Devotional art : The light with­in

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From the Behisht-i-Gumshuda series. Photos by the writer
From the Behisht-i-Gumshuda series. Photos by the writer

Among Pakistan’s most ac­claimed ar­tists, Karachi-based Meher Afroz shares how we, as a na­tion and as a so­ci­ety, have lost touch with our­selves, with man­kind, our his­to­ry and na­ture in her so­lo show ‘Behisht-i-Gumshuda’ at Islamabad’s Khaas Art Gallery.

Born in Lucknow, India, Afroz has been an ar­tist and an art ed­u­ca­tor since the ’70s. Her imag­i­na­tion in the 16 dis­played pieces al­lows view­ers to be trans­por­ted in­to a world of blue, sil­ver and black, in­te­gral col­our schemes in this body of work. Behisht-i-Gumshuda means the lost para­dise where­by she in­ter­prets hu­man psy­che, emo­tions and val­ues with­in so­ci­ety.

Another exhibit. Photos by the writer
Another exhibit. Photos by the writer
The ar­tist de­picts the con­tra­dic­tions and con­flicts ex­pe­ri­enced by man as he evolves a new re­la­tion­ship with uni­ver­sal truths and his core val­ues drifts out of the pro­tec­tive cir­cle of spi­ri­tu­al­i­ty. She uses her icon­og­ra­phy to ei­ther por­tray her mem­o­ries or the mo­ral dec­a­dence around her. She ob­serves the hy­poc­risy and cor­rup­tion of the peo­ple she comes across.

Her paint­ing tech­ni­que of over­lap­ping sur­fa­ces, lay­er over lay­er of paint, ac­cen­tu­ated by de­vel­op­ing the proc­ess through Islamic sym­bols and ver­ses from the Holy Quran, cre­ates an emo­tive sub­tle­ty on her sur­fa­ces. The dy­nam­i­cal­ly worked tex­tures in graph­ite, acryl­ic and sil­ver leaf on the can­va­ses re­fine her work through the ex­plo­ra­tion of the ar­tist’s unique tex­ture build­ing style. The paint­ings have a lan­guage of their own by cre­at­ing a pic­to­ri­al nar­ra­tive be­tween the ar­tist and the view­er.

There is no fig­u­ra­tive el­e­ment evi­dent in this col­lec­tion, rath­er the sur­fa­ces are rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the clas­sic com­po­nents of the Islamic art. Geometric pat­terns made up of reg­u­lar lines and re­pea­ted shapes, which can be re­flec­ted or ro­ta­ted to cre­ate a pat­tern of squares and tri­an­gles, are fun­da­men­tal in the pres­ent work. Perhaps the re­pet­i­tive square pat­terns, which even­tu­al­ly trans­form in­to tri­an­gles re­fers to a sys­tem­at­ic or­der, lead­ing to the path of truth and the con­stant use of sil­ver leaf in­di­cates un­taint­ed­ness.

The text re­in­for­ces a con­stant zikr, a cel­e­bra­tion of the Divine, a main­stay of Sufi prac­tice, for ex­am­ple, in the rep­e­ti­tion of per­ti­nent word Hu from Allah Hu, which is a tra­di­tion­al Sufi chant. The Hamsa or Hand of Fatima is al­so an in­ter­rup­ted part of Afroz’s cur­rent work and is a de­pic­tion of loy­al­ty, faith and re­sist­ance against dif­fi­cul­ties. All these com­po­nents that are the build­ing blocks of her can­va­ses are a re­mind­er of how man has strayed and be­come di­rec­tion­less.

The foun­da­tion of Afroz’s art of de­vo­tion is a con­stant ques­tion­ing and rea­son­ing of man­kind and its evil prac­ti­ces. She cre­ates a dis­tance from the world that pla­ces her on this spi­ri­tu­al path, on a quest for cel­es­tial pu­ri­ty and co­her­ence with the Divine.

Artichive: The Realist School

The Realist School, an art move­ment of the mid-19th cen­tu­ry was formed as a re­ac­tion against the se­vere­ly aca­dem­ic pro­duc­tion of the French school. Realist paint­ers sought to por­tray what they saw with­out ide­al­is­ing it, choos­ing their sub­jects from the com­mon­place sights of ev­ery­day life.

Gustave Courbet was the first ar­tist to pro­claim and prac­tise the re­al­ist aes­thet­ic; his ‘Burial at Ornans’ and ‘The stone break­ers’ (1849) shocked the pub­lic and crit­ics with frank de­pic­tions of peas­ants and la­bour­ers. In his sa­tir­i­cal car­i­ca­tures, Honoré Daumier used an en­er­get­ic lin­e­ar style and bold de­tail to criti­cise the im­mor­al­i­ty he saw in French so­ci­ety. Realism emerged in the US in the work of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.

In the 20th cen­tu­ry, German ar­tists as­so­ci­ated with the Neue Sachlichkeit worked in a re­al­ist style to ex­press their dis­il­lu­sion­ment af­ter the World War I. The Depression-era move­ment known as ‘Social Realism’ adop­ted a sim­i­lar­ly harsh re­al­ism to de­pict the in­jus­ti­ces of US soci­ety. — S.A.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014