A Pakistani artist reimagines her relationship with shame and bodies

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A Pakistani artist reimagines her relationship with shame and bodies
Misha Japanwala’s moldings on the coast of Karachi, Pakistan. (Photos: Aleena Naqvi)

by Aamina Inayat Khan

NEW YORK, NY.- Misha Japanwala looked around her studio in the week leading up to her gallery show and wondered whether there were “too many nipples.”

She was talking, of course, about the nipples she plaster cast from the bodies of 70 anonymized Pakistani people. They are part of Japanwala’s new collection, “Beghairati Ki Nishaani: Traces of Shamelessness,” showing at Hannah Traore Gallery in New York through July 30.

Japanwala, a visual artist who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, spent several months last year in Karachi, Pakistan, where she grew up, making body castings of local women and LGBTQ people. Her work aims to be a historical record of a population governed by the laws of shame.

In a country where violence against women, including “honor killings,” is rampant, bucking social conventions and being branded “shameless” can put a person’s life at risk. Attending an Aurat (Women’s) March, a rally for women’s rights, has led to threats of murder and rape. Conservative and religious leaders have even campaigned to legally ban Aurat Marches, while pundits scream obscenities on national television at the women who march with signs such as “Mera Jism Meri Marzi” (My Body, My Choice).

“When so much of our existence has been subject to a campaign of disappearance, this collection is a present-day, physical reminder that our lives and our stories are part of the fabric of our people, and will continue to be so even hundreds of years from now,” she said.

The Beghairati project was born in the wake of criticism Japanwala, 27, received for her thesis collection at Parsons in 2018: a series of pieces cast from her own body reflecting on and exploring her personal relationship to shame, the one she inherited in Pakistan. “My thesis was the first time I was actually able to reflect on my identity and understand what a gift my body and my agency was,” she said.

As her work gained visibility in editorial spreads like Vogue Spain and on celebrities like Cardi B, Julia Fox and Joy Crookes, she found herself in the eye of a new storm. The comments under pictures of her work on Instagram were littered with strangers calling her shameless, sick and obscene, in both English and Urdu.

As a result, Japanwala developed an obsession with the concept of shame, transforming shamelessness into an area of study. Working on this project gave her “the understanding that shame and modesty are two entirely different categories that have nothing to do with one another,” and that shame is a pillar of patriarchy and a tool for control, she said.

Around the time the idea for this project began to seed, her grandmother died. Japanwala would walk by marble shops outside the cemetery and watch the workers carve marble figurines and inscriptions into gravestones. She had also long been watching her city fall apart: crumbling building facades, torn-up streets and no infrastructure to fix them.

It was at this crossroad that she glimpsed something that resembled the end of the world. Strands of death, disintegration, legacy and agency formed a braid. The collection — a series of resin body parts with metal coatings aimed to look like oxidized copper statues — is a fictionalized time capsule of what today’s fight for gender equality will look like one day, hundreds of years from now.

There are three parts to the collection: the core, a series of body castings of Pakistani artists and painters who embrace shamelessness in the images they create; a collage of hand sculptures of artists, filmmakers, writers and educators who are forging paths to a more gender-liberated society titled “Hands of a Revolution”; and an anonymous project in which nipples serve as unique fingerprints of the subjects, some of whom are recently divorced, transitioning or survivors of breast cancer.

Among her muses are Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an Oscar-winning documentarian, and Dua Mangi, a woman who survived an abduction that launched a national debate over victim blaming.

The pieces look damaged by the elements and time. They are Japanwala’s artifacts, future found objects and high fidelity that offer unequivocal evidence of Karachiites resisting gender-based violence.

Meetra Javed, a filmmaker who made a short fashion film of Japanwala’s collection, said, “She is unafraid of pushing boundaries, questioning status quos and creating conversations around the liberation of the body.” The film features an unreleased song by Ali Sethi, a Pakistani musician who recently performed at Coachella, and Gregory Rogove.

“I’m struck by the poetry in Misha’s work, which turns nakedness into a paradox of existence: When we wear her breastplates, we are both exposed and armored, bare and barricaded,” Sethi said in an email. “When she asked me to lend a piece of music for the video, I sent my most spare, empty, ‘naked’ composition yet.”

After the devastating floods in Pakistan last year, natural disaster also became part of Japanwala’s visual language for the imaginary future she has created in this collection. She wanted remnants of old life being washed up on the coast of Karachi at the end of one civilization and the beginning of a new one: “When the world ends, that is going to be ground zero, you know what I mean?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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