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Pakistan: Homage to Lala Rukh

Saturday 8 July 2017, by siawi3


WAF activist and artist Lala Rukh passes away in Lahore

Imran Gabol

Updated July 07, 2017

Women’s Action Forum’s (WAF) founding member Lala Rukh passed away at the age of 69 in Lahore on Friday.

Born on June 29, Lala Rukh was diagnosed with cancer last month and passed away at her home in Lahore where she lived with her sister. An activist and campaigner, she remained the head of the art and history departments at the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore.

A voice for minorities and women, Lala Rukh was a part of the iconic women’s protest at Mall Road against General Ziaul Haq’s martial law regime and was jailed at that time for her political activities.

Messages of condolence poured in following the news of her death.

“My dearest friend LalaRukh, a dedicated member of Women Action Forum 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 this morning after a month long struggle with cancer. Rest in peace dear Lala - we will miss you so much in WAF, in our lives and you will forever remain alive in our hearts. We love you Lala,” author and researcher Rubina Saigol wrote in a public Facebook post.

Her funeral will be held at her sister’s residence around 5pm. She will be buried in Miyani Sahib graveyard.




Lala Rukh
(b. 1948, Lahore)

Hieroglyphics I: Koi ashiq kisi mehbooba se 2 and 3 (1995)
Ink on paper
20 × 15 cm each

Hieroglyphics II: Hara samundar 1–4 (1995)
Ink on paper
20 × 15 cm each
Collection of Sajida Vandal

Hieroglyphics V: Qat-ektaal (2008)
Silver paint on carbon paper
20.3 × 50.8 cm
Collection of Amrita Jhaveri

Hieroglyphics V: Qat-jhaptaal (2008)
Silver paint on carbon paper
20.3 × 50.8 cm
Collection of Amrita Jhaveri

Hieroglyphics V: Qat-keherva jhoomar (2008)
Silver paint on carbon paper
20.3 × 50.8 cm
Collection of Amrita Jhaveri

Rupak (2016)
Drawings from a series of eighty-eight
Ink on paper
20.5 × 16.2 cm each

Rupak (2016)
Digital animation, sound
6:30 min.
Special thanks to Qasim Ahmad and Saleh Samee

All works Athens Conservatoire (Odeion), Athens

Posters, flyers, screenprinting manual, and other materials relating to the Women’s Action Forum, Lahore (1980s–90s)

Mirror Image 1–3 (1997)
Graphite on newsprint collaged onto graph paper

Three works, 48.3 × 61 cm each

Mirror Image II: 1–3 (2011)

Graphite on carbon paper

Three sheets, 20.3 × 50.8 cm each
Samdani Art Foundation Collection

Mirror Image III: x, y (2011)
Graphite on carbon paper

Two sheets, 20.3 × 50.8 cm each

Mirror Image III: 1, 2 (2011)
Graphite on carbon paper

Two sheets, 20.3 × 50.8 cm each

All works documenta Halle, Kassel

In his novel Ada, or Ardor (1969), Vladimir Nabokov writes, “Maybe the only thing that hints at a sense of Time is rhythm; not the recurrent beats of the rhythm but the gap between two such beats, the gray gap between black beats: the Tender Interval.” Lala Rukh’s drawings and print-based works operate in this realm of timekeeping, their visual terrains mapped by rhythm. She occupies the interval between two wave patterns, following the subtle transformations of moonlight, sand gradients, and archaeological topography while also pursuing the lines of dissent in street protests and across the women’s movement.

Born in Lahore in 1948, Lala has for decades been an active member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF)—one of South Asia’s most significant platforms for women’s rights and feminisms of the Global South—and her studio practice and role as an educator has consistently expanded into the public domain. The visual elements that accrue on her page are often particle-sized, yet they transact on multiple scales. By drawing spaces she charts horizons, drifting between sight and nonsight, expansion and restraint, and Lala’s pared-down vocabulary seems almost to have its own agency, often exposing a hidden choreography of ciphers in her scores. This is her own language, a constellation of calligraphic form, minimalism, and symbolic writing.

