A beautiful despair is a book that highlights the narrative of Meher Afroz, her art and journey through the lens of multiple writers who belong to different disciplines. They have all critically looked at the work and decode the unseen layers in the artist’s work in their essays.
Maheen Aziz in conversation with Niilofur Farrukh, editor of the book, gives an insight into the book as well as puts in words the sweat and effort made by her and her team from concept to completion to the launch.
Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art critic, historian and curator. As the CEO of the Karachi Biennale and ManagingTrustee of the Karachi Biennale, Farrukh has expanded the public art activities in the city with two editions of the contemporary art biennales. She has countless art shows to her credit that she has curated on national and international levels like The Asian Art Biennale, Dhaka, the Tashkent Biennale and Kathmandu International Art Festival.
Maheen Aziz: Works titled Aap beeti and Gulistan Humara are chosen for the book cover, is there any specific reason for choosing these two works?
Niilofur Farrukh: A book cover is selected for several reasons. The main ones being to project the personality of the book and represents its content. Very importantly it should have a presence on the shelf. As the editor of the magazine NuktaArt, I learned the significance of an attractive cover. The works chosen for the cover have come from Meher’s last solo show held at Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi. In the works, she has used Metallic colors like silver and gold extensively along with stitching on Nepalese paper. Her work has always revolved around textures that hint at underlying unrest and turmoil, this provokes the viewer to think beyond the pleasing palette. For the cover, we selected silver which is an important part of her new palate and juxtaposed it with printed textures to create the cover of the book.
MA: The book tells about your and Meher’s friendship but what inspired you about Meher Afroz as an artist and her work to think about ‘A beautiful Despair: The art and life of Meher Afroz’ ?
NF: We are not only friends but she was my teacher at art school and mentor. I have keenly observed her career for 50 years and her rich and layered has always inspired me. Her work is so visually alluring that people mostly talk about the surfaces and technique and the conceptual complexity has been under-discussed. Most importantly Meher Afroz is Pakistan’s significant artist and her story needed to be told.
MA: The title of the book has depth and is interesting yet makes one scratch one’s head that how can despair be beautiful? We would like to know your thoughts.
NF: There is a tension in Meher’s work, a kind of melancholy, sadness and despair yet it is visually beautiful as well and I wanted the title to communicate this contradiction. While reading Zehra Hamdani’s article in the book I came across the words ‘beautiful despair’ which seemed so apt that I decided to use it.
MA: Meher adds Urdu poetry in her oeuvre, and here, in the book, the writers have also begun their articles with poetry which is interesting and connects very well with the work. We would like to know about this idea.
NF: Just you have just said, the writers also felt that the Urdu verse best conveys the sensibility of her work and it came to them naturally. I too have quoted from Iqbal in my article and different writers have used verses from different poets; someone quoted from Tagore. These verses convey a cultural ethos that is integral to Meher’s art.
MA: What perspective do you think the readers will take?
NF: The main objective of the book is to help the reader access the many layers embedded in the art of Meher Afroz through the diverse perspectives of 16 writers. The book is also visually very rich so they will get to see Meher’s work of the last 5 decades.
The diversity of perspectives will connect the readers with their own interests, in the book you can find Atteqa Ali’s piece on Meher’s interpretation of Islamic design and patterns and similarly others have used different lens like feminism, the cultural legacy of Lucknow, instrumentalization of language, etc. Waheeda Baloch’s piece that draws parallels between Meher’s art and the verse of Shah Abdul Bhittai explores new ground. All of this will allow the reader to enter Meher’s work in different ways.
MA: Whatever is in print goes down in history and this book is your valuable contribution to it, what is your take on this? And how will it help the up-coming generations who are pursuing art as their career?
NF: I hope the book will be a positive addition to the existing monographs. The multiple lens used by writers, who come from different disciplines, will hopefully enrich and expand the art discourse. I have tried to present Meher’s art through the perspective of issues of decolonization that she addresses through her art.
This book will also help young artists to be inspired by the trajectory of this extraordinary artist that extends over half a century. Last but not the least; I hope it will also inculcate interest in writing and putting together books on important artists. To date, I have authored one book and edited two books. Each one was different but they all were inspired by the books I read, so I think exposure can be a big source of inspiration.
MA: How important is cataloging somebody else’s work? Especially of an artist.
NF: It is extremely important. In the 1970s artists did not catalog their own work, today it has become better because digital technology has made it easier and we have realized the importance of cataloging and archiving. Much of our artists’ work has traveled abroad and it’s now lost because it’s difficult to track and catalog it, so whatever we have should be carefully documented, cataloged, preserved and available for research.
In this book, we have tried to include works from each period to map Meher’s journey. This underlines her evolution as well as how each phase is marked by different techniques and sometimes the addition of mediums. It also projects changes in the iconography in response to the content. At a glance, one can see the persistence of texture as a common thread. Cataloging makes it possible to explore a body of work and make sense of it.
MA: Who are your target readers?
NF: This book is rich in biographical and critical content so it can engage a diversity of readers. Everyone will have a different relationship with it. Collectors of Meher’s art will read it with a different approach, mostly guided by their own exposure to her work. Artists of her generation will probably get connected through shared memories. Critical thinkers I am hoping will be excited by the extensive documentation and multiplicity of critical readings
MA: Today, the pace of the world is fast and we have a handful of people who actually read, why do you think a book would make more sense?
