The male nude in Pakistani art

(This interview was commissioned by Tisha Srivastav, and was first published by Our Stories in November 2015. It appeared subsequently in a book titled The First 5o published by Sanat Gallery, Karachi. The images have been reproduced here with permission.)

Numair Abbasi (Source: The artist himself)

With my interest in cultural practices, spaces and opportunities that shape how men relate to their bodies, I was swept away in my very first encounter with the work of Numair A. Abbasi, a visual artist from Karachi, Pakistan. His latest work titled ‘[it takes] All kinds of kinds’ is a series of male nudes currently on display at Karachi’s Sanat Art Gallery. The nudes appear in a variety of spaces, public and private, quietly and boldly questioning ideas about masculinity.

Formally trained as a sculptor and photographer at Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Abbasi makes a distinction between works that are comforting and confronting, placing his own in the latter category. My own experience of it was the former, because of the sheer playfulness, vulnerability, sensuality and surprise that each work evoked for me. Instead of describing each of them, it seems more productive to let the artist speak for himself — through his works, and his commentary on the process that brought this series together.

Chintan: When did you begin to get interested in exploring gender roles as a theme in your art practice? Could you recall specific moments or experiences that feel significant?

Numair: My fascination with exploring the idea of gender and its role has been fairly recent. Having explored it for over a year in numerous works, I am not sure if I will continue with the idea much longer. I did not know that I would walk in this direction. However, I can say that the interest in gender roles started during my thesis year, about a year ago. Perhaps the inclination towards the subject was indeed there from long before.

While my thesis stemmed from a personal journey, and how I, as a man in a Pakistani society, exist with my own baggage and strenuous relationships, the trajectory eventually witnessed the work be stripped off of any personal narrative and develop more into a social comment. Since I was a child, I’ve witnessed how men and women are treated differently, and the different expectations that are laid before them, simply because society has inherited and passed on what are now categorized male and female roles.

Perhaps I was sensitive and observant enough to notice the (usually unjust) differences, as opposed to most individuals who may easily overlook the issue or consider it trivial. The immunity and acceptance towards what I consider an archaic practice of particular perceived gender roles has been passed down from and ingrained in generation after generation so extensively that it does not surprise me that most are not able to notice it.

I won’t say there was a particular moment or experience which I can highlight. It was just years of observation as I grew up, which got me restless. Art provided me a medium to finally voice myself.

Chintan: All of the mixed media works in ‘(it takes) All kinds of kinds’ are nudes. What does nudity mean to you, artistically and metaphorically? Does it offer you a special way of observing and representing the world?

Numair: I realized in my college years that there were two mediums I grew drawn to, which reciprocated to me the most — fabric, and the human body. The human body, for me, is probably the most sculptural and versatile creation to exist in its natural state. Bend an elbow, and the whole form changes. Likewise, fabric gives you abstract forms without needing to try. True abstraction is the really difficult bit.

For me, it is a little premature to define what nudity is, considering my infant career. For instance, I, for the longest time, have been sitting and thinking how nudity is different from nude; besides its dictionary definition, of course.

However, the nude, for me, is just a vessel. Nothing more. It has the capacity to evoke so many emotions, some I have yet to recognize. And it comes with limitless interpretations. If any clichéd inanimate object can be a symbol for a plethora of ideas and matters, then why cannot the same follow through for an animate, living body?

Nudity, for me, represents so much. It is vulnerability, and an armor of confidence. It can be power, or weakness. Stifled, or liberated. Victimized. Empowered. It can be authoritative determination, yet exude a sense of carefree irresponsibility.

The challenge however, is when people are unable or unwilling to absorb beyond its sexual allusion. When a half eaten apple can represent a cornucopia of connotations without talking about the fruit itself, then why is it so difficult to resonate the same with a human body?

I think works are either comforting, or confronting. My visuals obviously fall in the latter. It is very interesting to see the reaction of the audience. If I want to express something, I would say it is as it is, rather than to hide it under a veil, to make it more palatable. I believe my works are like mirrors, depicting what really goes on. I’m not insensitive enough to produce certain visuals to offend a viewer. I address my audience to receive their response in order to instigate a conversation; especially around the perception of a male nude. I am curious to know what it is that makes a nude — a male nude, especially — so difficult to digest.

