Pakistani artist Shehzil Malik illustrates ‘Sultana’s Dream’




Designer and illustrator whose work focuses on human rights, feminism and South Asian identity, Pakistani artist Shehzil Malik has just created a work based on the novel Sultana’s Dream (1905) by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Daily Star Books editor Sarah Anjum Bari reached out to Malik to discuss his motivations and inspirations for the work.

When and how did you meet Sultana’s Dream for the first time?

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My younger sister is my go-to person when I need to talk about my feminist ideas (and she also studied literature), so she knew I would love this story! Other artists have also drawn Sultana’s Dream – there is a brilliant rendition of Durga Bai in the Gond tribal art tradition; as well as a collection of superb linocuts of Chitra Ganesh. I was curious what I would find when imagining a feminist South Asian sci-fi utopia!

What about the language that you found “fresh and subversive”, as you mention it on your social networks?

I think I felt that was subversive and ironic because even though it is now 2022, we in Pakistan are still arguing over whether girls should be educated; whether it is wrong to marry off girls when they are minors; whether a woman is able to do work or become financially independent; if a good muslim woman should get out of the house… i feel like the world Begum Rokeya was escaping to is still the world i live in.

And the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation for women. The few freedoms women had – in terms of leaving home and having a support network – have been snatched away in many ways, and the incidences of domestic violence around the world have soared. At the start of the pandemic, everyone was ordered to stay home, and although women readily complied, many men refused. It was unthinkable for them to see their fundamental freedom taken away, and yet they still do not understand why women are angry and dream of a different world.

How did you design the physical landscape of Lady Land, the feminist utopia that Begum Rokeya imagines in her short story?

I was inspired by Indian and Persian miniature paintings and their use of space and time. These paintings often show many interactions occurring in a single work of art and take the viewer through multiple perspectives and scales to tell a story. There is no single hero in these paintings, but it gives the viewer the opportunity to find their own meaning in the artwork. I think combining these pre-colonial art-making methods with a history of colonial India – and then drawing the artwork digitally in the post-colonial era – makes me want to see the possibilities!

As an artist who works with feminist and South Asian identity, what place do you think Sultana’s Dream occupies in the contemporary landscape of South Asian women’s lives?

I think everyone in South Asia (and beyond) should know this story! He is so ahead of his time and talks about the kind of technology we still don’t have! It showcases a sustainable and eco-friendly future (beyond screens and the dystopian sci-fi genre that’s popular today) and really gets to the heart of why we want devices that are labor-efficient and how we can structure our work and our relationships with others so that it brings us peace.

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