Karachi is a resilient city. In the early ’70s, when the gloom and pallor of a war gone bad overtook the nation, the city shed its darkness with a string of heartening activities. Poets came alive and the great ghazal maestros of our time immortalised their melodies for enraptured audiences. Artists breathed a fresh eloquence in their paintings, the media gave them the recognition they deserved, and enthusiasts crowded exhibition venues. The swinging ’70s saw a gallant effort by the city to turn the worst of times into the best.
The exhibition entitled “Renaissance Women” is a celebration of the art of those times. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it aptly highlights the contribution of a group of bright young women artists to the nascent Karachi art scene in a decade which witnessed tumultuous changes.
The decade heralded a period of unprecedented creative artistic activity in the city. The Arts Council became the hub of cultural activity, with a regular roster of art exhibitions and music concerts. Foreign cultural centres such as the Alliance Francaise, Pakistan American Cultural Centre and others regularly presented shows by local and international artists, and a few commercial galleries made brave beginnings.
The great upheaval of 1971 saw the departure of Bengali painters from the art scene, barring a few. A few big name painters dominated the art scene — Sadequain and Guljee were staple Karachi elements and firebrands such as Ahmed Pervez and Bashir Mirza were prolific contributors.
Art critic and seminal painter Lubna Agha’s widower Yusuf Agha reminisces on the women artists of the ’70s who grew into a force to be reckoned with and paved the way for a younger generation
Even though Zubaida Agha had exhibited in Karachi as early as 1948 and Laila Shahzada had made a name for herself by this time, male artists dominated the art scene. But largely unnoticed, a silent revolution was brewing. Unlike the contemporary vocal and restive Women’s Liberation movement in the West, a group of determined young female artists were wresting their way into the art scene. Starting with participation in group shows alongside their male counterparts, they came into their own with significant ‘one man’ shows, as they were then called. These trail blazers unabashedly grew into a force to be reckoned with and paved the way for the plethora of women artists who exhibit shoulder to shoulder and canvas to canvas with their male counterparts today.
However, it was not always thus. Karachi did not have an art school of its own, and sulked in the shadow of the art school established by the British in Lahore — read the National College of Arts (NCA). The Zuberi sisters — Rabia and Hajra (Mansur) — deserve credit for seeding Karachi’s academic art movement. Both were trained artists in their own right from the Lucknow College of Arts. In 1964, they had set up a small teaching studio in their house in Nazimabad. “Young people knew nothing about art in those days,” says Rabia Zuberi. “There were schools in Lahore, but Karachi had no such institution. So we took up the challenge and set up the Mina Art Academy.”
“Once we set up the school, we waited in suspense for students to join,” recalls Hajra Mansur. “And then a petite gifted teenager named Lubna Latif (later Agha) walked through our doors. I often wonder what would have happened to our school if she had not turned up!” Their Mina Academy grew into the Karachi School of Arts (KSA). Since then, hundreds of artists have passed through their portals, some of whom became accomplished artists. Soon Rabia’s sculptures and Hajra’s wash paintings became regular features in the sporadic art shows in the city.
In 1971, Lubna Latif (Agha) had a seminal one-person show with 60 abstract paintings filling the spacious halls of the Arts Council. Soon after, she won second prize at the prestigious National Council of Arts competition. Noorjehan Bilgrami felt that “Lubna’s paintings caused the same sensation as did Fahmida Riaz’s poetry in those days.” Like Lubna, other KSA students of that era who were destined to attain national fame were Sumbul Nazir and Riffat Alvi.
About this time, the Arts Council set up the Central Institute of Arts which attracted talented staff and a number of students. Noorjehan was studying at the NCA in Lahore. She remembers there were more girls than boys studying in both institutions. “The environment at the Arts Council was open, liberal and had a feeling of modernity as compared to Lahore … I decided to shift back home and join the Arts Council where high energy exuded.”
"Young, vibrant and talented, this enlarging group of women continued to grow and make a significant impact on the local art scene. There was little attention given to the peculiar challenges that women generally faced in developing countries then and even today.”
The Central Institute produced Nahid Raza, another prolific artist. Two new infusions to the Karachi scene were Meher Afroz from the Lucknow University and Qudsia Nisar from the Punjab University, both of whom went on to teach at the Institute.
Young, vibrant and talented, this enlarging group of women continued to grow and make a significant impact on the local art scene. Qudsia remembers those days: “Some of us bonded together as a league of our own. To be successful in a man’s world, we had to be bolder than the male artists. Of course, it was a restrictive society, but our inner spirit was timeless — we worked as if with one soul.”
There was little attention given to the peculiar challenges that women generally faced in developing countries then and even today. There were family issues — Sumbul found herself as the head of a household with younger sisters to support and Qudsia had to relocate to Karachi to attend to the needs of her ailing mother. Logistic problems abounded — there was always the elusive rickshaw to be found, compounded with the problem of returning home after a late evening opening of an exhibition. There were also social issues — rubbing elbows with male artists, searching for paint supplies in crowded streets, and bargaining with inexperienced framers to name a few.
