Meher Afroz’s art evokes a sense of the bygone times
t was a rare and exciting occasion: a solo exhibition by Meher Afroz in Lahore. One of the leading artists of the country, Afroz is recognized, respected and admired for her sensitive surfaces, distinct vocabulary and investigation of cultural roots. Even though, every work of art we see or experience – irrespective of its imagery, content, medium, technique - is about the past because it was created minutes, hours, days, months, years or centuries ago, Meher Afroz’s art actively evokes a sense of the bygone times.
The past has been an enduring love for the artist, who in the late 1970s and early 1980s produced remarkable prints, inspired by ancient scripts (especially of Indus Valley Civilisation) and dishevelled walls. Later, she evolved a language that included faces, structures and objects that bore the marks of time. She also incorporated words and symbols that remind us of our pictorial history: either religious references or South Asian iconography. In recent years, her work has featured patterns, particularly a stylised version of traditional textile in her highly tactile paintings.
Some artists have the ability to convey something beyond what is in front of our eyes. One can, for example, associate Moeen Faruqi’s imagery with night. Likewise, there is a sense of the past in Meher Afroz’s figures of women, suggestion of interiors, traces of patterns, which due to their absence of a specific light source, appear timeless, eternal.
The presence of this feeling or sensation of the past is important for several reasons. A prose writer, poet or visual artist often employs a segment of the past to address the conditions of the present. In his faction, Intezar Hussain, used the diction, fables and narratives from the Sufi texts, Muslim sources, the Old Testament, Jataka tales and Hindu mythology to construct the idiom that describes our existence. In a way, Meher Afroz’s work is connected to a similar technique.
Meher Afroz’s wolrd is a realm of women, whether composed of solitary characters, amid objects or next to other females, or represented through their creations, such as embroidery, weaving, patchwork, etc. In her recent body of work, produced during an Artist Retreat programme initiated by Studio RM in collaboration with the O Art Space, Afroz revived some of her past work, both in terms of imagery and the production strategy.
The one month away from Karachi, her hometown, was possibly instrumental in recollecting the elements of her aesthetics and reconnect to her previous imagery. Consequently, the exhibition of the paintings created in that period (Imkaan, from November 24 to December 4 at the O Art Space, Lahore) becomes a minor retrospective of a major artist of the country. The ten canvases can be classified into two broad categories: figurative and non-figurative. This divide indicates a shift in the artist’s approach.
In her recent body of work, produced during an Artist Retreat programme initiated by Studio RM in collaboration with the O Art Space, Afroz revived some of her past work, both in terms of imagery and the production strategy.
At the beginning of her professional practice, Afroz had opted for non-figurative imagery. However, she soon shifted to identifiable visuals. For the last few years, one has noticed another change, with her minimal, serene, subtle and sensitive compositions of marks, daubs, hints of a text, outlines of a symbol. By and large, these works are ‘organised.’ No matter if she employs metallic sheet or paint, the layouts are premeditated. At this stage of her professional practice, one expects Meher Afroz to be able to infuse an element of excitement in her work. With selective colour palettes, sparse strokes and deeply embedded forms this work, on the one hand, echoes a worn out piece of fabric and on the other suggests an entity that has been made; it has not emerged.
During her Lahore sojourn, Meher Afroz painted canvases that more than her art, reveal the process of creation. In these delicately rendered canvases, there are portraits of women, with chairs, or a single female surrounded by segments of a paper boat, flowers or the silhouette of a rising moon. There are also sequences of textures interjected with the shape of a rose with marks of stitches or drawing of a safety pin, along with indecipherable lines in Urdu or tiny pieces with single words.
Although the title of her one-person show is Imkaan (Possibility), looking at these paintings one recognises the predictability more than the possibility. The colour palette is thoughtfully laid out. Compared to her previous paintings, in which the brush moved with a natural gait across the canvas, leaving lines, spots, patches in its aftermath, the recent work betrays a careful and conscious contact. Contours are defined, outlines of the features (especially of eyes) are precisely delineated, background motifs are decided and put accordingly. Only two paintings (numbered 5 and 6) look different. In these canvases, colours and forms grow as naturally as a tree, or a past painting by Meher Afroz.
Her abstract paintings, vertical or square, contain a focal flower, on the top or in the middle of horizontally divided patches filled with repetitive marks. This may be a meditative or therapeutic exercise for some people, but for a painter using acrylic on canvas, it is a conscious and careful act. A similar treatment is witnessed in her figurative paintings (7, 3 and 4). Her earlier work had been more experimental, unconventional and lucid.
A reason for the work to land in a safe, precise and calculated mode could be the age of the artist. Anyone above 70 generally finds comfort in holding on to his/ her habits. Extravagant ventures of the past transform as patterns in the discourse and recollections. Hence the excessive pattern in a majority of her paintings. For the artist, these motifs can also be a means to recalling and reaffirming the aesthetic practices beyond the domain of high art. Yet a fan and follower of Meher Afroz’s unmatched work, longs for something unseen, unexpected, unplanned.
It was probably not possible. Meher Afroz travelled to Lahore and agreed to work in the space facilitated by the RM Studio. Being away from her familiar surroundings, people and locality may have caused this shift. A change on the surface, but in reality an attempt to revert to her earlier imagery. Some artists hop from one residency to the next. While others are tied to their studios and workplaces, yet their works reflect invention, imagination, experimentation. Like Shahid Sajjad, the late sculptor. Nayyar Masud is another apt example. One of the greatest writers of contemporary Urdu fiction never left Lucknow, his home town. However, his writings offer multiple versions of external and internal realities. He has also been translated in languages not spoken in South Asia.
Lucknow is also the city where Meher Afroz lived and practiced before migrating to Pakistan.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.