New Jersey-based Pakistani artist and fashion designer Misha Japanwala has just closed her first solo exhibition at Hannah Traore Gallery in New York. Featuring a body of work titled Beghairati Ki Nishaani (which translates as ‘Traces of Shamelessness’) the exhibition is composed of various installations revolving around the human body. Casts of hands, nipples and torsos are presented alongside a film and lookbook that shows Pakistani creatives wearing their own personal casts.
Conceptually, Misha says this collection is about reframing and reclaiming notions of shamelessness, particularly as they pertain to society in Pakistan. Beghairat is an Urdu word often used in the country to describe people who have “no self-respect”, and has long plagued the LGBTQIA+ communities living there. As such, Misha seeks to subvert this stigma, and the negative associations attached to themes like sexuality and bodily autonomy.
The casts, which embrace the human form rather than reject it, were made through various collaborations between Misha and femme, queer and trans individuals in Pakistan, as well as other figures such as writers, activists and artists who are “building legacies rooted in redefining shamelessness”.
For the former, Misha made torso casts of friends and loved ones that she found inspirational, as well as more than 70 strangers who she invited to visit her makeshift studio in Karachi to have their nipples moulded. “I had femmes ranging in age from 18 to 65,” she recalls. “A woman who had undergone mastectomies and allowed me to mould her scars. A woman who had successfully battled breast cancer and was scheduled to have her breasts removed the next day. A young trans woman crafting a relationship with her body that feels true to who she is.”
Beyond the issues facing these communities in the present, Misha says this work also looks to address the question of future legacies. After her grandmother passed in 2021, her musings on “who controls the narrative of our stories once we are no longer here” and “how legacies would be shaped of people considered shameless by the dominant culture” began to inform the concept for the project.
These fears were also given added urgency for Misha by the ongoing threat of climate change, which holds the power to erase Karachi should sea levels continue to rise. “While working on the collection in August 2022, disastrous monsoon rains resulted in one third of Pakistan flooding and the displacement of millions of people,” recalls Misha. “It was an eerie and shocking reminder that a future where our land, our histories and our stories are washed away is a reality and not a dream.”
As such, the casts and photographs seek to preserve the identities of these people in a way that gives them agency over their own narratives and self-image. Chemically aged bronze, copper and gold metal coatings on the casts hint at their potential in this scenario, and Misha paints a picture of that reality: “A day in the future; these aged bodily artefacts wash up ashore, holding within them the legacies and stories of those who embraced their own definitions of beghairati and forged an existence rooted in honesty, love and possibility.”
Beghairati Ki Nishaani: Traces of Shamelessness was on show at Hannah Traore Gallery.
Misha Japanwala: Moldings on the coast of Karachi, Pakistan. Photographed by Aleena Naqvi (Copyright © Misha Japanwala, 2023)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.