Monday, 26 October 2009

Embracing The Unavoidable - A Profile of Ruby Chishti

Looking at the stitched, doll-like figures crafted by Ruby Chisthi, you may imagine as I did, that she would be as ample-bodied as her textile sculptures. Consider then my surprise, when she emails her photograph and I find myself glancing at this slightly built, almost waif-like woman.

In our subsequent email correspondence and conversations, she emerges from within the slits and folds of her sculpted forms, as expressive and candid. Born and educated in Pakistan, Ruby migrated to the U.S. seven years ago where she now lives in Brooklyn, New York. This physical location is not of much consequence to her and therefore her art practice, through which she expresses primarily the trials and trauma of being a woman and life in Pakistan. Her displacement evokes a sense of loss and also liberation for she feels that once you’ve left your ‘home’ then the whole world is yours and there is such freedom, for “no-body knows, no-body watches” and you do not have to live up to social and cultural expectations. To be free; unfettered by constraints to discover, express and be; is what she relishes.

Born as the fourth daughter to Safia Begum and Khushi Mohammed, in the Jhung district of Multan in Punjab, in 1963; her paternal grandmother once told the young Ruby that they were expecting a second son and cried in disappointment when she was born. This created a tremendous impact and each year thereafter “on the blessed night of Ramadan” she “prayed to become a boy”. In ‘My birth will take place a thousand times no matter how you celebrate it’, she seats five women in a circle, their arms hugging their heads, dropped in despair onto their ample laps.

She makes a statement about the grief of being born a woman and the attitude faced in giving birth to one, without expressing resentment and violence for her own predicament as a consequence of this prejudice. By presenting women who lament the birth of a girl child, she brings out the irrational domination of perception that distorts a woman’s view towards her own gender, re-enforcing the paradoxical nature of the circumstance, where a woman decries her own birth.

The choice of materials and how she crafts the figure highlights the plight of these women. The use of stitch, recycled fabric carelessly stuffed with straw, coupled with an indifference towards the survival of the created artefacts, are powerful in evoking the predicament that compels them to decry the birth of a girl child, even as she states that ‘she’ will be born a thousand times. Through the gesture of needle piercing the fabric she enunciates the process of repeated wounds, where the fabric becomes ‘skin’ ; and through the act of joining fragments she links the experiences of subjugation and rejection, expressed as despairing forms, crafted fragile yet resilient .

Presenting herself as well worn, soft and supple; tired and exhausted but still capable of being moulded again and again at will, through the nature of textiles whose warps are well known to endure the rigours of time, is evocative. The rounded form she uses is culturally associated with feminine passivity and accommodation and the figures are dependant on anatomical resemblances, not analogies; evoking rural rather than urban influences. Her father, a civil engineer employed with the government of Pakistan worked on developing highways, which involved a lot of travel for the family, with spartan living in villages Travelling frequently, Ruby remembers the charpai, as the only constant loaded onto trucks each time they left a particular destination. The ephemeral nature of a life lived in transit from these early years is reflected in the artist’s selection of material.

This is further emphasized in her installations such as ‘Altar’ and ‘Sketch’, where she collects twigs from the location of the gallery or site of exhibition and attempts to incinerate the memories, burning the installations at the end of each showing. The wood turns to ash but she admits that the memories remain in her consciousness. Burning may be deemed an act of violence in itself, but Ruby does not burn effigies of hate, she sets alight her pain and in the case of ‘Sketch’, a sculpture created of her deceased mother.

Ruby has lived close to death; witnessing the debilitation of disease and early demise of her brother aged 27 and father who was 47 yrs old. Both died of cancer. She then spent 11 years nursing an invalid mother when she was unable to make art. She also recounts living in perpetual fear of death by bomb blasts and murder in the dictatorship regimes of Pakistan. Listening to Ruby Chisthi speak is a touching encounter. She draws you into the ambit of her experience for the simplicity with which she speaks of prejudices and practices that underlie the thread of life in the sub-continent. These come alive not as ‘issues’ but as a very personal story, compelling you see it as such. She communicates without hesitation, welcomes any question and answers spontaneously without rancour. In recounting her memories of the days after Bhutto was hung, she says that newspapers were heavily censored; each column had patches of white, often after every two to three words, eliminating whatever was deemed offensive. She speaks of how a ‘hatoda’ gang was invented, spreading news of their exploits in the daily papers to put fear into the populace, so that the government was unhindered in their plans. She says it was impossible to sleep at night, as this gang supposedly inserted a pipe through the window, gassed entire families and then bashed their brains out with a hatoda.