And there were artistic issues — modern art notwithstanding, there was the taboo subject of the nude, and that too painted by a woman! Sumbul and Nahid dared into this forbidden painted forest, and critics searched for female forms in Lubna’s ‘Paintings in White’ series.
“We together forged a strong bond,” reminisces Meher. “We didn’t allow society to dictate us. Even in the latter part of the decade, in the Zia years, we never compromised.”
These renaissance women continued their journey undaunted. When the artist movement in 1971 took up an issue with the Arts Council for better artist representation in 1971, this group of women artists was in the forefront.
As modern women, unafraid to mingle and speak their minds in a society dominated by men, they often attracted admirers within the art community — both welcome and unwanted! There were some marital liaisons. Mansur Rahi and Hajra were married, artist Maqsood Ali wed Nahid, and I was fortunate to win Lubna’s hand.
After an art exhibition, evening papers would publish spreads of the inauguration – often a sketchy write-up accompanied by pictures of female art admirers, frequently ignoring the paintings themselves!
The early art writers were men. Sultan Ahmad, Muhammad Jami, Akbar Naqvi and I wrote for various periodicals, and art reporting became a serious matter. The earliest female writer was Marjorie Hussain, a pioneer in her own right. She was followed by a distinguished line of female writers who dominate the art criticism scene today.
Group exhibitions began to give way to one-person shows, and Nahid and Qudsia credit Ali Imam for being one of the foremost mentors of women artists. Both recall how Ali Imam’s Indus Gallery exhibited women artists alongside their male counterparts in group shows, and when he felt their work was mature and they were prolific enough, he encouraged them to have one-person shows in his gallery.
Ali Imam held the first all-women group show featuring 14 women artists, most of who are represented in the current exhibition which is being held almost four decades after the landmark show. Critiquing the Indus show at that time, Dr Akbar Naqvi wrote in an article ‘The Fair 14’ in Herald, January 1981: “Some of the most promising painters at work in Pakistan today are women, not men.” It was a tribute to the achievements that these young women had made in a decade.
This exhibition attempts to answer the question: where are these women artists today?
Rabia Zuberi’s sculptures paved the way for her ‘People series’ paintings, representing groups of people against stark but colourful backgrounds — figures that are reminiscent of her sculptural elements. ‘Rabia Apa’ as she is affectionately called in the artist community, continues to be active in the art world, both painting and gently nurturing the KSA into an ever-growing institution. These paintings form a part of the show.
Hajra Mansur lives and works out of Islamabad as an accomplished wash painting artist of national renown. Two of her works are exhibited in the show.
Nahid Raza is a prolific artist who continues to challenge her audience to think. She has been principal of the Central Institute of Arts. The works she is displaying are fresh from her ‘Portrait of a Woman’ series.
Riffat Alvi has had a 30-year career shaping the VM Art Gallery from a forlorn small studio into one of the largest art spaces in Karachi, mentoring fledgling artists with art competitions and shows, and holding major retrospective shows. She is represented with her earth-inspired paintings.
Noorjahan Bilgrami is a multi-faceted artist, who etches paints and designs textiles. She is one of the founders of the Indus School of Arts, and successfully runs the Koel gallery.
Meher Afroz has painted consistently over the years, producing exquisite works of art. Her current showings are paintings done on delicate, transparent, multi-layered paper.
Qudsia Nisar continues her work as an artist and educator, having served as principal at the Central Institute and head of the fine arts department at Bahawalpur University. Her paintings on display are from her ‘Paintings for Peace’ series.
Sumbul Nazir and her sisters migrated to the US, where she lives with her husband and son. She has not visited Pakistan to show her work for some years now, and unfortunately her work is hard to locate.
Lubna Agha: We — Lubna and I — migrated to the US in 1981, where she studied art and had several one-person shows in California. She returned periodically to hold one-person shows in Karachi. Unfortunately, her career was interrupted in its prime with her passing in 2012. A major retrospective of her work was held at the VM Gallery in 2016. Three of her watercolours are on display.
I have had the privilege of knowing and following most of these artists personally over the years. They are talented and brilliant women, many of whom are recipients of coveted national and international awards — including the Pride of Performance by the government — and have shown in galleries and biennials around the world.
Art critic Amra Ali writes in ‘Women and Recent Art: Some Thoughts’ for ArtNow: “The contribution of women artists … comprises many stories of celebration, resilience, resistance and inspiration.” This exhibition celebrates the brave band of young women artists who overcame the odds to become torch-bearers for successful female artists who followed them almost seamlessly into the art world. Together, they broke the glass ceiling with their collective efforts and helped make Karachi a cosmopolitan artistic hub in its own right.
“Renaissance Women” will be displayed at the Chawkandi Gallery, Karachi from March 13 till March 19, 2017
The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Lubna Agha, one of the leading lights of the women’s renaissance
Yusuf Agha, who curates the current show, was an art writer for Herald in the ’70s
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 12th, 2017