Meher Afroz: As I Read Her Art

Text & Visuals | Amra Ali

Issue 56

Meher Afroz’s art has drawn my interest for the last thirty years. From starting my art collection in the early 1990s with painting on paper from the Mask Series (1986-89) to acquiring later work and subsequently curating Meher’s work, her subtle imagery and manner has unfolded on me and nurtured. In listening to the work and ‘reading’ it, I continue to visit/ re-visit both the artist and her art. The work has been difficult to write about: the more I seemed to have come closer to an understanding, the more difficult it has been to articulate it in words.  Each time I address it, I enter from a different perspective, hoping that it will not slip again.

To engage with Meher has never been a matter of ‘interviewing’ the artist, but rather sessions of informal conversations often on the larger context. The knowledge gained provided the lens to read into it. The sharing of ideas and being audience to the artist’s imagination, as well as her self-critique, you become aware of layering of ideas, their interconnectedness to the artist’s form, and how they are articulated in a body of work and imagery. It has made sense at particular moments that dissolve as swiftly as they appear.

Meher Afroz has been one of the most challenging artists for me to write on.  However, there is immense joy in connecting with her and her work, given the immense space the artist has provided me in getting to understand and critique it. There is something so escapable each time one writes on it, simply because it only alludes through recurring codes that carry her stamp. She often disappears much into the distance, leaving the critic a space to enter without the descriptive or prescriptive overtures of the ‘socio-political’ commentary or the ‘politically correct’.  Her verbal commentary and self- critique speaks on the larger framework of the context, and the imagery absorbs from it but it does not describe or narrate it.

This is a longer commentary than a standard newspaper column space would allow, so one can rejoice in writing around the work in a personal manner. Speaking to Meher, who allows the other with critical consideration and measured manner, the work unfolds slowly, gradually, even at interval of years.

A bit of background of my own writing: dealing with the space constrains of art writing in newspaper columns, where majority of my articles and reviews have appeared, has pushed me to derive from a body of work, and insert words that hint and/or allude, hoping to critique in depth at another point. Newspaper articles require chucking off words, deeming them as irrelevant, whereas the meandering is where the subtext may reside. The repetition of words helps explore the nuances within an idea or narrative. The cleaning and the chopping of critique seems to place another lens and frames the work, trivializing as well as distorting the writer’s reading; without doing justice to the artist’s narrative.

To access Meher becomes challenging also because its ethos resides in Urdu and Persian language and literary references, in her lived experience which is removed from the globalized mainstream. The artist has often spoken about the inability to converse about her work, naturally because the viewer and the reader occupy a different space, where the jargon and thrust is completely on another plane. Urdu conveys and reflects the way in which she thinks. The insistence on translation into English has somehow confined and masked the meaning, nuances and depth of her vision. Despite the respect given to her, there is much disinterest in a younger generation whose interest resides in their lived experiences, within the ideals of global conversations. This distancing is an important consideration in approaching Meher’s work. Her art has neither proposed to confront nor to protest. She has chosen, instead, to be away from the loudness of contemporary conversations, and that choice is also a statement on her viewpoint.

She asserts that her approach necessitated a lowering of her voice, or in Urdu, ‘baat chupa kar kehna’ . She identifies her drawing and painting teacher at the art college in Lucknow, Nitya Nand Mahapatra ji, a philosophical and Sufi personality as a strong influence on her subsequent approach to art and life. She speaks of his teaching on simplicity and the search for being a better human being. He excelled in drawing, and this has stayed with Meher, whose prints and paintings are distinguished by mark making in which line emerges as a constant. It weaves in and out of her etchings, drawings and paintings, in the linear elements in her textured early surfaces of the Mask and Amulet Series (1989-90). The painted amulets are scratched onto the surface thickened and layered with paint.  The amulet is visible only in part, reaffirming Meher’s approach of aging her surface so that the imagery seems to grow out of it organically. In the later Dataawez series (Chronicles of Our Times, 2007) the scratched line transforms to the writing of the noha, and this becomes a constant companion to her drawn imagery. Infect, the line between drawing and painting also dissolves. The painting is drawn, and the drawing is etched. The mark making evokes pain in the lament, which is from Faiz Ahmad’s Waadi-e Sina and Aal-e-Raza’s kalaam, Salaam-e Akhir. She viewed Faiz’s verses as a form of marsiya. The mark making seems to echo the repetitious movement of those at a majlis or gathering where the Shia community recalls Karbala. It is in submission of this recall that anchors much of Meher’s art subliminally. She is receptive to her intuition as her mehvar or direction, that which determines her simt (also direction). No wonder, she once remarked that the art community had altered their Qibla. Her reaction to the artists around her, who happen to be much younger, verges on despondency and one can see how her art does not exist on the same concerns as those around her.

