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The price of departure

I received Lubna Agha’s obituary almost two weeks after she passed away. It also took a week or so for the news of her death to get through. It is interesting to note that despite the fact that she lived in the US for three odd decades, according to a quote by her biographer Marcella Sirhindi in the obituary, it is her contribution as a foremost female painter of Pakistan which will live on.

There is sadness in this reality, for Pakistan has mostly been generous in according recognition to its own, but the same cannot be said of the adopted country where one may provide security and material comfort but issues of recognition and identity are more complex and hard to come by. Pakistan has seen a tremendous brain drain for decades and both the individuals and the country have had to pay the price for this departure.

I have three distinct memories of Lubna from the early 1970s. I was an art student during those days of artistic resurgence encouraged by progressive values. It seemed the country was determined to move forward after the debilitating tragedy of 1971. Lubna in her usual attire of white shalwar kameez with a ‘bandi’ sans dupatta was strikingly unfeminine and seemed to be consciously underplaying her femininity to privilege her identity as an artist in a milieu dominated by men. I remember her regular visits to Arts Council during her three-person show with Ahmed Pervaz and Aftab, a lesser known artist whose surname I cannot recall.

Also fresh in my memory is the impact of her solo show in 1973 at the newly opened Indus Gallery, Karachi, which created a stir in the art community. The potent feminist voice that had emerged had pushed the subdued presence of women like Zubeida Agha and Laila Shahzada forward and taken the art pundits by surprise. The canvases with their icy landscape, evocative of the body, revealed trauma with crevices of red. Loaded with sexual connotations, it was this courageous and serious art that propelled Lubna Agha, the young graduate of Karachi School of Art, into the forefront.

A part of this recollection is the new admiration one could see in the eyes and hear in the voice of her peers as Lubna’s formidable talent was acknowledged and expectations from her grew. This was the time she chose to marry and shortly afterwards left the country and we never got to see art from her that matched the much talked about solo of 1973.

In the early 1990s when Zohra Hussain announced that Lubna had sent her a few of her recent works from the US and invited me to see them, I must confess my strongest reference were her white works. The polychrome canvases with nature and man at its centre that arrived from the US, made me realise that time and experiences had managed to separate the artist and her Pakistani audiences. Maybe our expectations were too unrealistic: to expect to see the intensity and urgency that she brought to the art scene of the 1970s. These, more meditative works were from a Lubna tempered by fresh cultural encounters and alienating every day realities in her new homeland. The rupture was apparent, and yet in a few works shown in subsequent collections, the defiant and uncompromising spirit of the artist managed to reach out.

The ‘Doli’, a huge canvas with an almost life-size woman in crimson carried by men clad in white loin cloth against a blue background with its unsettling quality alludes to ‘dowry death’ in South Asia that had hit the media headlines. Unfinished /unresolved as the oblique strokes of broken lines frayed on the outer edges of the composition, it suggested an insidious subtext to the last rites of the victim of greed. Another of her work that I happen to come upon by accident in a private collection recently, conveyed a similar disquiet. The shrouded woman saving herself from an attack by menacing crows, to me, could easily be about her struggle with cancer. The ominous image that projects anxiety has a space that seems to expand with the encircling flight of the birds and also narrows into a vortex with the crouching woman with her arm shielding her, as its focus.

I met Lubna for a long chat on one of her visits to Pakistan. The life she seemed to have carved out for herself in the US was one that gave her satisfaction now that her children’s lives were secured with good education and a stable future. During our exchange I remembered Bashir Mirza’s words that it’s very difficult for a sensitive artist to live away from his/her land. I have seen it create a conflict born out of experiences and priorities that widen the distance from one’s own people. For some, nostalgia becomes a permanent abode, while others begin to seek a universal understanding of what was once subjective and particular, but the gnawing guilt takes away their sense of completeness.

To my generation that saw Lubna as a trailblazer, with her departure we lost the intense energy that she created with her courage and commitment that radiated a new consciousness. For her to be taken out of her milieu, even if by her own choice, meant realigning her creative compass that never really found its true meridian again.