Sharlene Khan is a visual artist and academic who challenges the status quo in the South African art world. Over the years she has produced a large body of work, the majority of which arise from her personal issues around identity, gender, class, racism and colonialism. Her works form part of many art collections, including the Unisa Art Gallery, the Eskom Art collection and the Kwa-Muhle Museum Durban.
(Featured work above : Sharlene Khan, It Started off as Them and Ended up as me, oil paint & collage on canvas, 2000)
Sharlene Khan was born (1977) in the working class township of Newlands West in Durban. She obtained both her BA and Master’s Degrees in Fine Art from the University of Durban Westville. In 2006, she completed a second Master’s Degree (Fine Art) at the University of Witwatersrand. During this period, she took up various local residencies, as well as international ones in Cairo, France and Italy. Khan has exhibited her work in group shows in South Africa and in Switzerland, Sweden, France, India, Holland, and USA. In 2018, she exhibited at the Thessaloniki Biennale in Greece. She has had solo exhibitions in Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Khan has also worked as a curator and has co-ordinated several exhibitions one of which was The ID of South African Arists in Holland in 2004. She has written extensively for various publications including contributions for the book – 10 Years 100 Artists. As an academic she has worked at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), the University of South Africa as well as Rhodes University. In 2015 Khan graduated with a PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London. She is currently an Associate Professor at Wits.
Sharlene Khan has produced work in a variety of media, including painting, photography, performance-art, installations, and videography. Khan uses masquerading as a method of examining her South African heritage and identity. For her 2008 exhibition titled What I Look like; What I Feel Like, Khan created 24 pairs of mixed media photographic prints in which she juxtaposes how she is perceived publicly, with an image of how she sees herself. She also uses generalised stereotypical images of women to examine issues of identity, race and womanhood. Two examples from this exhibition are Doing it for Daddy (above) and Modern. Urban. Western. Bitch. shown below.
In Modern.Urban.Westernised. Bitch, Khan contrasts two different images of herself. The image on the left is of Khan dressed in modest, old fashioned clothing with braided hair and her hands primly folded in her lap. She represents a domesticated woman – probably a housewife, as indicated by the kitchen table, fridge and broom. The image on the right shows Khan in a provocative pose, wearing revealing clothing, high heels and lots of jewellery. Her hair is wildly tousled and she wears heavy make-up. Situated on an urban street at night she appears to personify the title of the artwork. An embroidered image of a broom unites the two images.
An immediate reading of these images is that Khan views herself as quietly working in her own space, while the public/artworld sees her as a trouble maker. The embroidered broom indicates the work or domesticity that unites women.
The artwork could also be understood as a generalised view of womanhood. The domesticated Khan represents the idealised Indian woman – conservative, meek and bound to her home and family. This idealised version of Indian women still exists within our communities and in South Africa. There is a stereotype about sari-clad Indian women making samoosas and curries that persists even if they are professionals and live urbanised lifestyles. However, when they do pursue professional careers, move out of the family home and become independent – the Indian community sometimes believes that they have lost their religious and cultural beliefs. Hence the idea of a modern, westernised women who is ‘loose’ and immoral. These stereotypes represent polar opposites and neither of them is a realistic image of modern Indian women.
As Khan states, I question expectations of me as a potential mother, as a good woman, as a tertiary educated woman, as a Muslim/Christian woman, a rebel-rouser, a demonised woman, a sexual person. I am not any of these things, but bits of these things on any day, and I question how these layers of identity… are often spliced, foregrounded and used to stereotype…compartmentalise, as well as to subjugate me (Ligaga, 2008).
Khan’s exploration of the trials women face is further examined in her project ‘When the Moon Waxes Red’ which comprises a video, photographic images and mixed media artworks. Click here to view the video.
The video depicts Khan seated on the floor sewing, while narrating the story of the generations of women in her family who lived in patriarchal communities in a racialised South Africa. The history of the women that lived during the period of migration from India and then under indenture in South Africa is one that deals with poverty, systemic abuse by employers and often domestic abuse too. Generations later these struggles continue; Khan recalls, “I remember growing up with stories of the many Indian women who killed themselves during my parents generation- by burning, drowning or hanging- as the only way to get out of their problems”.
The photographic series ‘Drowning Durgas’ references these attempts to escape untenable situations. Durga is a Hindu goddess who symbolises feminine energy and who combats evil and demonic forces. During the Durga Puja (prayer), following a period of fasting and prayer, Hindus immerse clay statues of Durga into rivers believing that the goddess carries with her all their sins. This symbolic gesture represents the washing away of sin and evil.
Khan, photographs herself masquerading as Durga while floating in a river, and hanging from a tree, recreating disturbing images of suicide. These images together with the narration of the video create a powerful sense of the despair that many women must have felt due to their harsh living conditions. Throughout the narration, there are also stories of women supporting and caring for each other during difficult times. Khan’s act of sewing and using needle lace in her mixed media artworks, are a symbolic reminder of her grandmother’s skills which she used to supplement the family’s meagre income. The strength and resilience of women is another subtext of this collective exhibition.
The history and experiences of the indentured labourers in South Africa is one that is seldom examined, written about or discussed in any depth. Few South Africans know of the inhumane and brutal conditions under which most indentured women were forced to live. Khan’s video, photographs and artworks are a way of bringing this forgotton history to the fore, allowing us to acknowledge and understand the past.
The issues that Khan deals with in her work – identity, race, and gender based violence are as relevant now as they were during indenture or apartheid.
She says, “I don’t live life as just any woman, I have a racialised, gendered body and an outlook affected by westernisation, urbanisation, by living in South Africa, by being of Indian descent. These are not factors to be separated at will. As such, I am faced daily with a society that looks at my race, gender and class as markers of how to interact with me (Ligaga, 2008).
Her work reminds us that as Indian South Africans, we have to write our own histories and experiences lest they be forgotten. Khan’s collection of artwork and scholarly achievements attest to her position as a remarkable South African artist.
Ligaga, D. Negotiating identity through the Gendered and Racialised body of a South African Artist. 2008
Khan, S. What I look Like: What I feel Like. Catalogue 2008