Stunning traditional henna designs on hands, backs and legs are the subject of artist Hina Ali‘s photo essay, exploring skin as a ‘repository of honour & canvass of oppression’. with Rakshi Rath

hinacnmThe Artist’s Journey: I am a final year undergraduate, studying Fine Art for Design. My search for mediums of artistic expression during my studies has also coincided with the exploration of ways to re-imagine my identity. In my work, I  draw upon my cultural moorings and the ‘feminine’ visual art form of South Asia: Mehndi (henna). In the beginning, I worked typographically, using expletives and disguising them with delicate and intricate patterns. I decided to continue to use this idea of entwining and layering typography and patterns. It took time and experimentation to decide what to write about and what words to use, but I soon started to include themes and quotes from the daily conversations that were taking place around me within my family environment. I researched Indian textile design to use as images. The typography and images evolved into the use of mehndi patterns on paper and then into body art. The idea was to turn gendered negativity into something beautiful, and so I did just that, as an act of subversive defiance in visual form. For every ‘rule’ that I received, my creations became the embodiment of the questions that I posed.


In this photo essay, as I write about the complexities and intersections of my identity, I will present my interpretations, using intricately designed Mehndi patterns as the theme for a reclamation or literal re-writing of some cultural frames that come into play in both the control and celebration of some Pakistani women’s bodies.

I grew up in a traditional Pakistani family with its received wisdom of different gender roles and rules for men and women, the balance of which is heavily stacked against women. My culture and my identity has always been something that I have questioned and struggled with. As a woman, in a traditional Pakistani family, I have seen the differences between the sexes and experienced negativity through the ways in which differences are imagined.

I have been told how to dress, behave and even, how to think of myself. I am 23. Yet, I am not a woman. Until I am married, I must remain a girl.

I wouldn’t say I have rebelled against the way “I should act”, but I would say I have pushed some boundaries against the rules and conventions to uphold my ‘self’-respect and that of my family.

The sun shines differently for the men and women in my house. The freedom for a young woman to be outside and enjoy a bit of evening is not approved. I have a curfew: sunset. Be home before sunset.

My freedom, indeed, my very concept of self is inextricably bound up in familial ties and cultural prescription. Skin is often a boundary and a surface upon which the interrelations between self, family and community can be played out. My skin, the colour of ‘me’ can  become a focal point of hurtful questions and wistful conversations. The last time I heard,

“You’d be prettier if you weren’t dark skinned”

was when my sister asked my grandma, which one of us three sisters was the prettiest. My Grandmother did not hesitate to mention that my skin tone was a hindrance to my appearance. She also didn’t hesitate to defend her grandsons when I pointed out that they had a darker skin tone then me. Her exact words were “God knows, they are white.” For my grandma, an 80 year old Pakistani woman, ‘whiteness’ was a shield with which she could protect her grandsons, it was a quality that could bestow some honour.

I feel that I have always fought to defend my skin tone. Not just within my family environment or the Pakistani community, but also among white people. “Oh, I love your tan” has rung in my ears too many times, my arm being pushed against the pale skin of another. Soon after, I’m being stared at as if this is my cue to tell them how I got the “tan”. I explain (in robotic fashion), “It’s not a tan, it’s my skin colour.”

The Pakistani community echoes the belief that beauty only belongs to the fair-skinned woman. My family members have always had something to say about my dark skin. Neighbours have recommended many beauty products that I should try out and I’ve been somewhat praised when appearing to have lighter skin.  

I have always been seen as ‘ugly’ because I am not fair skinned. The one thing that has always mystified me is, why aren’t the men in my family who have a darker skin tone, ever seen as ‘ugly’?

I understand that these experiences are only one aspect of how women can be oppressed but through my art I want to create a point of connection and ‘voice’ between women. I want to be able to tell any story, happy or sad and everything in-between.

One of my recent projects was a publication that included my family’s conversations that I had recorded. I’d slip the microphone behind the sofa, onto the windowsill. Not everyone was aware that I was recording their conversations and the family members who did, soon forgot. There are big questions about ethics of such covert research but I felt that this secret recording was important to capture the very ordinary ways in which gender conventions can be a part of everyday talk within a family. The publication is about my personal experience of growing up and living within a Pakistani culture. It follows my family and their day-to-day conversations. The book contains humorous, emotional, meaningful conversations and superficial talk. It highlights conflicting arguments, stereotypical thinking and controversial subjects.

I have also recorded a little get-together with a group of my girlfriends. The publication will display the range of our conversations, which include going to the gym, boys and our nail painting adventures. The journey of self-discovery through these various conversations has opened up a new source of vision for me. I do look at things from a different perspective now. I have always acted like the “Not-so-Asian, Asian girl”, perhaps because I was a little ashamed of who I was. Today, through my work, I find the strength to appreciate and embrace the entire gamut of my experiences that eventually informs the way I shape my art. I still have a lot to learn, but my critical self-reflexive scrutiny of my cultural heritage has given me more confidence. It is the foil against which I am able to explore who I am becoming and where I am headed.

I strove to reclaim and express my voice on the trifecta of being a woman, a Pakistani woman, a Muslim Pakistani woman. Much of the restrictions that a culture imposes are on the body. The body is not just the repository of honour. It can become a canvas for oppression. It is these relationships that I have chosen to explore. I have taken my experiences of imposed boundaries and transformed these into a voice for myself.

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Hina Ali is a final year undergraduate, studying Fine Art for Design (B.A Hons). A 23 year old female British Pakistani, born and raised in the North of England, in a small town called Heckmondwike her  art work explores her experiences of her cultural heritage. The experiences she has faced in life, her family,  culture and other South Asian women are the source of her inspiration. Hina’s work consists of the uses of typography, Indian textile designs and mehndi patterns. See her work at OfTheMysteriousVoice Twitter @OTMV1 and Facebook

Rakshi is an editor for Media Diversified. Studied psychology to become a mind-reader. Failing that, has settled for social psychology (curses!) and peering through labels. Intersectional-humanist. Atheist. Indian. Psychologist. Pro-trans-feminist. The wrathful bird flits between Scotland & India.

Feminism, Womanism and Intersectionality series “Complicit No More” curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam tackles the cross-cutting facets of complicity as they play out within our relationships to our bodies, each other, our communities, to media representations and to mobilisation.

You have selected an article from our “Complicit No More” feminism and intersectionality series. The essay is available to read in it’s entirety in new e-book “Complicit No More” On sale at here or in the U.S here

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3 thoughts on “Visual Subversions: At the Intersection of Art and Identity

  1. Reblogged this on Archaic Sugar and commented:
    A very special contemplation, I wanted to book mark in some form. I know this reality, from another perspective and on a similar road to this young lady. So finding this was a blessing to me. However there may be other women on here who really appreciate this post! And, the art work is amazing.


  2. “as an act of subversive defiance in visual form”

    Your work is exceptionally gorgeous, and even more beautiful is your bravery at self-exploration and self-expression. Your thoughts that the body can be a canvas for oppression is so insightful and perceptive. Thank you for sharing your work and your self.


  3. Wonderful and inspiring, thank you. I wonder how to get hold of the publication you refer to Hina? Good luck finishing off your course – you have some impressive work. Liz


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