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.”