Lala developed a notational system through her training in Islamic calligraphy and her close involvement with musical traditions from across the Indian subcontinent. Of particular importance is her participation in following and archiving the All Pakistan Music Conference, initiated by the artist’s father, Hayat Ahmad Khan, in 1959. Lala’s drawings reflect the live quality of performed music, indexing sonic ruptures and melodic sequences as a graphic sensibility. Her current works look to build a stop-motion animation upon the percussive scheme of a Hindustani classical taal called rupak, which has a seven-beat structure. Drawing turns into movement, rendering the expansion of the beat in time, and creating a diagrammatic visual relationship with the pulsation of an instrument.

—Natasha Ginwala
Posted in Public Exhibition
Excerpted from the documenta 14: Daybook



Lala Rukh: A Visual Synopsis

by Sehr Jalil Raja

This is Lahore, 1982, and a group of fifteen jovial women pose for the camera – 1982: General Zia ul-Haq’s regime, i.e., the time when the anti-women laws were established. There’s laughter, there are smiles, there’s liberation; of like-mindedness but the salient feature of this photograph as I read is undying, maddening – power. The photograph was taken at the Women’s Action Forum, WAF’s national convention. The WAF which was in direct response to the inequity of the prevalent system went on relentlessly for its cause of justice for all the years to come – it nurtured women of substance from entrepreneurs and educationists to more…

Photo here

Lala Rukh (center space/on the ground) with the short haircut that she has maintained till now and her pair of glasses, seems like the fulcrum of this group of confident ladies. She covers (almost) the entire foreground of the photograph, she chooses to be at the forefront. ..

The scope is endless and although the sense of horizon prevails because of the larger foreground I cannot differentiate between the sky and the sea, the clouds or the waves. They stand together and alone. Artist, minimalist, activist and feminist, Rukh has been infinitely true to her ideology. Her drawings and photographic works are simplistic in form yet the magnanimity is such that rivers within oceans stream on paper… “Rukh is the pioneer of photographic, minimalist tradition” Blackness is the environment of the work but lightness steps forward. Earlier director and founder of the National College of Arts MA Visual Arts department, cofounder All Pakistan Music Conference (1960), Women’s action forum 1981 and Vasl artists trust (2000), Rukh has been looking at horizons and impossibilities throughout her practice. She has done it with poise, like the ocean – there was noise only where it mattered. The visuals stretch beyond (I may say) even the mind’s eye. It’s a travelogue of ‘nothingness’, fulfilment and resurrection… Rukh’s surface is her medium, from acrylic and carbon paper, to photographic paper and serigraph print – there is no separation of form and content, structure and substance.

The artist’s observations as true to her imagery don’t hold tangible parameters. Her serigraph prints depict the ancient city’s water gardens at different times of the day. It is environment in its wholeness, through the gradient/shift of time. What is borrowed and what is left behind and how invisibility and visibility play games with each other – all is seen in the dawn and dusk Sigiria 11 prints where the ancient city’s water gardens are a constant through a day’s images.

Defying inequality has been her purpose – and so drawing a balance comes in. The visual titled mirror image is a 1997 work where two newsprints, equal images are pasted on graph paper. There’s parallel confrontation. Babri Mosque (destroyed in 1992 by Indian fundamentalists) and a Hindu temple (violently demolished in Pakistan as a response) are somewhere camouflaged in a permanent blackness. This is activism on paper.
The artist is a devotee of nature and has found meaning in particles, points and shapes….to oblivion and transcendence. Through her life, ‘less’ has been the supreme answer to more. Water knows which lines can take it to the sky…

Sound is the sublime of free space. From our ECG’s; the systematic ‘rhythm of the heart’ to waves of waves, from overlapping of shrieks to echoes in distance – Rukh has touched all in her visuals. Hieroglyphics IV and V take the square angled qat (one unit of measure) that is the beginning and cord of calligraphic writing, its form and size and compose it with the fixed rhythmic patterns of south Asian Raga on carbon paper. So in retrospect Lala Rukh’s deep-rooted affiliation with calligraphy and music is unified and hence taken to the point – where a visual begins to play its own music.
I was at this aftaar-meeting (in a local restaurant) yesterday with a group of artists/activists from a collective I’m a part of. I opened the menu and we laughed a bit at this section of drinks(normal juices) titled ‘Detox drinks’ and the tagline with it that promised a cleansed/detoxified body. ‘Detoxification’ is the latest and ‘in’ thing nowadays and strangely while sitting there I thought about this person/artist and the piece I was writing on her… I smirked in my mind. If we have to search for the antithesis of excess baggage and actual detoxification of character, Lala Rukh maybe the definition. A life that stands for what it stands – does what it does and carves, paints, draws the lines that make the real mark; where light becomes visible in-between all that is around it.

