PORTLAND, Maine — In Nasir Shah’s Book of Delights (Niʻmatnāmah-i Nāṣirshāhī) women are depicted tending to the needs of Sultan Ghiyas al-Din Khilji (ruled 1469–1500). As part of her ongoing exploration of diverse food cultures, Pakistan-born artist Sarah K. Khan confronts this 16th-century Persian cookbook, which is held in the British Library, to liberate its unnamed African, Arab, Turkic, and Central Asian women so they may pursue their own pleasures. She also arms them against their oppressors.
In considering these attendants left anonymous, Khan asked, “From where, in that vast Central Indian and African Indian Ocean World, did they come? What were their nuanced narratives? Did they consider the work a delight?” These queries, taken from her statement for the exhibition Pleasure & Defiance, led her to the question that inspired her work: “If the polyethnic world of the zenāna/harem prospered unfettered, with the Sultan cancelled, what might these un-imagined lives and worlds dream into?”
Across 10 etchings on handmade Wasli paper, each measuring 33 by 24 inches, Khan responds to these thoughts. The unbound figures enjoy the freedom to interact with each other playfully, but the artist also enables them to realize their agency in battle as she transports them to the present to fight against disinformation and other evils. Khan infuses the prints with inks and essential oils, extracts, and spices, including cloves, cinnamon, and myrrh, to reflect the sensory pleasures found in their new lives.
The figures in Khan’s prints are named after female freedom fighters from South Asian, Southwest Asian, and Pan African cultures. She accompanies each image with a short narrative. For “Vigilant Defiance: To Arms Freedom Fighter Abebach (Myrrh)” (2020), she relates how the warrior Abebach, shown wielding a Luger pistol atop a swift Persian stallion, “heeds the call of the midwives and herbalists, at the edges of their forests, to help them fight against trespassers on their sacred domains, and the cruel enemies of climate science reason.”
In 18 smaller letterpress prints measuring 19 by 13, Khan offers what she calls “fully frontal femmes”: portraits of women “of massive delight” armed with “Weapons of Mass Creation-Destruction,” including rolling pins, swords, wine glasses, and blow torches. The smiling Tashu, for example, bears a long-handled spoon and bowl.
Ceramic pieces that Khan fabricated during her Arts/Industry residency at the Kohler Foundation factory in 2022 are on view as well. As she explained in an interview in Garland Magazine, after learning the basics of slip cast molding, glazing, and firing, she worked with artists and technicians at Kohler to make multiples of food ware and the aforementioned weapons of mass creation/destruction that she imagined or found in the 16th-century manuscript.
Decorated with various images, including decals of figures, flowers, and other designs, each item bears an either/or title related to its usage. Khan names a trio of decorated matte porcelain Lugers “Defend or Destroy” while a short-handled knife offers the option “Slice or Sever.” These titles underscore the double-edged nature of these weapons and kitchen utensils.
The exhibition includes plates, cups, pots, decanters, an oven, and other kitchenware bearing images of Khan’s “sheros” as well as intricate patterns, stylized designs, and Sanskrit text. A recast tile mural depicts dhows sailing upon the “African Indian Ocean Worlds, unbound.”
A short “fabulation animation” features “world femmes” Marjane and Uzza engaged in an act of creation during the monsoon. As Khan notes, they “advance their dynamic, multisensory healing arts” by infusing their world with local “food-medicine-essences,” including black pepper, rose, and bitter orange. Made during her 2021–22 Art Hx artist residency at Princeton University, and produced for this exhibition with artist/editor Aaron Granat, this animation adds another engaging layer to her response to The Book of Delights.
Taken together, Khan’s work brilliantly reframes age-old storylines as modern allegories. From an ancient collection of recipes, she has conjured a phalanx of unfettered women. “By recasting the past,” she writes, “I assure boundless futures.”
Sarah K. Khan: Pleasure & Defiance continues at Cove Street Arts (71 Cove Street, Portland, Maine) through October 7. The exhibition was curated by the Indigo Arts Alliance where Khan was artist in residence in 2019.