Polly&me – masterpieces in idle chatter from Pakistan

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‘GupShup’ means chit chat in Urdu and Hindi. It was the title of an exhibition by Polly&me, a group working on an embroidery project involving women in Chitral, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. The results of their workshops were displayed in Islamabad and Karachi, where half of the works were sold. The creative processes which produced these works were aligned closely with the grain of everyday existence. These simple pleasures of daily life shine brightly against the dark clouds of global tension associated with this corner of the world.

Polly&me was developed by Cath Braid, an Australian who originally started work in northern Pakistan with Kirsten Ainsworth as part of the clothing label Caravana, which featured in Smartworks. Cath has been working in Chitral since 2003. The town is in the north-west frontier of Pakistan, near Afghanistan, and lies nested within the mountain range of the Hindu Kush. Populated by the Kho people, fond of playing polo, the region is synonymous with fundamentalist terrorism in the Western mind.
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Cath has been working with the AKRSP (Aga Khan Rural Support Program) to assist women’s development. Her work in Chitral was assisted by Rolla Khadduri, a Lebanese woman, who has been working in Pakistan for four years. For Rolla, this project is ‘an opportunity to give women the space to tell their own stories’. Rolla worked with Cath
on running the workshops, probing the women about their stories, and recording their tales to appear at the back of each textile.

Cath has been working with 30 mostly unmarried women in particular. She begins with story-telling, dealing with everyday themes such as family life. They explore the graphic world around them, particularly in packaging of products from the market. Their creative exercises include making a collage of photographs of children. These them form the basis of the embroideries.

The subject of their embroideries included everyday play, such as Eikonchekek, the egg fighting game during Eid, the mother-daughter relationship and children’s names. At the same time as they explored freely their lives, these women were quite proud of their isolation (or protection) from the outside world through purdah.

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Eikonchekek reflects the play during the feast of Eid when children go into battle with eggs. The story depicts a young boy who would boil his eggs so that they could withstand assault.

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Games with Didi was created by Haseena, a 23 year-old unmarried woman. It depicts the riotous play between children, including Didi sitting in the tub usually reserved for washing dishes. Haseena talks about the experience of making this work:

During the workshops I used to go home with a certain joy in my heart from my work, I had become workaholic, and was not even aware of the time as we used to be so deeply involved in our work, it was fun, the practicality like practically first doing the task before going into the designing part was just wonderful.

Haseena particularly liked the exercise of drawing without looking at the paper. She was pleased to travel to Islamabad for the exhibition – ‘my childhood adventure was known to the world’ – and will be depositing money from the sale in a savings account with her bank.

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The work Sultan the Sitar-Player depicts a famous musician who performs historic songs of political opposition in Farsi. He is accompanied by a jerry-can. It was created by Naseema, Shehria and Saba. From one of his songs:

People don’t know who I am mad after,
They don’t know what is in my heart,
Those who are in love know this pain,
Oh, queen of beauty,
I want your beauty’s charity,
Like a beggar I have come
For only I deserve your beauty’s charity,
Even my heart has stopped functioning.

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Pot Swap was created by Zaibunissa, a mother of three. According to Zaibunissa:

Obviously it represents my house. I was so surprised to see my kitchen in the piece. My children helped me a lot on the piece and that gave a more personal touch to the piece as all my family got very emotionally attached with. That gave me very soothing and satisfying feelings.

This work was purchased by the Executive Director, The US Educational Foundation in Pakistan. Zaibun says that she will use the money to support her son’s education, ‘because for the admission of my son in a good college I’ll be needing that money as today’s inflation era people mostly hesitate in giving loan or lending money.’

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Mehndi was created by nine women, including Musarat, a 13 year old girl. At the exhibition opening, Mehndi was interviewed by Aaj TV, which greatly impressed her family back in Chitral: ‘I had never before in my life faced a TV camera and they were saying that they felt really proud that among all the other girls I was chosen for an interview.’ Mehndi now wants to take on the role of Cath and Rolla and teach others herself, but according to her friend Nasreen, ‘in Chitrali Nang Kizibiko Lo, You have to come out of age for all this you are too young to even think of such a thing.’

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Each textile work has its corresponding narrative sewn onto its back. To broaden involvement with the community, button pieces have been developed that women embroider with the names of male relatives and prayers. 250 women became involved in this.

Gup Shup is a landmark collaboration. Rather than seeking to preserve craft in its pure traditional form, this project introduces creative strategies to develop new images that seem true to the lives of their makers. But what seems most striking about his project is the sheer quality of the work itself, both in its craftsmanship and deft arrangement of ordinary elements.

This project seems quite transparent about the experience of the women it is meant to support. Apart for the creative challenges that they enjoyed, there seemed also benefits in the money and recognition that their work brings. But the meaning of this project is never complete. We watch with great interest to see how the women continue this momentum, and whether young girls like Musarat eventually start initiating project themselves.

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Games with Didi and Sultan the Sitar Player will be on display with the World of Small Things exhibition. There will also be bags embroidered made by the women for sale in the Craft Victoria show. Proceeds from the work go directly to the women who made them.

For more information about the project, please visit their extensive website:

Thanks to Ange Braid and Grace Cochrane for their assistance.

3 thoughts on “Polly&me – masterpieces in idle chatter from Pakistan”

  1. I’m a fan of Cathy and Rolla. Appreciate their work a lot!
    There commitment and integrity towards the female artisans is amazing !
    Wish more people like them we had in this world.
    Thank you very much for sharing this article, the images are spectacular.
    It’s also nice to find a positive article about Pakistan on the internet.

    Pakistan Zindabad! (Long live Pakistan!)

  2. This is the first “re-surfacing” of Cath Braid since i first saw CHITRAL CHICKS on youtube…..i tried to find CARAVANA, but hadn’t found anything…! i am so inspired by caravana and this most recent project i just read about….how can i stay in touch….blog? website? email?…….i would like to start something similar…..most recently since the swat exodus and their return to devastated communties….how can i begin? is it ok to travel there these days?..i look forward to your reply….thanks!

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