Had our academic institutions and the community provided more space to understanding Meher’s approach, beyond the polite respect given to her, students would have had a tremendous grounding in opening their mind and hearts to a non-occidental way of thinking. It is not a secret that Meher’s approach, though respected, was considered old school and therefore not given the value that it carried and deserved. In this way, she has remained marginal, speaking to the few who treasure her, and others who do not care to go into any depth to understand the meaning of her art.

In the series of etchings that Meher made for the show Sabza o Gul, Khula Dareecha, Dar Aaee Sab ‘a (the door opened and in came the breeze), that I curated in 2014, each print was of a dense black, out of which she drew the crisp hair thin whites. These lines in each of the niches within the square are by far the most gestural work I have seen of Meher’s. The light appearing from within the darkness, represents the diya or light placed in the niches of the cheeni-khana in the Mughal garden, which shine under the water flowing above it, making the water appear like a sheet of light. The intense play between dark and light could have been absorbed from her teacher at the Lucknow College, RS Bisht’s style. There is a stillness in the darks and lights, that gives the viewer space to devour it as a form.  The imagery may reflect the depth much beyond the literal architecture of a niche, but possibly a space of darkness and melancholy. The artist does not share her ‘pain’, but conceals it, letting the viewer enter with their own.  In a conversation, she says that her imagery often alludes to certain memories of place. This is not planned or prescribed, and she becomes aware of it in hindsight.  For example, she distinctly recalls the voices of people, such as her maid who knew it to be a final goodbye, relatives of people crying at the train station when leaving Lucknow in 1971, and not able to tell others that they were bound for Pakistan for fear, would say that they were travelling to Delhi.  Could it be that her monochrome prints titled, ‘Silent Voices’, reflect this time? I have often thought of the faces that Meher has drawn or etched to represent herself, not overtly or even on purpose, but a face that represent her reading of her times through her: a face that is in constant lament.

Migration opened her eyes, says Meher. There would be recurrence of that memory in every mark and space. She studied about the high station given to the act of migration in Islam. In hindsight, it was that sacrifice that was also portrayed in her early Mask and Puppet series of paintings. Pain, she says can be given a veil, a hijab. Meher makes a lighthearted remark about being ghampasand, who is close to udaasi (sadness). She carries many such associations that are recalled in some way in the work., but feels that those experiences cannot be shared by people who cannot relate to her past. People, object and stories shared within a community become distant and in need of explanation. The artist stands apart, solitary. 

Zarina Hashmi’s etchings lived in a different recall of ‘home’ for decades, woven with references to the Urdu poetry such particularly of Mirza Ghalib. Zarina has said to me several times that the only critic to have understood her narrative was Dr Akbar Naqvi, because he critiqued her work through the lens of Urdu poetry. He understood the nuances of the language and saw it in Zarina’s imagery. No one in the West could have understood her with that totality, she said.

Zarina’s is a nostalgic narrative, and Meher’s resides in critiquing the moral and social through losing herself in the materiality of making, and the sensuality of surface. I think people respond to its visual beauty, and totally disregard the latent in the narrative.  The feeling of loss is evoked in both Zarina and Meher.  Meher’s installation of prints and drawings for my show Sabza o Gul were a response to ‘Rani’s Garden’. a print by Zarina from the 1990s. I invited artists to converse with Zarina’s print, an aged etching of the motia flower placed in a frame with gold patina at four corners, perhaps representing a courtyard. This one print by Zarina is like a window to her world and life’s work. My own relationship to it was because we always met in Rani’s garden in Karachi. There is no doubt that there is an inside story, only some of which the artist, the writer or the curator lets out. Perhaps, that is why I have been drawn to both Meher and Zarina.  One is able to visualize meaning in narration, aadaegi, in the vestiges of cultural memory.

