Artist Iqbal Hussain is challenging the boundaries of art and acceptability in Lahore, Pakistan. Raised in Heera Mandi, Lahore’s red light district, Hussain now runs Coco’s Den, a restaurant he started to help support his mother and sister who are both sex workers. Hussain is also a painter. He uses the walls of Coco’s Den to exhibit his paintings of the women of Heera Mandi who he considers his extended family. The paintings have attracted threats and hostility.
Says Hussain in a recent statement published in the Guardian Weekly, “I mainly paint sex workers because my family is from the singing and dancing tradition. My mother and sister were prostitutes. I was the only son and my sister had four kids. Their fathers had all gone away so I adopted them. I needed to make money to support them.”
Hussain also collects and displays art from all over the world. Nude statues have also attracted hostility and threats. He was followed once into the streets in the early morning while painting, and approached by men who demanded he remove certain statues from his restaurant. “You know, they could just come past on a bike one day and shoot into the restaurant,” he said. “I took them down. What else could I do?”
The neighbourhood surrounding Coco’s Den is also facing pressures from real estate developers. Heera Mandi is being redeveloped as a high-end tourist spot with many of the neighbourhood’s historic buildings being lost in the development rush. Hussain has emerged as an advocate for preservation of the area’s heritage.
Unfortunately, the Guardian article does not speak with any of the sex workers in the area. Questions of representation and consent aren’t raised. In Canada, photographer Lincoln Clarkes photographed prostitutes in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side for a series titled Heroines which unleased a controversy surrounding artists’ relationship with marginalized subjects and the aestheticization of poverty.
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To read the article in the Guardian Weekly click here.