“I’ll persevere, I am not precious, over-dainty
In wifehood I will use mine instrument
As freely as my Maker hath it sent.”
—The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath argues against the primacy of virginity within the Church; someone is procreating to birth the virgin and therefore what is chaste is also ephemeral. She sees this as a flaw in God’s plan, and consequently, will reject purity and instead assume sexual power as her instrument. Drawing dominance from her own experience, she begins to harness a strength that all women possess, but have been told not to explore. This reduction of a woman’s power solely to her sexuality—more than just a mid-twelfth century strategy—reveals that other female strengths, and the agency to use them, resonate with male fear.
Hiba Schahbaz, Hanged With Roses, 2015, Tea, gouache, and watercolor on wasli, 12 x 10 inches
In her solo exhibition Hanged With Roses, at Thierry Goldberg, Hiba Schahbaz takes back the pen from the Chaucers of our time to write the script herself: she can be an artist and a woman too. In miniaturist-style self-portraits the artist de-robes herself on canvas, inviting the voyeur to explore her personal process of being a self-governing woman. In the exhibition’s titular painting she faces life’s certainties, including her own death: the artist hangs calmly from a noose, a tangle of roses climbing up to her feet. The fearless understanding in her eyes suggests that she is not defeated, and that perhaps the roses’ sultry perfume will never leave her.
The show includes paintings on wasli, a handmade paper traditionally used by miniaturists, and earth stained paper, each with its own unique mood and perspective. On both papers Schahbaz uses traditional miniature techniques (a formal language she inherited, being born in Pakistan and trained at the National College of Arts in the city of Lahore) of opaque watercolor (color) and partial watercolor (tea). The wasli paintings are less transparent, offering a brighter spectrum of color and an exploratory mood, both formally and personally with the female figure.
Hiba Schahbaz, Self Reflection, 2015, Gouache, tea, and gold leaf on wasli, 12 x 10 inches
Self Reflection shows the artist nude and relaxed on patterned carpet in front of a mirror touching herself with peach, desolate hills rolling behind her. The artist takes back this tender moment from the male-dominated world of pornography: this is self-discovery for the self alone. In Silent Cry the nude female figure reclines in a meditative pose on the ground beneath a curly tree, fire rising from her body (evoking Ana Mendieta’s Soul Silhouette in Fire). A wolf sitting next to her howls. She is alone with her emotions, autonomous in her cry.
Hiba Schahbaz, Untitled (Work In Tea), 2015, Tea and watercolor on earth stained paper, 11 x 7 inches
The paintings on earth-stained paper, or the tea paintings, depict the nude female form in a loose, smoky energy. These feel more intimate and spiritual with the figure appearing more as a Goddess facing the metaphysical, perhaps in the afterlife, with an air of acceptance. When viewed at large and together, the exhibit exists as a seasonal cycle of color palettes shifting from from autumnal browns to red roses and blue skies.
Art critic Jerry Saltz recently posted an image of Schahbaz’s painting Summer Studio on Instagram with the caption “what is she thinking?” The comments answering his question ranged from debasing or comedic (someone mentioned defecation, another pre-nups) to staggering comparisons drawn to Balthus. However, what I found most impressive was that Saltz didn’t assume an answer and in this way respected it as the artist’s (and for each woman) to keep. Juxtaposed with comments trying to place personality and script to her, the figure becomes a shell for us to empathize with personally. We can’t breathe life into the Venuses of Willendorf and truly understand them outside of our own empiricism. To do so would be as inherently false as Chaucer providing sound satire to a woman’s actions. I am not here to tell you how to understand women in art, or women more generally, but unless you’re blessed with ESP, one way to approach is by stripping yourself of all personal canons and then questioning the noose around everything.
(Image at top: Hiba Schahbaz, Untitled (Work In Tea), 2015, Tea and watercolor on earth stained paper, 11 x 7 inches. All images: Courtesy of the artist and Thierry Goldberg Gallery)