The Fragrant Garden, which I curated in 2020 at Koel Gallery included two works by Meher. I recalled the two drawings which she showed at an earlier exhibition Naqsh bar Aab (Reflections on Water, 2012) and requested Meher for one of the drawings that she had held on to from that body of work. The delicacy and the silver grey of the lead seemed to say more to me than her work with the stark and overpowering gold and silver in that show. Since recall is integral in Meher’s approach, I felt that the same work shown in a different context, would help us view it in a new, varied surrounding. We chose a drawing where Meher wrote by hand, in Persian, from the Bustan e Saadi. I thought that the work was unapproachable for viewers who did not understand the Persian, and even if they admired the drawing and the hand written text for its line and placement, a part of the work was lost to them. In The Fragrant Garden, I asked Meher to write the translation of the text in Urdu and placed it next to the same work in the gallery. The text is a narration of challenges and test that must be overcome in life’s journey. A work can be seen in many contexts and times. Here, the hand written became a parallel commentary to the drawing of the rose, if not a beautifully hand written text that even more poignant as it was unframed and immediate.  In front of this drawing, I placed a vintage border made of silver/gold brocade gangajamni  kamkhab, with the image of a palm tree repeated through its eight yards. Rolled to show just a glimpse of it in a case on a pedestal, from the collection of Banto Kazmi. The saree border was visualized, or hinted at as a stream of moonlit water apart from displaying the object for its visible beauty.

There are all those questions which were posed as a curator, on how you can ‘read’ a work. 

Next to it, I placed a new work by Meher made especially for the show. The work, ‘Guftaar’, comprised of layers of hand- made paper to form seven manuscripts like pages, which translate to seven stations of moral and spiritual awareness. Meher’s work has been text based for many years, most prominently in her earlier Datawez (2007) or Chronicles of Our Times series of works, where she referenced Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem Waadi-e-Sina (1971) and read it as a present day marsiya. Marsiya and Noha (Persian word) is a lament about the tragedy of Husain Ibn Ali (RA) in the Battle of Karbala, and has the historical and social milieu of pre Islamic Arabs and Persian culture.  Embedded within the brilliant blue in which the paper is drenched, are imprints of a difficult journey or journeys, perhaps alluding to her own. She recalls herself as a child weeping inconsolably on the lap of an aunt who recited the story of Bibi Zainab. Such experiences remain embedded in one’s memory and appear in many forms. The thread piercing through the paper is as if holding the wound or the pain. Surely, an artist who is familiar with the narrative can bare the dichotomy of pain and pleasure with effortless measure. The blue may also reminiscent of water channels (symbol of purification), of references in the garden aesthetics of Mulla Nusrati’s masnavis, Ali Nama and Gulshan-e-Ishq referenced in the curatorial narrative of The Fragrant Garden.

The exploration on the purpose of humanity reflecting as the student of Mahapatra ji weaves through her surfaces. The values she infers to are universal, not feminist. Infact, the figurative in Meher seems neither female or male, but as a symbol. It goes to the extent to negate the self and suppress the sexual. Even if we assume the figures and faces to be a portrayal of herself, it would not be a literal one. In Meher’s vision and art, there has been no space to project or intervene into the ‘socio-political’.  It is political only because it infers the personal, but still negates the worldly.

Meher studied at the art college from 1966 to 1971. This was a time of post-independence debate and the advent of modernization. In Pakistan, luminaries such as Shakir Ali introduced cubism to the Lahore art community and the Mayo School of Art, Lahore after being trained at the Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy (JJ) School of Art in Bombay and the Slade School in London around 1952. Shemza, Ali Imam, Ahmed Parvez, Moyene Najmi, Sheikh Safdar Ali were founders of the Lahore Art Circle that advocated a progressive Western approach to painting.  In India, The Progressive Artists’ Group was established after independence with artists such as Francis Newton Souza, S.H. Raza (brother of Ali Imam), M.F. Husain and Manishi Dev, later joined by Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta and others.

