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  • Jul 10, 2017

Obituary: Lala Rukh (1948–2017)

Pakistani minimalist artist, activist and educator LALA RUKH

Feminist, activist, artist, teacher, mentor, and warrior: Lala Rukh passed away at the age of 69 at her sister’s residence in Lahore on the morning of July 7, 2017. She fought a month-long battle with cancer, but did it quietly from home, in the presence of loved ones, often listening to classical music.

“These works are impossible to photograph,” observes almost everyone who encounters Lala Rukh’s evanescent drawings—marks that dance upon black wisps of carbon paper, or aging newsprint sheets some three decades old. The silent, minimal images that are so multidimensional and rich in person defy being catalogued. Much like the artist herself who spent her entire life defying being put in a box.

Perhaps Pakistan’s only minimalist, Lala Rukh’s portfolio spread across four decades and rebelliously kept herself isolated from the vastly different practices of her peers. She had been trained in calligraphy and miniature painting and in the late '70s received her first MFA at the Punjab University in Lahore. In 1976 Lala Rukh received another MFA at the University of Chicago; her time in the US leaving a life-altering impact on her, her practice and her social activism.

Lala Rukh returned to Lahore to teach at the Punjab University and then moved to the National College of Arts (NCA), where she went on to found the MA (Hons.) Visual Art program—the first of its kind in the country. She headed the program almost dogmatically from 2000 to 2008 before retiring from a 30-year teaching career.


In 1981, Lala Rukh became one of the founding members of the revolutionary Women’s Action Forum (WAF)—a seminal feminist group that fought for the rights of women in the time of the military dictator Zia ul-Haq and paved the way for many significant social, cultural and legal breakthroughs. Till her death she remained an active part of WAF.

Lala Rukh was born to Saeeda Khan and Hayat Ahmad Khan, founder of the All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC), which is an unparalleled platform for musicians activated annually for the last five decades. Lala Rukh’s interactions with these musicians greatly impacted her own practice. Her final work Rupak (2017)—an installation of drawing, sound and animation commissioned by Documenta 14 for presentation in Athens—is a monumental denouement to every strand of thought that passed through her drawings, photographs, videos and sound pieces. 

After speaking to Lala Rukh about Rupak, I contributed to a collateral publication along with Natasha Ginwala, writing: “Almost the entirety of Lala’s oeuvre employs meditative rhythm as the soul of the work; the mapping of the dimension of time is present not only in the study of music, but also in the oscillation of waves on the shore, and the endless meeting of the sky and the ground at the horizon. It is a study of aspiration that is neither ambitious about reaching a final destination, nor implicated in unravelling the mysteries of a constant illusion. There is, however, a desire to be still in time, lull with the waves, utter absolutely nothing.”

In a way, these words also summarize the gentle tour de force that was Lala Rukh. 

Saira Ansari is a contributor for ArtAsiaPacific.

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