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BOOKS & ARTS

Bibi Hajra’s Spaces of Belonging

When Bibian Pak Daman (the mausoleum of Bibi Ruqqaiyah bint Ali) closed its doors to its herds of devotees, owing to a multimillion rupee expansion and renovation project, Bibi Hajra found herself alone at the otherwise well-populated shrine. Brought onto the project to paint larger-than-life murals on Pak Daman’s walls, architect and painter Hajra, who goes by the moniker “Bibi Hajra”, had a lot to reason with. While the shrine was now deserted, a crowd of emotions inhabited Hajra’s mind. She felt at once handpicked by Bibi Ruqqaiya herself, and yet unbefitting for the role of sole attendee–an inadvertently irreverent line of critique of Bibi Ruqqaiya’s choice, further confirming her misassignment. After a few days, her internal monologue dissipated in favor of the more obvious challenge she now faced: the shrine needed to be cleaned. With the usual janissary-turned-janitors absent, Hajra picked up the jharoo (broom) and began sweeping. The ritual process of regularly cleaning the shrine provided her the confirmation she needed. Through this repetitive act, she created for herself a lived space: one of everyday belonging and  ceremony.


Originally commissioned to create murals on the shrine as part of its corporate makeover, Bibi Hajra’s relationship with Bibian Pak Daman evolved through observance and praxis. Her work, too, engenders the collective and myriad ways in which the everyday politics of the interpersonal produces what Henri Lefebvre calls “representational space.” The space of the living, of inhabitants and users. 


Although an architect and urban studies scholar by training, Bibi Hajra rejects the Western disciplinary tradition of taking an isometric view of space in her work. Instead of opting for scientific voyeurism, she renders many routine lifescapes in Pakistan exceptional by taking the conversation to the street. What makes her work distinct is not just her recreation of spaces, as produced through their occupants’ web of relationships, but her personal commitment to revisiting the site multiple times. Each visit allows Hajra to discover the stories which happen around street corners, behind closed doors, in the patli gallis (narrow alleyways) between houses, on verandas and balconies. Her work puts these manifold narratives in dialogue with one another, bringing  concurrent lived realities to a singular plane of coexistence. From caricature work depicting a Ramzaan transmission, a staple in Pakistani households, to an ordered yet anarchic portrayal of a gynecology ward, Hajra’s work takes the ordinary-extraordinary of regular life and reproduces it as bizarrely spectacular. Overlapping stories, rendered in her unique comical form, scream for undivided attention. Much like Bibi Hajra herself, the viewer must return to the work as reproduced space over and over again to view it in its entirety. Hajra’s work invites her audiences to create their own representational space.


Ramzaan transmission, Watercolor and ink on paper, 29" × 42". Hyper-consumerism on morning shows during the month of Ramzaan


Gynecology department on a low fee Thursday, Watercolor and ink on paper, 28" ×40"

Her most recent series of paintings inspired by her visits to Bibian Pak Damana place she now calls home—go one step further, transcending the usual ‘(wo)man in her natural (read: material) state’ lens Hajra adopts. Crossing into the spiritual, the works portray tree shrines, malangs performing dhamaal, religious mourning and various other ritual practices typically performed at Bibi Ruqqaiya’s shrine, as well as, esoteric stories told to Hajra by devotees she met during her time at the darbar (tomb). Bibi (I) Arrival at Makran (2022), an oil-based work etched in shades of blood red, includes the oft-repeated, mythical story of Bibi Ruqqaiyah’s lamentations lighting a fire in the forest she encamped in. Another woman told Hajra that Bibi Ruqqaiyah’s sorrow-filled sermons at Khurasan shook the earth and the tremors traveled against the currents of the rivers of Sindh all the way to the river Ravi in Punjab. The water in Bibi (II), Settling in the forest across River Ravi trembles as one peers at its otherwise guaranteed stillness. Hajra’s work is not one of mere observation, but is inspired by conversation. She is at once an artist and a storyteller, and her series on Bibian Pak Daman tells the multifarious, fabulous stories of one of Lahore’s most popular religious shrines. 


Recalling Karbala at the Makran Coast. Oil on paper.

Settling in the forest across River Ravi. Acrylic on canvas.

Alive but out of sight. Acrylic on canvas.

Still alive just out of sight. Acrylic on canvas.

Much like her previous creations, here too, gender and the feminine are at play both in the shrine’s own female character, but also in Hajra’s deliberate impressions of the stories of Bibi Ruqaiyya’s female devotees. A commitment to drawing public space as occupied and crafted by women is one the artist has always maintained, and continues to uphold. It is also a political choice inspired by conversations around women and public space pioneered by feminist groups such as Aurat Azadi March, for whom she produced posters in 2021 and 2022. 


Zenana. Aurat Azadi March 2022.

Bibi Hajra’s method is centered on cultivating artistic space through lived experience, much like her paintings, which take on, as their subject, the spaces created through the ritual performance of Pakistani everyday life. Both her practice and finished works highlight her devotion to embodied praxis and to narrating an authentic story of place, in this case Bibian Pak Daman.

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Bibi Pak Daman, Gouache on Paper, 36" by 46"

SHARE ARTICLE:
Portfolio
Lahore
Art Practice
Religious Shrine
Fine Art
Painting
Bibian Pakdaman
Mural
Space
Representational Space
Henri Lefebvre
Everyday Life
Observance
Consumerism
Gynecology Ward
Ramzaan
Karbala
River Ravi
Makran
Aurat March
Public Space
Feminist Organizing
Feminist Art Practice

Iman Iftikhar is a student historian, artist and educator. Currently she manages Kitab Ghar and is an editor for Folio Books. She is based in New Haven and Lahore.

Portfolio
Lahore
3 Jul 2023

BIBI HAJRA received her Bachelors degree in Architecture from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and received her MA in Urban Studies from an Erasmus Mundus program. An architect, teacher, and visual artist based in Lahore, she addresses themes such as urban segregation and development, consumerism, pop culture and recently religious symbolism/aesthetics and the city. She has taught urban theory and instructed at an architecture studio.

IMAN IFTIKHAR

An architect and painter narrates an authentic story of place at Bibian Pak Daman.

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