Many artists from the Subcontinent returned to India and Pakistan after being trained at the Academie Montparnasse of Andre L’Hotes in Paris. At the Lucknow Art College, the Principal and faculty member, R.S. Bisht, went as far as to ban the wash technique in the college studios. Bisht started as ‘a significant landscape painter in the 1960s, he painted floods and devastations, night-scapes and flowering trees. He constantly developed and transformed as an artist, experimenting with semi-abstract colours on canvas, notably his Blue Series and interventionist paintings.’ Meher recalls that the assignments given by Bisht pushed her and her peers to develop conceptually and to use their imagination as opposed to observational drawing and painting. She, no doubt absorbed from the lessons, but remained notably influenced by the strength of Mahapartra’s finely attuned drawing skill and manner of teaching whose aesthetic was grounded on the Indian sub-continent’s philosophies. She was taught printmaking by the well-known printmaker Jai Krishna Agarwal, who himself was a graduate of the Lucknow College of Art and went on to teach there and become Principal., later winning awards at the Lalitkala Academy. Meher was his student when Agarwal started teaching. Now in his 80s, and an established artist, he has recalled in a recent interview that he learnt most from his own students. He has kept in touch with Meher’s progress, the teacher and student have retained their ties.  Agarwal, like Bisht moved away from the wash technique of the Bengal school prevalent in the Lucknow college, towards conceptual work.

Meher articulates in metaphor, ‘ishara’, through poetry or literature; her own self is concealed within layers of purdah, humility and a consciousness that negates individualism and the self. Her tareeqa or style happens in Urdu, and therefore, is poles apart from the experimental khichri around her. Her work has followed its own path, a personal awakening which has not been in response or reaction to the culture of rupture. In that way, she has stood apart, in her niche that was distinguished by the terms of her journey. One would not say that is has been in resistance to the status quo, but merely the conviction to safeguard her freedom. Perhaps a disinterestedness towards the immediacy of changing trends in art, Meher was quite clear of any trend or wave, bound by her inner voice, that always emerged with a sameness.

My conversations with her over the last thirty years has made me understand that her narrative is situated in a non-linear frame. It being non descriptive, one has to extract meaning by being attuned to its quiet movement, or non-movement, and to be able to convey that to the reader. How else does one read art anyway? No matter how far you would want to try to place any art within a theoretical frame, it is almost always your intuitive connection to it, that emerges as a possible ‘truthful’ and appropriate reading of it. It becomes more challenging in relation to Meher’s work, because the imagery defies the common anchors of most artists working today; whose work literally spells it out. Meher’s work, on the contrary makes you want to see something which you only get a sense of, and leaves you in wonder.

Meher’s aesthetic can perhaps be contained for its subtlety and beauty within a Kantian frame. Her surface, especially is magical and the only explanation would be that we recognize it due to the feeling it evokes within us. Aesthetic judgement, according to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy is based on feeling. To claim something as beautiful is subjective, in Kant’s ‘judgement of taste’: ‘In a cognitive judgment I use a concept to connect my experience to an object in an aesthetic judgment, I don’t use a concept, but my own subjective state (sentiment).  When judging something to be beautiful, one is relating the object (one’s awareness of the object), back to the subject and to its feeling of life, under the name of the feeling of pleasure or displeasure’.

It always surprises me when writers and even artists speak only of what is apparent in their imagery. That almost seems to trivialize the art and the artist.  Commentary around the work, therefore, has a direct connection to the art, and hence into the reading of it which relies largely on the intuitive response to it. It is the subtext that stands and supports and provides meaning to the vision. It can make sense even if there is a visible madness or incoherence.

Meher’s art is not instant, nor direct, nor ‘smart’, or the very dreaded, misused, cliché: ‘contemporary’. Perhaps that is why I have been interested and drawn to it. I still do not know what exactly there is in it, and that is because of the ambiguity and the poetry in it.  It is the artist’s manner (more fashionably described these days as the process) that interests me. When artists speak of directions they abandoned, their conflict at times when the painting or work was at a dead end, of moments when they felt utterly disillusioned, and then the pieces that emerged and became part of the journey. With that larger knowledge, the final work seems to reflect a fraction of the journey, only to be repeated. Perhaps it is also a reflection of the writer’s journey, where each piece of writing struggles to understand and to reflect on the art without the use of crutches, of clichés and appropriated terminology that masks more than it reveals.  What we are left with, then, are possibilities. Hence, any reading of Meher’s work has to reimagine her space rather than regurgitate on what has been written, as if a closed chapter on a pedestal. Meher Afroz allows the reader to understand the times from a difficult lens, and despite its quietness, it says more than we imagine. 

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