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Lala Rukh (1948–2017)

Pakistani activist and abstractionist Lala Rukh, one of the founding members of the Women’s Action Forum, a women’s rights organization with chapters in several cities in Pakistan, died on Friday, July 7, in Lahore, at the age of sixty-nine, Pakistan Today reports.

“My dearest friend and a lifelong crusader for justice, equality, women’s rights, and minority rights from a feminist perspective, as well as a renowned artist died peacefully after a month-long struggle with cancer,” author Rubina Saigol wrote on Facebook.

Born on June 29, 1948, Rukh earned her master’s degree in fine arts from Punjab University in Lahore and from the University of Chicago. She later taught at Punjab University for thirty years. In 2000, she established the MA Honors Visual Art Program at the National College of Arts. She served as the head of the school’s art history department for many years.

While working at the National College of Arts, Rukh learned calligraphy under a master practitioner. The art form inspired her “Hieroglyphics” series, which spans more than a decade. Reflecting on the series, curator Natasha Ginwala wrote: “[Her work] at times operates with the intuitive pull of a sonic grammar; one feels compelled to hold an ear to the painting as it translates the percussive system of taal and the tonal gradient of ragas into pictographs. Rhythm counts and melodic structures are expressed in unexpected symbolic gradients or scales.”

Rukh often raised awareness for social and human rights issues through her practice. She even turned her backyard into a screen-printing workshop for circulating WAF materials, which inspired the manual In Our Own Backyard. The book includes information on printing for activist organizations trying to mobilize in support of women’s causes.

In the 1980s, Rukh famously started the movement against the Hudood Ordinances implemented by General Ziaul Haq, which replaced parts of the British-era Pakistan penal code with new criminal offenses of adultery and fornication, punishable by whipping, amputation, and stoning to death. After participating in the iconic women’s protest at Mall Road, Rukh was jailed for a short time.

Recent exhibitions of the artist’s works include “Sagar” (2017) at Grey Noise, in Dubai; “For an Image, Faster Than Light” (2016) at the Yinchuan Biennale in Yinchuan, China; “But Even If I Cannot See the Sun” (2016) at Grey Noise; and “The Past, the Present, the Possible” (2015) at the Twelfth Sharjah Biennial in the UAE.

A newly commissioned work by Rukh is currently on view at Documenta 14 in Athens, and a collection of her older works are on display in Kassel. In a Diary for, Kaelen Wilson-Goldie called the artist’s installation one of the exhibition’s “most striking projects.”

In a statement, Grey Noise said, “Lala Rukh holds great importance for us—not just for her historical contributions to South Asian art and feminist dialogue, but also for what she meant to us in a personal capacity. Grey Noise was founded in the living room of Lala Rukh’s house in December 2007 and in the seventeen years of knowing her we forged a relationship closer than blood. Her passing brings us great sorrow, but also a renewed sense of urgency to shed light on her largely unexamined practice and the story of the great woman she was.”