From childhood into my teens, every time I’d see a headless male torso, I would grant it an imaginary head of my heart throb.
In my father’s collection, a coffee table book on Khajuraho, kept on the top shelf, was the first encounter with headless torsos. Later within Greek and Roman sculptures too, I discovered a number of missing heads. There were no words nor names to express it, but as I grew taller; watching and drawing the male form gave me an inner pleasure. In the Lahore Museum, next to NCA, there are figures with missing noses and heads. Warring nations felt empowered by destroying gods and idols; provocations of orthodoxy! In my early teens, our local shop keeper passed me some desi porn, cut paste heads of actresses and actors attached on to different bodies altogether. I also read somewhere that the Romans usually had the sculptures made in a way that the head could be easily detached (if a certain hero fell from grace), and replaced by a new favourite.
By my late teens, I had no doubt about my sexuality. My fascination with the male form took on a passion of its own during the strict military regime of Zia in Pakistan. Being at the art school was fine to express however one wanted, but the censorship codes were strict, and homosexuality was punishable by law. Drawing frontal nudes were not okay either, but sort of okay. One could say it was from imagination or referenced from classical art. Photographic nudity of any sort was taboo, or perhaps it was self-censorship. If a person being photographed was identifiable; people whose business it was to gossip about anyone and everyone, would perpetrate the consequences of all sorts. As an artist, I was already at risk of being a social outcast of sorts in those years, at best eccentricity was an all endearing gossamer veil on sexuality. However, self-censorship never allowed me to include genitals in any of my images.
Processing black and white films were fine as I had access to a dark room, with colour work, one of my colleagues had friends at Fuji labs. I am forever grateful for his discretion, never once did he ask who my models were. The images were sexualised, though never sexual. These were male studies, artistic nudes, at worst they were called soft porn. Some of these images were part of my folio when I arrived at Chelsea School of Art in ’88. Hannah, my first tutor, flicked through the folio without any interest or curiosity and stated nonchalantly that I was influenced by Maplethorpe. Prescribed me some of his monographs from the library, and also added, “I don’t know anything about your culture, so can’t comment on your work.” I talked to my rector, got her replaced immediately. Stuart Marshall got allocated, an avant-garde video and performance artist, a gay activist and a wonderful human being. We had open discussions about my work, the male gaze, desire, objectification, and discretion. On one hand, while Maplethorpe dehumanised his black subjects and often had headless torsos, he also photographed Louise Bourgeois lovingly cradling a phallus she made herself.
My headless torsos were born out of taking small liberties to celebrate my desire of the male body, with consent and discretion. My ‘fig leaf’ period stands witness to the time in which they were made. For all reasons, headless torsos continue well into these times, you only have to swipe the apps on your smartphone to bear witness to it.