New York

Hiba Schahbaz, Roots (After Frida), 2020, watercolor, gouache, tea, and gold leaf on wasli, 14 × 11".

Hiba Schahbaz, Roots (After Frida), 2020, watercolor, gouache, tea, and gold leaf on wasli, 14 × 11".

Hiba Schahbaz

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Hiba Schahbaz studied Indo-Persian miniature painting in Lahore before moving to New York about a decade ago. Her work melds the formal traditions of this genre with contemporary interests of self-representation, as the perspectives of female artists are virtually absent from the history of this type of imagemaking. Schahbaz’s art features stylized nude figures based on her own likeness and range in scale from small paintings to life-size installations composed of paper cutouts. “In Solitude,” her online-only exhibition at De Buck Gallery, featured seven intimately sized compositions—rendered with tea, watercolor, and gouache on handmade wasli paper—that she painted at home during the Covid-19 quarantine. Within these constraints of space and media she created compositions of sumptuous detail, calling attention to the everyday textures and joy many of us summoned to navigate this troubling historical moment.

Each tableau, set within a crisply illustrated border, depicted a solitary nude woman with long flowing hair. The embedded frame is a common device in miniature painting, suggesting both physical enclosure and simultaneously limitless interior space. Plants with tender buds, branches, or leaves surrounded the subjects and often extended well beyond Schahbaz’s painted borders. Some scenes were prosaic. In Spring Studio (all works 2020), the figure lounges on her back with a watercolor palette beside her, studying a page in her hand—likely an artwork in progress. Other compositions leaned more toward symbolism. In Birdcage, a woman sits in a similarly styled room, gazing at her own reflection in a round mirror while golden birds burst forth from their coop. Though these images are beautiful, a palpable current of anxiety runs through them. Are these ladies reveling in luxurious confinement, or are they prisoners trapped in gilded cages? In the context of forced seclusion, the tension of these works becomes even more dramatic.

Schahbaz regularly mines erotic depictions of women in Western art history, and she did so in this show. In a short video on the gallery’s website, she states that the reclining figure of Waiting for Spring was inspired by Auguste Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Serpent, 1847, a sculpture cast directly from the body of renowned courtesan (and Clésinger’s lover) Apollonie Sabatier. Its sensual realism caused a scandal at its debut. Roots (After Frida) depicts a figure with long-stemmed leaves growing out of her as she lies on a mountain whose curves mirror her own. Here Schahbaz makes evocative use of the partial color tradition in miniature painting, rendering the landscape in shades of umber that match the woman’s hair and skin, contrasting against the blue sky above her. In Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait Roots, 1943, lush vines, seemingly nourished by her blood, sprout from a gaping hole in her torso. In a letter to Diego Rivera, Kahlo wrote about the piece in explicit terms, positioning herself as an active sexual agent: “The green miracle of the landscape of my body becomes in you the whole of nature. . . . I penetrate the sex of the whole earth, her heat chars me, and my entire body is rubbed by the freshness of the tender leaves.”

Much like Kahlo’s, Schahbaz’s project does not end with sexual liberation. De Buck’s press release describes her art as an “act of service.” The quarantine seems to have yielded a new (and more political) vein in her work: Since the killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department in May of this year, Schahbaz has shared on social media a handful of memorial portraits of Black Americans whose lives were taken by law enforcement officials, including Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor. Painted in rich browns and embellished with gold, these sensitive pictures borrow from traditions of icon painting and, of course, Schahbaz’s own visual vocabulary. While a departure from the pieces in this exhibition, the portraits are nonetheless made in the same spirit—one that celebrates life and hope despite so much ambivalence and fear.