audience in mind, have now reached a new level of esotericism, devoid of both color and form. Relief came, not surprisingly, through her ongoing experimental series “Hieroglyphics,” and her continued foray into mapping qats in rhythmical patterns. During the earlier making of Hieroglyphics IV and V (2005–08), Lala Rukh had sat with a tabla player and tried to see whether it was possible to represent various matras (beats) and taals (claps)—such as the ektaaljhaptaal and keherva-jhoomar—using basic calligraphic units. The resultant works were showcased alongside four other series, from “Sigiriyah” (1993) up to Sand Drawings: 1-4 (2000-15), at the Sharjah Biennial 12 in 2015. The presentation was part of the gradual re-appreciation Lala Rukh is now receiving. When we spoke earlier in May 2016, the 69-year-old artist was working on her first test piece for a new work for Documenta 14, which involved combining sound, drawing and calligraphy through animation. When asked how she felt about this newfound critical interest and acclaim for her work, Lala Rukh replied that she was both pleased and skeptical.

HIEROGLYPHICS VI: 1 (detail), 2010, from the series “Hieroglyphics,” 1995– , silver paint on carbon paper, 25.4 × 20.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

In what seems like a strange reversal of her earlier life, Lala Rukh’s art has become more public and articulated, whereas her feminist work has taken on a more subdued course. As Lala Rukh is in the process of producing a book on the WAF’s activities and achievements, she has reflected on, and severely lamented, the fact that today’s feminist activities in Pakistan have entered a neoliberal paradigm whereby most women work on issues via multinational companies or NGOs—as opposed to the nonpartisan, and largely non-funded street activist endeavors of the WAF. This lack of autonomy has left those such as Lala Rukh feeling alienated. Having said this, she remains hopeful, as many of WAF’s members are now on various government organization boards and help to influence state policy toward women. I imagined that it must feel like a long way from the group’s first fight and its achievements—which included the victory of Fahmida and Allah Baksh’s acquittal. Looking back on her life, she relayed with satisfaction, “Everything else was a priority to my work—teaching, the WAF. Now finally my work is the priority.” When I asked about how the understated and unwavering artist now reconciles these various trajectories of her life, she said, “My life and my work are so different. The only way I can explain it to myself, is that this is the way I’ve led my life, and that my art is a reflection of it.”

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