Chintan: How did you go about conceptualizing this series? Did you work with one model for the entire series, or different models? What was that process like? Would you mind sharing some anecdotes or insights from that process?

Numair: My work so far has been a back and forth retort between myself and viewers. Maybe it is a wrong way to function. But, as I mentioned, they respond to my work, which fascinates me as to how, from a psychological perspective, they would perceive such an interpretation. My next work is then a response to their response. This series was me addressing the audience rather than just an expression I let out in the air.

The conceptual development behind the work has been running from months before. It started from just random words jotted down in my diary, quick sketches, and just a spontaneous splash of thoughts on paper. Getting out of bed right before falling asleep to note what just flashed through my mind was the usual practice, in case I forgot by the following morning.

For most pieces, the thought and idea came before the visual was finalized. For a few pieces, the visual kept circumambulating in my mind before I could even fathom what it meant. I do not usually function in this fashion. But I knew I just had to regurgitate what was playing on loop in my mind for it to stop nagging me. I am at a phase where my mind is fully aware, but for me to able to articulate that thought bubble would be a slower process. I went ahead since I knew everything would come together.

After having driven around the city to photograph various settings, I listed the willing individuals who I would photograph. Initially I was over-ambitious, to keep one model for one visual, since I wanted the series to be as diverse as possible. But I soon realized I may have to compromise on that condition due to time constraints and the clash of free time between me and my models. However, I always configured from before which body type would be ideal for which visual. I gathered all the props, and scheduled the shoots.

For me, the title of the show partially stems from this process. I photographed each model in my bedroom. While few were friends or acquaintances, most were friends of friends. I let myself be vulnerable by inviting these diverse strangers into my personal space; and they reciprocated with the same by exposing their personal self and undressing before me. I found the exchange quite charming to be honest.

Chintan: You have remarked, “My work does not comment on what it means to be a man, but rather a male.” What is the distinction you make between being a man and being a male? Is this distinction related to private and public spaces? While nudity is something one assumes as private, many of the settings your nudes are depicted in are clearly marked as public. Your thoughts?

Numair: I feel that quote probably lost the essence of what I was actually trying to convey. A man is an adult male human, of course. Whereas male clearly outlines an organism with certain physiological attributes, I do not speak about that in my work. There is another tone to being male, the male in society — where the traits are not biologically inherited but are associated to that sex over time, by those in the environment. That is the backbone which I’ve grasped and weave around. Certain expectations, certain phrases instilled repeatedly over time, are quite damaging. As I read somewhere, these ego damaging constructions are built into society; “reinforcing rhetoric that feminizes emotional expression and masculinizes violence has the power to stunt empathy, drive dominance, and connect respect with fear.” Gender, after all, is a social construct. Often, behavioral patterns are associated as biological, or innate, when in fact they have been internalized over time through nurturing and learning experiences. This is the distinction I attempted to highlight, not so much about the private and public spaces.

The public spaces in my work though was a significant, yet a gradual change. I initially used to speak about something psychological — an individual’s association with him/herself. This introspective commentary, which may have been a product of exchange with other individuals, resulted in a dialogue within the person. Hence, the backgrounds were blank, the space was empty. I then introduced interior spaces, to comment on the identities one holds in their private and public sphere. I placed the subjects in spaces intimate to them, where they are their truest self, as opposed to a public space where they regularly put up a performance before someone else. These men were self indulgent in their domain, and displayed no care for the world.

I soon realized that as I was venturing into a social commentary, and talking about the dyad that is the individual male himself and the society with its expectation of the societal male from the former. It was no more an introspective, within-the-frames-of-the-mind type of work, hence it only made sense to introduce the public space itself, and quite literally have them face the outdoors. Whether nudity is a private activity or public is an entirely different and subjective debate, which I feel is irrelevant to my work.

Chintan: The qualities in your series that struck me were the playfulness and the sensuality that accompany the anxiety about body image. Did this series grow out of how you view your own relationship with your body, or conversations with other males within and outside your social circle?

Numair: A bit of both, honestly. But most of it extended out of my observations of how others have been treated, or how they dealt with certain situations. They are all relatable instances since I myself have experienced most of them. Nothing significant, but these slight nuances you pick, which stay at the back of your mind. People ask me why I do not work with female nudes. I’m willing to but I need a reason to. Besides, it is very difficult to find female models. In Pakistan, you do not have the trend of professional nude models as you would elsewhere maybe. Hence, I am not comfortable paying someone to undress; that is pure exploitation. I would never know if they stripped because of a ‘majboori’ (for the lack of a befitting word in English), or they posed in the name of art, or to please their exhibitionist self that embraces their body and exposes their comfort with their image.