All work images courtesy of Grey Noise Gallery.

Sehr Jalil Raja is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore (BFA, NCA 2006) and (MA HonsVisual Arts, NCA 2015), She is currently teaching at NCA and The City School.


“New Art from Pakistan Press « Thomas Erben Gallery – New York, NY.” Thomas Erben Gallery New York NY. 2010. Accessed June 20, 2015.
“Women’s Action Forum National Convention, Lahore 1982.” Connecting the Dots. November 17, 2006. Accessed June 20, 2015.
“The Painter and the Sea.” The Painter and the Sea. Accessed June 20, 2015.
“Pakistan.” The Stunning World of ‘s Minimalist Art. Accessed June 15, 2015.
“Nazreen Sansoni.” Nazreen Sansoni. Accessed June 27, 2015.
“Artist Gallery | GreyNoise.” Artist Gallery | GreyNoise. Accessed June 16, 2015.
“Lala Rukh, Sharjah Art Museum. Sharjah Biennial 12.” Lala Rukh, Sharjah Art Museum. Sharjah Biennial 12. Accessed June 27, 2015.

See art work here



SAND DRAWINGS 4 (detail), 2000–15, digital print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag paper, 40.6 × 54.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

All art work can be seen here

Tranquility Amid Turmoil
Lala Rukh

BY Jyoti Dhar

from Mar/Apr 2017

In September 1981, an 18-year-old pregnant woman and her husband were arrested in Pakistan after they had eloped. The woman’s parents filed a case against the newlyweds, Fahmida and Allah Baksh, stating that their marriage was illegal. Under the newly implemented “Islamicized” laws—called the Hudood Ordinances—of general-turned-president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the couple’s supposedly adulterous union was deemed to be a criminal offense. Fahmida was sentenced to 100 lashes and Allah to death by stoning. Against a worrying backdrop of increasing restrictions on women’s rights, this was the galvanizing incident that prompted a spate of emergency meetings to take place in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, resulting in the formation of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF). According to a Human Rights Watch report in 1999, the WAF was the first nationwide women’s movement in Pakistan to be so comprehensive and effective in opposing Haq’s policies. Artist, activist and teacher Lala Rukh was at that initial, impromptu meeting in Lahore and became one of the founding members of this revolutionary group. “We suddenly understood what the so-called Islamic laws meant for women,” she said, speaking to me in characteristically soft tones from her home in Lahore, “and we had to do something.”

This is the Lala Rukh that many in the South Asian art community will be familiar with: the committed activist and feminist who was there from the very inception of the WAF. She is also a well-known figure within the tight-knit artist and teaching circle of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, where she was a key faculty member for close to 30 years. However, for a variety of political and personal reasons—including that she kept her studio-based work more private than her pedagogical and activist quests—Lala Rukh’s practice has been relatively overlooked, until recently. Since the early 1980s, her interdisciplinary work has involved the pursuit of a pared-down, silent and contemplative aesthetic, largely developed in physical and conceptual isolation from those around her. Though she has exhibited periodically in Lahore, Karachi and Dubai over the years, her full body of work—from her drawings and paintings, to her photographic prints and sound art—is just beginning to garner the international critical attention it deserves, through inclusions in Sharjah Biennial 12 in 2015, the 1st Yinchuan Biennale in 2016, and at Documenta 14 this year. Yet to simply categorize Rukh as another lone South Asian woman abstractionist alongside peripatetic artists of a previous generation such as Nasreen Mohamedi or Zarina Hashmi would be to misunderstand the nuanced positioning of Lala Rukh’s particular legacy. Instead, her meditative, minimalist practice—and its potential reverberations across different histories and geographies—requires a careful tracing of the activist-artist’s path from Lahore, around the world, and firmly back.

Lala Rukh (far left) burning a chador during a demonstration organized by the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore, 1987, in protest of the killing of two sisters in Karachi. The spontaneous chador burning took place when the police prevented the group from marching any further. Photo by Azhar Jaffery. Courtesy the artist.

Born in 1948, a year after the formation of Pakistan, Lala Rukh grew up in Lahore in a politically liberal and culturally progressive household, where her mother Saeeda Khan would encourage her to campaign for women’s rights and even join her on public protests, and her father Hayat Ahmad Khan was the founder of the All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC). Lala Rukh recalls how her home would often be filled with leading classical musicians and vocalists, such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Roshan Ara Begum, performing in front of the family. From an impressionable age, she would travel for three months every summer, experiencing the cultures and music of South America, Asia and Africa. At home, she describes music as always having been a natural pastime, whereas calligraphy and miniature painting were disciplines instilled via regular tutoring. Creative and performative modes thus came early to Lala Rukh, and it was not surprising that the astute and adept young woman found her way to art school. Lala Rukh studied for her first MFA at the Punjab University, and also traveled from Pakistan to Afghanistan and Turkey on a government grant in the early 1970s. It was a time when conventions of all kinds were being upturned: counterculture movements were in full swing, feminism was taking to the streets, and art was being pushed to its conceptual limits.

The young artist decided to push her education further and travel to the United States, where she completed another MFA at the University of Chicago in 1976. This was, by her own accounts, a highly energized time, filled with campus discussions on influential artists including Robert Rauschenberg, Christo and John Baldessari. She recalled that while Rauschenberg opened up new avenues for the role and autonomy of art, it was Baldessari’s “very intellectual and mathematical approach” that inspired her. Artists such as these expanded the possibilities of what art could be and do. Body art was also coming to the fore in the 1970s and experiments with art, dance and theater were at their most avant-garde. Lala Rukh remembers seeing a collaborative performance by sound artist John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which she called “an abstract dance with no sound.” Though her early life had been culturally and artistically explorative, it was these formative moments in Chicago that exposed her to more experimental disciplines and released her from the conformity of her earlier training.

More so than her overt artistic practice, it was Lala Rukh’s intellectual approach that was most impacted and enriched by her time at art school. In Chicago, consciousness-raising groups and conversations about feminist writers such as Susan Brownmiller, Phyllis Chesler and Kate Millett had been all the rage. Upon her return to Lahore in 1977, Lala Rukh began to read these authors’ texts on second-wave feminism, such as Chesler’s Woman in Madness (1972) and Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970). In the context of Pakistan’s increasing oppression of women, such radical ideas acquired new relevance and momentum. Within South Asia, the 1980s was a very active decade for women’s movements in general, with several new organizations around the region working collaboratively and productively. It was a time of feminist camaraderie and solidarity—with Lala Rukh often at the center of it. In stark contrast, however, the artistic path that she had pursued since her time abroad had left her feeling alone. In the US she had felt that drawing was not just a medium; it could be a practice in its own right. Shows such as “Drawing Now: 1955–75,” held in early 1976 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had argued for its position as more than just a representational method or preparative tool. Back in Lahore, however, when Lala Rukh began to emphasize the line in her own work, with a move toward minimalist drawings, she found few artists working in a similar way and even less of an audience that appreciated this shift.

“My drawings were laughed at in Pakistan . . . I was completely isolated,” she told me. “But that was liberating in a way. It gave me an intellectual freedom and I became totally autonomous.” As part of her new, solitary routine in Lahore, Lala Rukh studied anatomy textbooks and began to call a male life-drawing model to her studio three times a week. She would draw him, using Conté crayon on white paper, with the utmost regularity, precision and intensity. The artist would think about how to capture ideas such as movement and dance, and ask the “figure” to move every 30 seconds while sitting for her. “That was her riyaz [rigorous practice],” explained artist Mariah Lookman, who was Lala Rukh’s student and later a teaching colleague at the NCA. “She was not prescriptive, but she always demanded attention to detail,” Lookman said of Lala Rukh’s approach. Over the next 13 years, Lala Rukh methodically and meticulously continued this routine, alongside her teaching and activist practice. Somewhere along the way, she found that the more she drew, the fewer lines she used. Many of her untitled drawings from as early as 1980 contain sparse markings—hinting at flexed limbs or edges of torsos—that already start to resemble parts of calligraphic script or fragments of musical notation, presaging her future interests.

RIVER IN AN OCEAN: 4, 1992, from the series “River in an Ocean,” 1992–93, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 × 20.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

RIVER IN AN OCEAN: 3, 1992, from the series “River in an Ocean,” 1992–93, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

This gradual deconstruction of the figure had to do with Lala Rukh’s underlying interest in emptiness and form, which was fueled by her scholarly exposure to the many philosophies of minimalism and abstraction. American minimalism had been a mainly male-dominated discipline, however, and was characterized by a mechanical, impersonal and process-orientated aesthetic. Hers seemed to possess an intimacy and intuitiveness, more aligned with the language of post-minimalist artists such as Eva Hesse, whose abstract drawings often took organic forms, including the body, as a starting point. Like Hesse, Lala Rukh’s early practice was that of a “hand-drawn minimalism,” which retained traces of corporeal authorship—as opposed to the works of Judd, Stella, LeWitt or Andre, who in their own ways sought to remove them.

While Lala Rukh’s approach integrated certain Western art historical perspectives, it is important to remember the other, more indigenous modes and references that she was attuned to. She told me that the regularity and rigor of her method had a lot in common with that of miniature painting, and that she loved the precise way of working that the medium demanded, as it suited her temperament. Miniature painting’s strong affiliation with naturalism, use of flat perspectives and traditional painterly tools would all filter into her later work. Her student and fellow minimalist Ayesha Jatoi also pointed out that Lala Rukh’s deconstructed language began with the figure, which many artists in Pakistan and India were working with at the time. As for alternative sources pointing to minimalism, Jatoi told me about an ancient shastra (precept, or teaching) inspirational to both her and Lala Rukh that roughly translates as: “It’s a waste of breath to make details.”

About the early 1980s, Lala Rukh stated, “Drawing was something that I just had to do, and kept doing. The rest of the time I was teaching at the NCA or I was actively involved in the women’s forum.” By 1983, sociopolitical tension had mounted under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, and the WAF held their first major public demonstration against the discriminatory “Law of Evidence,” which required the testimony of two women to equal that of one man. The protest resulted in Lala Rukh being arrested and temporarily detained in the police station. Such political activity was not allowed under martial law, and Lala Rukh ran the risk of losing her government teaching job if found out. When the artist-activist was summoned to the college principal’s office the next morning and asked if she participated, she replied no. “Then why are you on the front page of the newspaper?” came the reply. Lala Rukh had been captured on camera while trying to document the protest itself. Although in this case the university turned a blind eye to Lala Rukh’s activities, there were other faculty members who had to leave their jobs over similar incidents. “That was the atmosphere and those were the stakes,” she explained. “It was exciting and it was dangerous.” Despite such peril, she continued with the WAF’s activities. When Lala Rukh found printers unwilling to print the forum’s subversive material and newsletters, she decided to take up screen-printing. Some of the WAF’s provocative posters from this time—most of which were designed by Lala Rukh—include those on promoting equal rights and the freedom of women. Later in the 1980s, she also began teaching printmaking workshops to women in similar movements in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. “Of course the line drawing and screen-printing impacted my later practice,” she said to me. “Nothing that you do goes to waste.”

RIVER IN AN OCEAN: 6, 1993, from the series “River in an Ocean,” 1992–93, mixed media on photographic paper, 25.4 × 30.5 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh’s next series evolved from her earlier drawings but also encompassed techniques from her photography, printing and miniature-painting pursuits. “River in an Ocean” (1992–93) was conceived after a trip to Peshawar where the artist glanced out of the plane window and observed the way light snaked and glimmered on the water’s surface. “It looked like this brilliant river shining silver in the dark,” she said. “And it stayed with me.” She developed a series of small-scale works on photographic paper that were darkened and made to look almost translucent, then gently painted on with tiny wave-like brushstrokes. The result is an ethereal pattern of silver light against a moody, gray sky and deep-black sea: a glimpse into a brooding, wondrous and miniature landscape. Lala Rukh found uninhabited landscapes immensely appealing and would often escape to deserted beaches in Goa, India, and on the south coast of Sri Lanka. It is easy to see, as Ayesha Jatoi pointed out, how the linear markings of the deconstructed figure eventually became those of the horizon. “River in an Ocean” continued Lala Rukh’s abstraction from real elements—but this time drawing its impetus from bodiless spaces rather than the actual body.

This series resonates powerfully with abstract painter, photographer and printmaker Nasreen Mohamedi’s silver gelatin prints of the sea from 1970, which capture the same snaked pattern of light on the waves. There is also a stillness, silence and restraint in these beautiful works, which echo with the transcendental practice of abstract painter Agnes Martin, who also had an affinity for solitude and natural environments. Lala Rukh admits, with some frustration, that she only became aware of the affinities between artists such as Mohamedi, Martin and herself years after making these works. “All of these women, whose work I got to know and admired much later—Nasreen, Agnes, Zarina—were all on the outside and isolated in some way.” One particular reason that Lala Rukh created a protective and reflective space for herself was the immediate sociopolitical situation she faced in Lahore and the way it affected her psyche. For many years, there was a strong distinction between Lala Rukh’s two worlds: her private studio practice and her public activism. The loud aesthetic of the protest posters also seemed far removed from her quiet drawings—but somewhere down the line there would be synergies between the two. As curator and scholar Shanay Jhaveri has argued, against the backdrop of state-sponsored Islam where figural representation was generally condemned, the continual depiction (and dissolution) of the male figure by Lala Rukh can itself be read as a political gesture.

Poster for the 1st Women’s Action Forum, 1982. Designed by Lala Rukh. Courtesy the artist.

“Mirror Image” (1997), however, is the first series in which we see distinct political references overtly informing the artist’s work. “This [body of work] was the first chance for her art and activism to meet each other,” remarked artist and curator Swapnaa Tamhane, who positioned the poignant series alongside works by 13 international feminist and activist artists from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s—such as India-based Rummana Hussain—in the 2015 exhibition “In Order to Join” at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai. While Hussain’s practice fundamentally pivoted in response to the impact of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992, Lala Rukh’s “Mirror Image” was made to commemorate the ensuing riots that erupted over five years across cities such as Mumbai, Dhaka and Lahore. As Lala Rukh was preparing the work for an exhibition in India, though, her mother passed away in Pakistan from cancer. She found herself making two pieces, Heartscape and Mirror Image (both 1997)—which she sees as one body of work—where the first was about her mother’s death and the second about the hundreds who perished in the communal violence of 1992. For the former, she incorporated a strip of ECG paper and a series of progressively darkened sheets of photo paper; for the latter, the artist took excerpted newspaper clippings and photographs from the graphic media coverage of rioting in Mumbai and Lahore and darkened them. The viscerally numbing impact of such catastrophic moments across one geographical landmass is thus conveyed through the muted, dark-gray imagery, placed side by side against the grid of black lines on graph paper.

HEARTSCAPE (detail), 1997– , ECG, photo paper, 55 × 505 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

By this stage it was clear that Lala Rukh’s works were becoming visually darker, and that her interest in minimalism was taking her toward a flatter, blacker aesthetic. There is a definite sense that she was searching for an absence, purity or mysticism of some kind, but there remain suggestions or punctuations of form in certain pieces. Her varied and ongoing series “Hieroglyphics” (1995– ) is one of her most explorative in this sense, in which she was able to push her earlier interests into new realms. The series began one day in 1995 rather serendipitously, when Lala Rukh came across old paper resembling that of an airmail letter, and felt like writing “a letter” on it. Still interested in combining classical and minimal disciplines, Lala Rukh decided to write out successive, spare calligraphic letters in a straight line. Having been taught calligraphy, she had used the discipline in various pamphlets and posters for the WAF before—but this was the first time Lala Rukh chose to pare it down and deconstruct it into its basic units. While the linear lettering appeared to mimic the horizon, the blue of the paper seemed to evoke the sea. Though the lack of religious narrative distinguished the poetic motifs from traditional Islamic calligraphy, somewhere among them was still a search for the celestial, the spiritual and the tranquil.

HIEROGLYPHICS I: KOI ASHIQ KISI MEHBOOBA SE (3), 1995, from the series “Hieroglyphics,” 1995– , ink on paper, 20 × 15 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

Lala Rukh continued working with calligraphic forms after Hieroglyphics I (1995), trying out different types of paper and material along the way. Once again, she found that the more she experimented with graphical permutations, the more they began to take on a reduced quality—until eventually she was left with just the qat (diamond-shaped dot). Lala Rukh started using lines of qats, to permeate and penetrate the starkness of jet-black carbon paper—her new favorite medium—and soon realized that their movement across the page resembled a kind of rhythm or musicality. The works were no longer drawn from their visual surroundings; they had become completely abstract, in the purest sense of the word. This is another moment in Lala Rukh’s practice where she unknowingly tuned into what Agnes Martin described in 1975: “Artwork that is completely abstract—free from any expression of the environment—is like music and can be responded to in the same way . . . Like music, abstract art is thematic.” The compositional theme of Lala Rukh’s own abstractions drew on her preoccupations with the suggestion of movement, the search for harmony, and the desire for nothingness.

