Femininity as Power in Hiba Schahbaz’s 'The Garden'

Femininity as Power in Hiba Schahbaz’s 'The Garden'

 Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

The future may be female, but if you don’t feel like waiting, immerse yourself in Hiba Schahbaz’s The Garden, which imagines a world defined by a woman’s perspective, where female omnipotence is a fact of life. 

The exhibition, on view at New Image Art in West Hollywood, features large-scale allegorical depictions of women—all of them modeled on the artist herself—wearing serene expressions and nothing else, their dark hair long and flowing. They pose in abstracted gem-colored environments, as if from the pages of a fairy tale, and are sometimes surrounded by delicately rendered elements of nature, such as leaves and flowers. Schahbaz works in watercolor, ink, gouache, tempera, and tea on textured handmade watercolor paper, all of which combine to produce velvety surfaces and sumptuous hues. The effect is dreamy—and distinctly feminine. 

Born in Pakistan and now based in Brooklyn, where she earned an MFA at Pratt, Schahbaz trained at Lahore’s celebrated National College of Arts as a painter of miniatures—the ancient art of small-scale narratives known for their stylized depictions and rich color, and typically used to illustrate books and manuscripts. She has brought a modern, feminist sensibility—not to mention sheer size—to the practice, while also drawing on mythology and art historical references. 

In Fire Woman, flames made of gold leaf burst from the body of a nude figure calmly in repose. For Self-Portrait as Grande Odalisque (after Ingres), she channeled the French Neo-Classical painter, right down to attempting the awkward pose herself in her studio so that she could capture reference photos for her painting. It didn’t work—she sprained her neck because the pose wasn’t real. It was the male artist’s idea of what a reclining woman should look like, her body exaggerated to suit his standards.

And that’s what makes The Garden such a satisfying show—Schahbaz is working from her own set of standards. Steeped in history but rigorously contemporary, this young New York painter is helping to build a new art canon, and it’s long overdue.

 Hiba Schahbaz,  The Garden , Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

 Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

 Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

 Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

Hiba Schahbaz, The Garden, Installation Details, New Image Art Gallery, 2018.

Hiba Schahbaz’s The Garden is on view through October 27, 2018, at New Image Art.

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