Nadia Waheed’s works are very often autobiographical. Born in Pakistan, the artist originally hails from Karachi, but has lived in places such as Islamabad, Paris, Sydney, Cairo, and the USA. In fact, she hasn’t lived in the same place for longer than four years. This movement – and particular the stark cultural shifts she has experienced – have significantly affected her artistic trajectory, placing her in the position of having experienced vastly differing perceptions of female selfhood. Boldly coloured and often densely patterned in areas, Waheed’s paintings are as visually eclectic as her worldly experiences. The figures depicted are vehicles upon which the artist builds symbols and metaphors pertaining to her Pakistani heritage, her westernisation, and explorations of what she herself calls the ‘brown female nude’ –a taboo subject in many cultures around the world today. By painting her subjects’ skin in fanciful colours, the artist questions what it is that designates race. ‘What really signifies one’s identity,’ questions Waheed, ‘do they have to be painted brown to be brown?’ Cultural signifiers are rife in her paintings: bridal mehndi, long braided hair, patterned razai blankets. But these images are often stripped down, forcing us to read behind the more overt symbols, often unearthing a dark narrative. In Odalisque, for instance, an image of a MOAB* hangs on the back wall, signifying impending doom–a fact made pertinent by the knowledge that the noun odalisque means ‘female slave or concubine’. In ‘Nirvana’, the arabic word for ‘Aisha’ is scribbled across the woman’s veil, which means “She who lives”, which references what Waheed herself states in a 2019 interview where she claims that the figures in the paintings are “versions of me, but also others. They’re two women, but also one woman. They’re everyone and no one all at once. Symbols — but also something real”. Elements such as these, say Waheed, ‘are metaphors for the constraints that come with the expectation of women in Arabic culture; things may look innocuous at first, but on second glance take on a darker context’. On a more simpler, surface note – the works, abundant with cool blues and pastel pinks, are strikingly beautiful to look at, housing a much deeper mystery beyond their calming appearances.
*Mother of All Bombs