Aasim Akhtar was fortunate enough to interview Lubna Agha before she passed away. This was one of her last public interviews.
“I like to think my work celebrates the nuances of life. Juxtaposed figures and geometric patterns, as well as strong colours like reds, blues and bright cadmiums represent the tapestry of life, as I perceive it. The ‘Writing on my Hands’ series combines the idea of the material (hand) and the non-material (the meaning behind the lines on the hands) – the physical and the ethereal, the obvious and the hidden,” Lubna Agha
Lubna Agha was an artist who had ‘asked too much’: greedy in her creative imagination, she made art that was both formally and conceptually excessive, in scale, content, material and technique, fashioning visual languages, working with and against the signs of meaning that constitute art’s language to trace the disposition and expressivity of the body. Born in Quetta in 1949, educated first at Karachi School of Arts and later at Sacramento State University, California, