13 September 2023
By Rado Ištok

Pak Khawateen Painting Club (artists Amna Hashmi, Saulat Ajmal, Saba Khan, Zohreen Murtaza), Tide Countries, 2020. Sharjah Bienial 15 (Kalba Ice Factory). Supported by Sharjah Production Programme and Graham Foundation. Photo credit Sharjah Art Foundation.

I first encountered the work of Saba Khan earlier this year; the initial introduction to her practice was quickly followed by a second, and not long after a third and more personal one in the form of my recent studio visit. My first encounter was at Kalba Ice Factory, one of the venues of Sharjah Biennale 15, where Saba was presenting work as part of the Pak Khawateen Painting Club collective, which she founded in 2019. I was immediately drawn to the Club’s multi-media installation The Tide Country (2022), which includes structures resembling barrage machinery, multi-channel video and zines. The work mediates their investigation into the Indus River, which flows from Transhimalaya in Western Tibet through Kashmir and Pakistan into the Arabian Sea – and specifically the ecological consequences of the river’s exploitation to irrigate agricultural land in the south of Pakistan. The Tide Country continued the inquiry initiated in Indus Water Machines (2019), a commission for the second Lahore Biennale in 2020, for which Saba invited five female artists to collaborate, thus forming the Pak Khawateen Painting Club. The Club’s focus on the history and politics of water bodies, bodies moving along water, and bodies blocking water, draws on sources such as the novel River of Fire (1959) by the Indian Urdu novelist Qurratulain Haider and The Hungry Tide (2004) by Indian writer Amitav Ghosh. Disguised as a group of amateur and seemingly naive ‘plein-air’ painters, the Pak Khawateen Painting Club raise questions about who pays the price for patriarchal patriotism of Pakistan’s post-colonial economic development, modelled on capitalist colonial modernity and materialised in projects such as the large hydropower dams in the country’s north and the barrages for maximising commercial agriculture in the country’s south.

Pak Khawateen Painting Club (artists Amna Hashmi, Emaan Shaikh, Natasha Malik, Malika Abbas, Saulat Ajmal, Saba Khan), Indus Water Machines, 2019. Installation view Lahore Biennial 02, 2020. Photo credit Asif Khan.

The focus on hydropower’s impact – in terms of the displacement of Indigenous and other populations, the unequal division of resources between the economic centres and territories rendered as peripheries, and the inundation of heritage – resonated with my own independent as well as collaborative curatorial research into the role of hydropower in places ranging from my native Slovakia to the Nile River valley and Sápmi in the north of Scandinavia. Hence, when I was invited to conduct an online studio visit with Saba, I was particularly excited to talk to her about her about these correlations in our interests. Having recently relocated from Lahore to London, which coincided with her residency at Delfina Foundation, Saba is also moving away from collective to an individual practice. Water bodies remain a focus of her work however, with her recent solo show at Canvas Gallery in Karachi in titled Water Explorer, inspired by the figure of the 11th century Iranian polymath and traveller Al-Biruni, known for his study of Indic cultures.

Saba Khan, Water Explorer, 2021. Canvas Gallery, Karachi.

As Saba explained to me during our conversation, in terms of water bodies and infrastructures, Pakistan can be divided into three zones: the lowlands near Indus River estuary, segmented by the barrages; the midlands, with numerous hydropower dams; and the highlands, boasting over 7,000 glaciers. The glaciers – the water source for the Indus and other rivers in South Asia – form part of one of the largest ice reserves in the world and are sometimes dubbed the Third Pole. In September 2022, Saba participated in an all-female expedition to four of the glaciers – Passu, Shishper, Battura, and Gulkin – in Hunza District. One would be wrong to assume these uplands to be deserted. Historically, the highlands of Southeast Asia, stretching from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to northeastern India, have provided a place of refuge for ethnically diverse communities of some hundred million residents who migrated there to escape forced labour and governmental rule in the lowlands, as explored by the political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott. Today, many sites in Zomia (Zo = remote, Mi = people) have developed into tourist destinations, generating wealth but contributing to the effects of climate change, such as the melting of permafrost, resulting in the increased risk of glacial lakes bursting and triggering ice avalanches and flash floods – aggravating the water scarcity in the uplands.

Pak Khawateen Painting Club and Lumen Studios (Amna Hashmi, Saba Khan, Saulat Ajmal, Zohreen Murtaza, Louise Beer, Melanie King, Rebecca Huxley), Glacial Movements and the Ghaib (Unseen), 2023. Supported by British Council Pakistan/UK: New Perspectives Programme.

In the video work Zomia (2022), a part of Pak Khawateen Painting Club’s larger collective work, Saba follows the lives of herdsmen and hillside farmers whose autonomy, as she explains to me, has in the past half-century been curbed in the nation state’s interest of security, productivity, and search for natural resources, including hydropower. After iterations in Pakistan (VM Gallery in Karachi, Tagh’eer in Lahore, and COMSATS University in Islamabad), the work will be shown in the UK later this year in the exhibition Glacial Movements and the Ghaib at Canterbury Christ Church University. The highlands and their glaciers continue to fascinate Saba, and by now also myself. In October, with the support of a 421 Artistic Research Grant, Saba will participate in another glacier expedition, this time focused on the local practices of care around glaciers, such as glacier grafting, which I learn is a traditional practice of creating new glaciers in order to increase water supply – mainly for crops but in some cases also for micro-hydropower plants – practiced in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya regions since at least the 19th century.

A dammed river also appears at the centre of Saba’s work-in-progress for an upcoming solo exhibition at Canvas Gallery in Karachi, scheduled to open in November. This time her literary inspiration comes from one of the fables at the opening of Pakistani-British writer Aamer Hussein’s novel Another Gulmohar Tree (2009). In the fable, the Crocodile King makes a villager sacrifice his daughter to become his bride, but as she is thriving in the underwater kingdom, her family members gradually join her in the river and start growing tails and scaly green skins, turning into crocodiles themselves. Saba’s version of the tale takes a contemporary twist, the crocodile river is dammed and turned into a toxic sewer, producing toxic relationships. The faux sci-fi story comprises fifteen sentences written in glitchy coloured pencils, each of which becomes a title for a painting in a series that depicts toxic riverine environments created by damming and a social commentary on a moment when one might prefer to turn into a crocodile. Painting has been an integral part of Saba’s practice and alongside her videos and installations, which in vibrant colours can be seen as another outlet for her subversive research-based practice.

Pak Khawateen Painting Club (artists Amna Hashmi, Saulat Ajmal, Saba Khan, Zohreen Murtaza), Case of Pak Khawateen Painting Club’s Proposed Museum, 2022. Art Jameel, Dubai. Photo Daniella Bapista.

I mentioned at the outset that I encountered Saba’s work twice in quick succession earlier this year. A few days after the visit to Kalba Ice Factory, I came across the work of Pak Khawateen Painting Club again in the group exhibition Proposals for a Memorial to Partition (18 June 2022 – 19 February 2023) at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai. The tongue-in-cheek mixed-media installation The Case of Pak Khawateen Painting Club’s Proposed Museum (2022) consisted of an office desk full of paperwork – fabricated official correspondences between various government departments regarding a fictional state project for a Partition Museum in Pakistan, whose retro-futuristic architectural plans are hung on the wall. An artificial potted plant and a face-mirror with a comb complete the parody of the bureaucrat’s office. Ironically the production of the work also resulted in the collective’s own ‘partition’, a subject we both broach with a dose of humour, both of us having been through various experiences of collaborations. The fictitious museum project and the partition context strikes a chord with me as much as the histories of hydropower. While Prague and Lahore might seem distant and unrelated places, this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the dissolution of my own native country – Czechoslovakia.

Pak Khawateen Painting Club (artists Amna Hashmi, Saulat Ajmal, Saba Khan, Zohreen Murtaza), Case of Pak Khawateen Painting Club’s Proposed Museum, 2022. Art Jameel, Dubai. Photo Daniella Bapista

Recently, I came across an interview in a Czechoslovak magazine from 1967 with the Pakistani artist Shakir Ali – who since 1962 served as the first Pakistani principal of the National College of Arts in Lahore, the art school where Saba taught for several years. Saba tells me she was also a member of the advisory board of Shakir Ali Museum in Lahore before the whole board was ousted. Interestingly, on the 15 August 1947, the day of the independence and partition of India and Pakistan, Ali was in Prague. Together with the delegation of British students, he was attending the International Congress of Democratic Youth. “I am quite proud to have been the first citizen of Pakistan to unfurl the Pakistan flag in Prague. Naturally, at that time, I had no idea what the flag of our new state would look like, so I simply made a little green flag of the Muslim League with a white crescent and star; it was with this that I waved in front of the Czechoslovak Parliament when I and other students from India celebrated the liberation of our country from British domination,” the artist reminisced in the archival interview. In 1950, Ali returned to Prague to study textile design and art, remaining in Cold War Czechoslovakia for almost two years. I like to think that in the same way that Shakir Ali returned to Prague after his initial short visit, Saba and I will over the coming years continue our conversation on water bodies and hydropower, as well as on the effects of political partitions, and in a not-too-distant future also meet in person, perhaps in Prague, Lahore, or London.

[1] Translated from the Urdu as the Pure Pakistani Women’s Painting Club. Formed of Malika Abbas, Saulat Ajmal, Amna Hashmi, Saba Khan, Natasha Malik, Zohreen Murtaza, and Emaan Shaikh.

– Rado Ištok is a curator, writer, and editor living in Prague, the Czech Republic, currently serving as a curator of the Collection of Art since 1945 at the National Gallery in Prague. Rado was a curator-in-residence at Delfina Foundation in 2021.

Saba Khan was in-residence at Delfina Foundation in summer 2023, supported by Delfina Foundation’s Network of Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia Patrons. Saba is a visual artist based in London and Lahore. She founded an artist-run-space Murree Museum Artist Residency, the collective Pak Khawateen Painting Club and taught at the National College of Arts, Lahore. She is interested in water bodies restructured through large scale infrastructure and bureaucratic decision making.