LAHORE, Pakistan — Exploited by the elite and condemned by the devout, the working girls of Heera Mandi, Lahore's red light district, earn their livings on the margins of society.

But to artist Iqbal Hussain, who grew up in a family of prostitutes and now uses the women as models for his impressionistic portraits, they are his muse.

“They are a holy people,” Hussain says, standing on the roof of the four-story, 300-year-old brothel in which he was born. “Sex workers are more holy because they are more human.”

Tinny loudspeakers blast the call to prayer through the hazy dusk, cutting short Hussain’s words.

The next morning, he rises early to paint the portrait of a pale, young, dark-haired prostitute. He arranges her pose and paints without a word. In the brothel next door, three young girls practice their dancing to the sounds of chiming bells. They will soon make up the newest crop in the city’s flesh trade.

Hussain stops short of trying to convince the prostitutes of Heera Mandi to find other ways to earn a living. Instead, he calls himself a "voice in the wilderness," who brings attention to the squalid conditions of an ignored segment of Pakistani society.

“I’m trying to bring this in front of people,” Hussain said. Heera Mandi’s prostitutes “deserve to be respected," he says. "Their children need to be educated. They need health care.”

So he doesn't preach. He paints.

Much of Hussain’s work sits in a permanent exhibit at Lahore Art Gallery. Other pieces auctioned by Sotheby's have reportedly fetched prices of $10,000  or more. In one painting typical of his Matisse-inspired style, a family of courtesans dressed in ornate Oriental red tunics stands against a brilliant floral background.

Others show more sadness than glamour.

In a painting called “Thana” (The Police Station) a woman and her two daughters stand behind a row of riot police. The painting is based on a true story of women “who were badly tortured by police after being accused of sexual misdeeds,” Hussain said.

“They are glamorous on the outside, but when they come in and I paint them, I can see their heart,” Hussain said. “To sleep with a stranger for a few thousand rupees – you have to sacrifice a lot. You have to sacrifice your heart.”
 

Iqbal Hussain, Pakistan’s most infamous artist, grew up in the Heera Mandi, Lahore’s red light district, among the “dancing girls” who are now his models. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
Most of Pakistani families wish for a male child who will bring them a daughter-in-law and a dowry. But, in Heera Mandi, among the sex workers, power and earning potential are passed from mother to daughter, leaving boys to their own devices. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
Heera Mandi, which means “Diamond Market” was once home to royal courtesans. Nowadays, sex workers peddle their services from the windows of crumbling ghetto apartments. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
Iqbal Hussain paints a shy young sex worker by window light in his Heera Mandi studio. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
"Awaiting Dowry," 1996. Portrait of Iqbal Hussain’s wife and three daughters. The daughters wear no jewelry, as their dowry is dependent on Hussain’s ability to sell his paintings. (Iqbal Hussain/Courtesy of Lahore Art Gallery)
A horse cart serves as a taxi in Heera Mandi, which by day, serves as a shopping bazaar. By night it's Lahore’s red-light district, where prostitutes veil their services in the guise of dance and song, according to the centuries-old tradition of courtesanship. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
Straddling the divide between sacred and profane is Cooco’s Den, Iqbal Hussain’s popular rooftop restaurant, which offers breathtaking views of the 17th century Badshahi Mosque while it abutts the crumbling apartments of Heera Mandi. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
Colored lights illuminate the entrance to Cooco’s Den. The 300 year-old haveli, decorated with ornate woodwork and balconies popular with the Hindu upper caste, houses Iqbal Hussain’s studio, gallery and living quarters. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
"Thana" ("The Police Station"), 2002. Portrait of a mother and her two daughters, who were badly tortured by police, having been accused of sexual misdeeds. (Courtesy of Lahore Art Gallery)
Girls study dance at a teacher’s apartment in Heera Mandi. The graceful courtesans of days past were skilled in song and dance, which they used to charm their wealthy clients. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
Sheena, center, supports her family with her earnings as a “dancer.” Her mother, Naila, the subject of several of Iqbal Hussain’s paintings, was once among the most sought-after women in Heera Mandi. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
Young girls growing up in Heera Mandi are groomed as “Dancing Girls’ from a young age. Pretty young girls often have their virginity sold to the highest bidder in the form of “marriages” when they reach puberty, and support their families during their prime years. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)
"Dancing Lessons," 2001. Hussain says, “most of the girls aged 9-10 years are forced to learn to dance and singing.” as preparation for their work. (Iqbal Hussain/Courtesy of Lahore Art Gallery)

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