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Pakistani artist quietly honors forbidden culture

By Michele Langevine Leiby,

LAHORE, Pakistan — Anyone who approaches the immense carved doors adjacent to Lahore’s famous Cooco’s Den restaurant will get the once-over from a pair of sharp-eyed sentries. If you can make it past these doormen, you will enter an art space unlike any other in Pakistan.

Here, painter Iqbal Hussain has been quietly documenting the lives of the sex workers of Lahore for most of his life. The son of a prostitute, Hussain grew up among the Lahori demimonde.

“I try to paint my own people and my own land as I see it,” said the soft-spoken, bespectacled artist nicknamed Cooco (pronounced “cuckoo”), whose family owns and runs the restaurant. His studio is in his childhood home in the city’s all-but-vanished red-light district, in the shadow of a magnificent mosque.

Hussain, 62, is a controversial figure in Pakistan, not only for his paintings of sex workers but also because of works that proffer scathing commentary on Pakistan’s inclination toward a more and more religiously strict and intolerant society. And while the more liberal-minded art aficionados might appreciate his paintings on an intellectual or aesthetic level, they rarely purchase them. People think the images, highlighting the misery of society’s most vulnerable, will bring them bad luck.

“The rich women, they want art that matches the curtains,” he said.

For centuries, this part of the ancient walled city was the epicenter of a thriving industry of bordellos and dancing girls. In Hussain’s youth, the singing of women filled the air in much the same way the call to prayer does today.

In his romanticized version of old Lahore, the most successful courtesans were renowned for their grace and charm. The wealthiest families sent their daughters to them to be trained in poise and elegance — a harder-edged version of the Swiss finishing school.

As the neighborhood has changed, Cooco’s has become a respectable establishment where middle-class men bring their genteel wives and well-dressed children to dine in the shadow of the beautifully lit Badshahi mosque. The Mughal-style edifice, built in the 1670s, was once considered the largest mosque in the world.

Hussain remembers the old days well. “For the women in little brothels in Lahore’s red-light district, the best business [was] during Eid,” he said, referring to the major religious holiday.

“There would be a big queue over there,” he said, nodding toward the mosque, “with everyone waiting for their turn.”

The studio is full of treasures: intricately carved wooden objects, Hindu statues and other artifacts from Pakistan’s Mughal past. Some of the pieces had been in the same families for generations. But as Pakistan became more conservative after the military rule of Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in the late 1970s and early 1980s, people began selling them to the well-known artist because having the statues in their homes was seen as un-Islamic.

The more controversial works are propped against the walls, their images hidden. In a back corner, protected by an enormous iron padlock, are the pieces that almost no one gets to see. Hussain produced a key and showed a series of eroticized studies of the female figure, including a couple in an embrace and a reclining semi-nude. He keeps them locked away to avoid being accused of promoting vulgarity.

Not far from Cooco’s, women still ply their trade — but the grace, if it was ever there, is long gone, as they lean into car windows to negotiate their transactions.

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