Misha Japanwala stands on a sheet of plastic in the middle of her small room, naked and motionless. She has pushed her bed to one corner and the desk to another. Just a few minutes earlier, her assistant painted liquid silicone onto the front of her body. The fast-drying blue liquid is layered. It dribbles from collarbone to vulva. Now Misha will stand there for few hours, waiting for the silicone to thicken and dry, capturing in detail every curve of her body, down to the pores of her skin. When the mould is ready, she will use it to cast plastic sculptures. Japanwala calls the project Azaadi, meaning freedom. The work’s exploration of the female nude responds to gender-based violence and the repression of sexuality in Pakistan.
Japanwala graduated earlier this year with a degree in fashion design from the Parsons School of Design. It was during her time there that she began parallel introspections into her sexuality, privilege and artistic process. The result is a cluster of mixed media works including body casts, line drawings, jewelry and collage that reach for that liminal space between fashion and fine art.
A native of Karachi, Japanwala grew up in upper-middle class comfort, attending private school and being socio-economically closer to Western ways of living and thinking than the vast majority of the subcontinent. Her privilege kept her removed from the predominant cultural practices that expect modesty and subservience from women. Even so, she is aware of the moral taboos that have seeped into her siloed life, and seems to take on the patriarchy with bright-eyed exuberance. Take for instance her use of the subcontinent’s unceasing “log kya kahenge,”a refrain of self-consciousness, more often gendered than not, against social judgement. In Japanwala’s vision, the tiresome phrase glistens in gold Urdu calligraphy, worn against the chest, visible; the ever-present whispers from behind partly-drawn curtains, mid-afternoon phone calls and highly anticipated kitty-parties worn as if it were medal of honor.
Visibility is key to Japanwala’s work. She takes what is looked at as dishonorable, shameful, a cur, and tries, through the lens of her lived experience, to re-package those same principles. Through the very act of casting herself, she reminds us that there is power to be reclaimed by asserting one’s identity plainly.
It is unsurprising and saddening that only from the privileged positions of the the artist, the viewer, the critic can we venture into artistic re-interpretation while contending with the violent, daily oppression of Pakistani women. In an attempt to balance the scales, Japanwala talked to the women who worked as household help and staff at her Karachi home and family-run school. The conversations brought the ground reality of widespread domestic violence and murders at the perceived violation of family honor closer to home.
She talked to one woman, Anila, whose husband had broken her leg and ear after a particularly vicious beating, and another, Vijinti, who cried out of tiredness that such brutality was the norm in her community. On talking to the artist, the conversations came across as surface but felt like they were a corrective measure for her personally. Their presence in the work itself is not subtle. Japanwala casts the women’s hands, molding wrist cuffs, necklaces and rings. In this project, which is, at its core, about an artist’s process towards vulnerability, the limp hands of those who suffer the most are no longer obscured. Several shades darker than the casts of Japanwala’s body, the hands are a gesture towards the humanity of the unrepresented bodies. The accessories grasp at the model’s wrist and finger and neck, just so, becoming a frightful combination of oppressor and oppressed. They echo the sick indoctrination that often trickles down matrilineally while giving voice and embodiment to voices that are silenced.
In a series of photographs taken towards the end of the project, a model draped in wispy fabrics and long black hair pushed back wears Japanwala’s casts, each one from a different segment of the artist’s body. The model’s deep brown skin glistens, and I can’t decide if it’s from sweat or bronzer. She’s in a warehouse surrounded by blocks of stone, and I make up stories: Is that where this body she wears has come from? Are there other discarded shells of female hiding just out of sight?
I find myself turning from photos of Misha to photos of her body cast, trying to see, to understand a correlation. What I see, though, is her body as a literal object: the belly creases that are so fun to trace, the apparent weight of this cement-like plastic, the shortness of the torso, the rough edges where the material ends and body begins, tiny erect nipples. How strong must they be to pierce the plaster? They don’t seem to belong to a person.
Perhaps this sort of symbolism is a tad on-the-nose for a project attempting to respond, in large part, to the horrifying practice of honor killings. Distracting, even. But the objects have an eerie hypnotism when laid against flesh and that is where the strength of this project lies – in the tension between beauty and fatality.