From Hieroglyphics V (2008) to Hieroglyphics VI (2010) we see the sequentially scattered qats seemingly dissolve and blur, until they start to take on the shape of diffuse light patterns—visually resonant with, but in a definite progression from, the “River in an Ocean” series. “I realized I had been holding myself back all my life—not having the courage to do certain things, building them up to a certain stage and then stopping,” she said to me of this time. “My work was finally going toward emptiness and I was afraid of that.” From here to her next series in this evolution, “Nightscapes” (2011), we see these silver patterns gradually become darker, and then eventually disappear altogether into the inky black of the carbon paper itself. “Nightscapes,” which were first shown at Dubai’s Grey Noise gallery in 2016, served as a breakthrough moment for Lala Rukh, both a pinnacle and an obstacle in her artistic oeuvre. In one way, she finally overcame her fears and reached a total blackness and meditative silence that she had been seeking throughout. On the other hand, there was the limiting sensation of having arrived at that point, and she was not quitesure what would come next. “You can’t see anything [in ‘Nightscapes’] —so beyond nothingness, what is there?” she asked herself.

HIEROGLYPHICS IV (QAT-TAAL), 2005, from the series “Hieroglyphics,” 1995– , silver paint on carbon paper, 20.3 × 50.8 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

For some time, she confessed to me, she did not know what to do after this point. Her works, always made for their own sake rather than with an audience in mind, have now reached a new level of esotericism, devoid of both color and form. Relief came, not surprisingly, through her ongoing experimental series “Hieroglyphics,” and her continued foray into mapping qats in rhythmical patterns. During the earlier making of Hieroglyphics IV and V (2005–08), Lala Rukh had sat with a tabla player and tried to see whether it was possible to represent various matras (beats) and taals (claps)—such as the ektaal, jhaptaal and keherva-jhoomar—using basic calligraphic units. The resultant works were showcased alongside four other series, from “Sigiriyah” (1993) up to Sand Drawings: 1-4 (2000-15), at the Sharjah Biennial 12 in 2015. The presentation was part of the gradual re-appreciation Lala Rukh is now receiving. When we spoke earlier in May 2016, the 69-year-old artist was working on her first test piece for a new work for Documenta 14, which involved combining sound, drawing and calligraphy through animation. When asked how she felt about this newfound critical interest and acclaim for her work, Lala Rukh replied that she was both pleased and skeptical.

HIEROGLYPHICS VI: 1 (detail), 2010, from the series “Hieroglyphics,” 1995– , silver paint on carbon paper, 25.4 × 20.3 cm. Courtesy the artist and Grey Noise, Dubai.

In what seems like a strange reversal of her earlier life, Lala Rukh’s art has become more public and articulated, whereas her feminist work has taken on a more subdued course. As Lala Rukh is in the process of producing a book on the WAF’s activities and achievements, she has reflected on, and severely lamented, the fact that today’s feminist activities in Pakistan have entered a neoliberal paradigm whereby most women work on issues via multinational companies or NGOs—as opposed to the nonpartisan, and largely non-funded street activist endeavors of the WAF. This lack of autonomy has left those such as Lala Rukh feeling alienated. Having said this, she remains hopeful, as many of WAF’s members are now on various government organization boards and help to influence state policy toward women. I imagined that it must feel like a long way from the group’s first fight and its achievements—which included the victory of Fahmida and Allah Baksh’s acquittal. Looking back on her life, she relayed with satisfaction, “Everything else was a priority to my work—teaching, the WAF. Now finally my work is the priority.” When I asked about how the understated and unwavering artist now reconciles these various trajectories of her life, she said, “My life and my work are so different. The only way I can explain it to myself, is that this is the way I’ve led my life, and that my art is a reflection of it.”

See art work here