Gertrude Contemporary presented a publication and an exhibition of work by Pakistani artist Sabeen Raja during her Studio 18 residency as the recipient of the 2005 UNESCO-Aschberg bursary.

Raja painted miniatures in the traditional styles of Kangra, Mogul and Persian. Her subject matter, however, is unmistakably contemporary - an intensely personal response to her environment and, by extension, a meditation on the larger issues raised by the difficulties experienced by a young Muslim woman living in the Western world. Working in an Australian context, Raja discovered a newfound freedom of sorts. Unbound by the demands and restrictions which previous cultures and academic agendas had placed upon her subject matter, Raja created a series of work that engaged with a subject which has always fascinated her: the Hindu god Krishna. A ubiquitous figure in the Kangra school of miniature painting, Krishna is a heroic entity whose exploits are widely celebrated in Hindu mythology. An idealized and revered masculine figure, Hindu myths describe Krishna’s exploits, as well as his relationship with Radha, his faithful lover who waits for him in the forest. Krishna delights in taking numerous other lovers, returning to Radha at his convenience to consummate their “ideal” love.

Within this exhibition, Raja’s paintings appeared to grapple with the gender roles represented in the Krishna myths. At one level, the works described her desire to believe in and uphold the notion of this “ideal” love. Conversely, however, the works evoked the jarring disparity between that ideal and the disproportionate distribution of power and autonomy that it perpetuates. As such, Raja’s observations on Krishna extended to a broader commentary on the radically different positions occupied my men and women in traditional Pakistani culture. In a society where women are still bound to obey patriarchal law and governed by the principles of religion, Raja represented her own confusion and frustration at a society in which her autonomy, identity and artistic expression are continually challenged. The narrative and emotive impact of Raja’s works proved powerful, providing an engaging yet troubling insight into the inconsistencies and cracks which emerge, and widen, both within and between cultures. In effect, Raja cast herself as Radha, the idealized, passive woman who must wait patiently for a hero who may never come.