NF: I am a strong believer in physical books although I was recently involved in developing a digital publication. I think we will always have printed books and monographs will be a way to honor the contribution of people. Pakistan will soon celebrate its 75 years of independence and I can proudly say that we have produced some of the most incredible artists I have seen anywhere. Despite the lack of opportunities, they have risen above all hardships to excel in the field, the art and life of all these people need to be acknowledged and documented through books. Future generations should have access to their inspirational journeys. Technologies may change and expand but a physical book will have a different kind of physical presence and longevity.
MA: How was the list of the contributors of the book drawn?
NF: This is an interesting story. I was thinking of doing a book on Meher for the last 20 years. But I wasn’t sure about writing the book or inviting other writers to contribute to it. It was while I was compiling the articles that I realized how extensively I had written on Meher for the last 30 years, and she was also a part of my first book. I felt writers from different disciplines could add new dimensions and it worked out very well. Not only did I get an opportunity to dialogue with some of the leading critical thinkers of South Asia but their meditations have enriched the discourse.
MA: How much time did it take for you to compile the articles for the book? Due to COVID-19, did you face any difficulties when the book was in the process of publishing?
NF: I was thinking about this book for the last 20 years but back then it was just an idea. I started working on the idea 6 years ago and began the conversation with writers in the book, this early phase took some time. Once I shortlisted the writers it went faster, after the usual back and forth and I began to get the articles some 3 years ago. After this, the most important thing was to get a designer who could do justice to Meher’s work and I entrusted the design to Sabiha Imani, who is familiar with Meher’s work and a good friend. It took another year to complete the design. Remember this is a compilation of 50 years of work and hundreds of images had to be collected and sorted out. Some important works had to be re-photographed. Meher generously gave access to her family photos. Before the design took shape, images that were relevant to each of the 16 articles had to be shortlisted. Since Meher’s art has very sensitive textures I did not want to compromise on the quality of printing and I am really delighted with the way Le Topical has printed her palette and textures.
I started off by having a conversation with one publisher and discussed an Urdu version of the book and also a less expensive student’s version in the future after the initial publication. Unfortunately, their funding did not come through so we had to look for a new publisher. The second publisher had to give up the project due to the Corona Pandemic. People suggested that I try to get the book published abroad, but to me, it was very important to publish it in Pakistan so it could be read here and add to the art discourse. The book is relevant to Pakistan’s history as its narrative weaves through stories of waves of post-1947 migration, displacement and cultural integration. The content is also about a body of art that relates to our collective cultural, political and social experiences which is why I wanted it to have its primary readership in Pakistan. Finally when Naseer Baloch of Le Topical, the country’s leading printer of art books, agreed to be its publishers then we couldn’t have asked for more.
MA: Didn’t you think about getting sponsors for the book?
NF: I feel getting sponsors can get a bit complicated sometimes and curtail editorial freedom. A lot of reflection has gone into conceptualizing the book and I wanted it to reach the reader without any change in its content or design.
MA: Why did you choose to add articles by different writers to speak on Meher’s work instead of her speaking about her journey and art or even an article from her side?
NF: The artist usually creates the work and once it’s in the public domain there is a critical dialogue around it. That’s what the book offers. Meher has given countless interviews and her voice can also be heard throughout the book through quotes. The works are incredibly rich and layered and lend themselves to different readings. The 16 writers that include art critics, filmmakers, fiction writers, social commentators, artists and researchers with their diverse meditations have generated new knowledge and made the book discursively rich.
MA: Do you think that we have a lack of documentation in the arts? What is your take on that? Any suggestions.
NF: Yes, that’s true. The work of many artists has yet to be documented and critically examined. We need serious initiatives by educational and cultural institutions in this regard. All over the world art schools have archives attached to libraries that carry out documentation. Unfortunately, in Pakistan NCA is the only institution that has extensive archives. VM Art Gallery in Karachi has a good collection of books that is available to researchers. We have to create research and documentation centers in every city which should be able to gather material of local artists and art scene. This will facilitate researchers and expand art discourse.
Other than that, our art history courses focus on Western Art History, this needs to change to connect art students with the local art history. We have several art history books and they all need to be included in the curriculum to inform the students that history is not a monolith and each perspective adds value to the discourse.
MA: So where do you think we lack or our institute lack?
NF: Besides lack of documentation we don’t have art publishers. The state needs to offer subsidies on paper and ink to make the printing of books viable. We should also sit with publishers and discuss how we can make art books less expensive so the students and others can buy them.
A Beautiful Despair has been priced very reasonably despite its rich content and excellent printing because our priority was to make it accessible to a wider readership.
MA: That is why we go abroad for art writing residencies.
NF: We need to set up local art writing residencies/ workshops/ study groups to research and study art writing from a local context.
MA: What exciting up-coming project do you have?
NF: The project that I have been doing side by side with the book project is documenting the art history of Karachi. The art history of Karachi has not been documented like the way it should have been, its trajectory is very different and very exciting.
As we discussed earlier this will highlight the contribution of this city and artists to the country.
The project is moving along slowly as archives are not easily available, but now that ‘A beautiful Despair’ has been launched I can focus on it.
MA: Thank you so much for your time; it was wonderful talking to you.