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In Conversation with Meher Afroz

Hajra Haider: Your life is divided in two very distinct chapters; being a student in India and artist in Pakistan. The time of the shift makes it very crucial; as your formative years, training and education were all accomplished in the first half while the beginning of your professional life starts in Pakistan. How was this transition for you and how did you feel about it?

Meher Afroz: This transition came with contrasting and conflicting emotions; joy, loneliness, freedom, a sense of destitution, and a sense of responsibility. During university, I lived with my relatives as my parents had shifted to Pakistan and I had insisted on staying back to complete my art education. Throughout college I missed my family and longed to be with them again.

Being brought up and trained in Lucknawi tehzeeb, Karachi was culturally shocking for me. When I ventured out to explore the art circle, I discovered that there was no art institution in Karachi. It made me realize what all I had left behind; established system, and an offer for a post graduate degree, my peers, fellow artists and my teachers/ mentors.

Ali Imam had just opened his gallery a few months before my arrival, which was a hub for all the artists. The likes of Sadeqain, Ahmed Pervaiz, and other prominent names, would be found there. Once again coming from a Lucknawi tehzeeb, ridden with respect and humility, it was unthinkable for me to introduce myself as an artist to those senior to me. It was a different culture and I was an outsider.

Alongside there was a nagging sense of responsibility to contribute to the family.  When I started teaching at the Arts Council, I started to get my bearings straight. It took me a long time to settle and find my space, due to which the first few years were non-productive work wise. Even though I have no regrets but I still often wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed back in India, I guess I will keep wondering till the end of my time.

HH: You were trained as a painter from the Government College of Arts and Crafts, Lucknow, India, yet right after graduation when you started your career as an artist in Pakistan, your claim to fame was ‘an accomplished printmaker’. How did that come about?

MA: While in college, I had also joined the Lalit Kala Academy, a printmaking open studio for students and artists. I went to the studio every day after college, that’s where I learnt printmaking and started making my own work.

When I was coming to Pakistan, I came on a visit visa; I could not bring any of my canvases, or materials. But the prints were easy to carry, so they came with me.

In the absence of a studio and facilities and between finding my bearings, I was unable to produce any new work. Thus when I was offered a solo show, I showed my prints.

Printmaking in Pakistan, at that time was limited to lithography and woodcut, which were being taught and practiced in Lahore. Thus my work had novel value. It was my debut in the Karachi art world and my prints made me known as an accomplished printmaker.

HH: Your work revolves around questions of identity; personal, social, spiritual. Observing your oeuvre, one witnesses what seems like a self-representational journey. The questions are posed and resolved within the work. Is that how you would like the viewer to perceive it?

MA: I am not a preacher; I resolve my inner quest and share my conclusions. Due to my experiences, my priorities were set straight right from the start, the path was determined and religion was a strong reference point for me. Recognizing space, location, exploring different cultures, human, values and questioning the meaning of life, these were questions that I started with.

My work is open ended; the question and answer lie within, the meaning changes for everyone according to their perceptions and beliefs.

HH: Your work is rich with recurring iconography, the palette is always restricted and the surface very layered and matured resulting in compositions which at first seem very simple and minimalistic but have a lot of depth, physically and conceptually. Where are these symbols/ icons coming from and why is the palette restricted and contained?

Also in your latest series ‘Naqsh bur Aab’, you have introduced text in your work, which seems to be a focal point in most cases.

Where is this text coming from and how does it add to the work?

MA: Each one of us enters this world with a baggage, which defines who we are.

I grew up in a place which was rich with history, and stories of where we are coming from and where we belong. I think that is the reason for the mature surfaces. I always work in layers building it up so that that it could be worked upon.  Each layer has a meaning and a standing of its own. The iconography that I use is contrived from comparative religions and culture. I filter this knowledge; arrive at similarities so that these symbols contain a universal meaning, understood by all. Every stroke, mark and color is very deliberately applied. For me they act as symbols as well, each holding a meaning and purpose. A lot of research and maturing goes into finalizing what goes on to the composition so that they stand their ground and there is no deviation from what I want to say.

The text is a recent addition in my work. For this series, I have been reading Hafiz and Saadi and have been greatly inspired. I used the words as symbols, which when repeated become a chant hinting at the depth of meaning.

HH: What is your process? How do you start a work and what makes you decide the direction they would take?

MA: Lately I have been drawing, mainly because it is most convenient. As soon as it starts taking shape, the work leads you. I often use these drawings in etching, as I feel that it has the potential of going much further than if I just stick to one medium.

HH: Your initial exploration of identity and search for truth shifted to a critique of society. Yet there are still eminent traces of metaphysical experiences. How and where do you connect the social and spiritual?

MA: The social and the spiritual are not separate for me. Religion is not something which is practiced out of obligation and need. It is a part of my being. For me definitions do not change with roles. As a sister, teacher, artist I have the same values and principles. I am the same person. We do not cohabit in a solitary existence; the constant contact with the other defines us as much as we define them. We are all headed in the same direction even if we have different paths.

HH: Your work has a very local and regional context. Do thepolitics of location prove to be deterrence in its perception if shown in a different location? Especially where the text is concerned?

MA: I hope not. The visual gives access to my work. Quest for truth is universal, and since my concerns revolve around this, I feel that the different layers can be accessed without knowing the language. I use the most potent visuals possible, so that even in a new location, the meaning is still perceptible.

HH: What are you currently working on these days? How is it different from the previous series? 

MA: I always like to explore new mediums. In my new series I would like to include figure with the text.

HH: Being a creative person, if you had not been an artist? Which direction do you think that your creativity would have filtered into?

MA: I think I would have been a writer.

HH: Any unfulfilled aspiration, an unrealized project that you have not been able to achieve as yet?

MA: Acquire enough knowledge to be able to have an authority in the subject. Besides that I have always wished for a well-equipped studio space, which has everything that I can need, and to work without any interruption to my heart’s content.

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