The picture is gruesome, but Ruby Chishti’s work is generous in spirit despite the angst and her attempt to burn memories. We are informed of the pain where the artist in her rebels, but she also embraces it as unavoidable without hatred and repugnance; a wisdom that few of us have the capacity to adopt. Life has put her through unimaginable rigour. As an artist, she prizes the liberty to express and believes that what she has experienced as her life is what she brings to this world and what she wants to share with us. Her work inspires. We live in troubled times, everyone feels persecuted for something or other; leading to the burgeoning terror situation which is a constant threat across the globe. Many artists of the subcontinent are obsessed with violence and terror, but Ruby invokes this element not merely as a means to “comment upon the changing world in our surroundings, it is also a way to deal with her own situation – of a de-situated citizen.” What you cannot escape is what you must reconcile with; is her message, where life as a series of circumstance defines who we become. Chisthti accepts this, rather than rejecting herself as a consequence of experiences that have left an indelible mark. She transcends through her art.

Graduating with a BFA from the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan in 1988, Ruby was drawn to sculpture, but allergic to the materials she graduated instead with a thesis in painting. Her current practice employs material that is non-permanent such as straw and twigs and also used fabric, collected over the years. As a child she made dolls with cloth and later sewed her own clothes but discovered cloth as a medium for her sculpture only in 1999 when she found a connection between the “exhausted cast-offs and the frail body of an inert mother.” In the tradition of the sub-continent she stitches them, not as quilts or decorative assemblages, but to make dolls, neither miniature nor life-sized, employing a diminutive scale; she aptly reflects the status women have been accorded in her cultural environment.

Chisthi’s work has been exhibited in U.K., U.S.A, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia Pakistan and India. She has been awarded a fellowship from Vermont and has attended numerous residencies and workshops across the world. Her work is well received and the common denominator is the response that everyone wants to hug the women she creates. What I find inspiring and admirable is that she expresses uninhibitedly despite the social constraints she grew up with, but with a certain humbleness that evokes empathy and sympathy rather than making the viewer recoil in horror; for she accords the view a place as it surely has, while stating her own emotively, but not as an emotionally distraught and defensively violent statement.

Her rendition of the buffalo conveys her sentiment well. “A symbol of abundance, sustenance and earth energy” Ruby identifies with them as she says “I feel very close to this creature called buffalo. As woman, mother, Mother Nature always giving, struggle has been planted into her deeply that it has penetrated her bone marrow. She has been betrayed and defeated so many times by injustice that defeat has no meaning to her, after each hardship she gathers more energy and make herself stand on her feet so that she can walk again even without the promise of gods” Stuffing them with straw, she felt she was filling their empty stomachs but despite this, they were fashioned as tired, lost, drained of energy, almost of their own volition. Thereby Ruby speaks for both the predicament of the buffalo and herself too, recounting her early days in the U.S where she worked as a mail sorter in a corporate mail centre for 12 hours a day; lifting heavy trays weighing 30lbs to 50lbs. As part of an assembly line, she felt that anybody could take her place anytime, that she was no more than a replaceable spare part – a ‘purza’’.

Life has immeasurable value for anyone who has lost so many loved ones, who has witnessed brutal killings, and so Ruby creates ‘Armour’ expressing the belief held by women in Pakistan that giving birth to a child secures them from threats of survival they may otherwise face. Using cast sanitary napkins and thread, she fashions a sleeping baby suspended from the ceiling like a ghost or ethereal being. Chishti herself does not subscribe to this view. She and her husband have consciously opted not to have children and they are constantly subjected to scrutiny by well-meaning compatriots. Here ‘’Armour’ then takes on another meaning, where the sanitary napkin denoting menstruation and therefore the non-creation of the foetus could be considered ‘armour’ for those who choose not to bring a child into this world, where life is not cherished and nurtured as they would like it to be.

This material is unusual but appropriate for Chishti who does not follow any rules. She confesses not knowing many sewing techniques, often hindered by this, but determined to sew: if she imagines something, it will be made. Cloth here then becomes emblematic. It speaks of wounds, of memories, violence and politics. It is both a challenge and a triumph for the artist. She uses it in an effacing way to serve as a figure or code or concept, wherein the fabric itself becomes nothing and yet it is also everything - the fulcrum of Ruby Chisthi’s emotive narrative.