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 .
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.
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.
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.