Bare-chested women stare solemnly outwards at the viewer, their poses at times proud and at others self-conscious, each muscle rendered in precise, beautiful detail. In his upcoming solo exhibition,Nangeli, at Kristin Hjellegjerde’s Wandsworth gallery in London, Pakistani artist Muhammad Zeeshan draws on the 19th-century legend of a woman called Nangeli who supposedly cut off her breasts in protest against a caste-based ‘breast tax’.Traditionally, the baring of breasts in the Keralan state of India was seen as a mark of respect to higher-status people and significantly, the tax, which was evaluated on the size of a woman’s breasts, was only imposed on the lower caste Hindu women who wanted to cover their bodies. While this story is , in many ways, culturally specific it also speaks of a wider history of degradation and the continued censorship and objectification of the female body. In this way, Zeeshan’s portraits possess a unique timeless quality, melding source imagery from 19th-century postcards with contemporary photography of the female nude.
Originally trained in the art of miniature painting, Zeeshan’s practice often begins with research into a pertinent social or cultural issue. The continued censorship of women’s breasts on Instagram and relating contemporary discourse provided the catalyst for this latest body of work, provoking the artist to more closely examine historic attitudes towards the female body. Zeeshan found Nangeli’s story affecting not only as an example of the commodification and abasement of women, but also as a case study into how perceptions and judgements are established and upheld by restrictive and often arbitrary social structures. Whilst the breast tax was eventually abolished, the objectification of the female body remains a pertinent issue that, in the artist’s mind, is inextricably linked to representation, and therefore, visual culture and contemporary ways of seeing.
However, Zeeshan avoids didacticism by approaching and presenting these portraits ‘as a form of visual research’. The artworks are made in the technique of miniature painting, using very fine brushes and building from light to dark to achieve both precise detail and a sense of softness that implies the distinct physicalities of these women’s bodies. By removing the original context of the source photography, and re-situating the women within white space or against plain backgrounds, the artist emphasises their bareness and also invites the viewer to engage more deeply, and without judgement. Notably, the majority of the women are gazing directly back at the viewer, and although their expressions vary, there is a sense of conscious and captivating self-assertion.
Whilst the miniature style of painting typically flattens the image, Zeeshan has added another dimension to the work by engraving the head of Einstein with his tongue sticking out, and the Pop Art slogan ‘Wow’ onto a transparent acrylic sheet that’s layered onto the painting over the women’s nipples. Viewed directly from the front of the engraving acts as a kind of censorship, whilst from the side, the nipples become visible again. By using instantly recognisable contemporary imagery, Zeeshan encourages us to both laugh at the censorship, and find familiarity in the portraits. ‘I chose to use Einstein in particular because I wanted to mock the impossible logic of a breast tax which was only applicable to the poorest of people and judged according to their breast size, which they had no way of controlling,’ explains the artist.
What’s most striking about these works, however, is the depth of individuality that’s captured through the meticulous brushstrokes; each of these women is entirely distinct not just physically, but also emotionally. Through their poses and expressions, we’re able to glimpse their subjectivity - a sense of a real person and life being lived beyond the canvas - and as such, their nudity is rendered as an artistic form of self-expression, which allows us to simultaneously appreciate the beauty of their image as an artwork.