However, in relation to your question, I have not drawn female nudes because it already has so many connotations that it is easy for me to misrepresent my voice. I need to be responsible and certain of what I display, and take ownership of it. I can do that with this series. In the case of the former, I will only be an onlooker, peering into something I may not have personally felt or experienced. Biases will naturally come in. And that does not settle well with me. Again, to tie it to your question, this series is something I can take ownership of. I have experienced most of what I’ve tried to project. I have had conversations about my work, where other men displayed agreement, or shared their opinions. The preparation was extensive. I had to be sure of what I was saying, and whether my stance was even valid. I could not just make nudes of someone at the spur of the moment without validating the ground of the context I was placing it on. Not that there is anything wrong with that route, but that is not how I function.

And I personally do not think I had ideas about body image and people’s relationship with their body in mind. In fact, like I said, all of these men are very comfortable with their image; else they would not have undressed before a stranger. I am very opinionated about notions of beauty, and I believe all body types are equally beautiful and fascinating. However, that thought was not in my mind when this series was in the making.

Chintan: Males in most South Asian societies, and other societies around the world, are often identified as the stronger sex, and associated with power, aggression, even violence. Your works highlight aspects that are not often written or spoken about — vulnerability, need for approval, self-care. Do you view your art as having a role in bringing some nuance to how gender and sexuality are perceived in the contexts you inhabit/work within?

Numair: I do agree with your initial statement, and have mentioned so myself in the previous response.

It is tough to say. Yes, it is ideal for my work to leave lingering thoughts about how gender is perceived, but it is more wishful thinking. People do not engage with the work enough. And not many will get the voice I tried to project. If people get offended, or repelled, they need to ask themselves why. And that is when the real dialogue and interaction with the visual takes place. People often mistake what they see is what the artist wanted to show, which is not entirely true. What you see is often a reflection of what you intrinsically wanted to see; it can tell you a lot about your perspective in life and inbred opinions on certain subjects.

To pull back from the rambling, yes I do feel my work has a role in molding how gender is perceived. However, having exhibited a few times, I’ve now realized that to hope for its fruition is a long shot. I need to pull back to the basics. I now think my work has a role in recontextualizing how male nudes are seen. Only then might the latter be possible. A lot of people take out sexual connotations in my work. Some even call it homoerotic, which is strange but intriguing. And this is in reference to your question as well, since I feel I have never spoken about sexuality in my work. I’m not trying to put down those readings; in fact, I quite savor every response I get since my art progresses from how people interpret the work, and what really goes on in their mind. Again, viewers should always ask themselves why they had that particular interpretation of the work, as more often than not it is not what the artist wanted to show but your perception which made you see. It is interesting that if you search homoeroticism or homoerotic art, the search results may be flooded with visuals of men, and very few of women. Why is it that when we say homoeroticism, and especially homoerotic art, we instantly think of men? Do women not fall in that category? Perhaps being a male artist drawing male nudes, people will instantly take out sexual undertones or call it homoerotic. But if it had been a female artist, it may have been called feminism.

In fact, most of the artists who I closely follow are feminists — Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Marina Abramovic, Seema Nusrat, Orlan, and Kim Soo Ja, etc. And then there are artists whose works revolve around the male — Anwar Saeed, Bruce Nauman, Ali Kazim, and Vito Acconci. Some of these artists have worked with nudes; almost all of them regularly work/ed with the body in some form or the other. But they speak about something much beyond. Working with a male nude does not mean I have restricted myself to talk about the physicalities behind the nude. For me, the nude is just a medium, through which I talk about experiences, emotions, dichotomic scenarios within the mind or in relation to the environment.

It takes two to tango, and I mean this in the most positive sense. For me to think of what the role of my work is, significantly depends on how the work is even received and experienced by viewers. Hence as much as I would vouch that my art has a role in reshaping how gender is perceived, my work primarily has a role in addressing how the work itself, that is male nudes, are perceived within the context of my work. It is a complex journey which I need to map.

Writer, educator and researcher

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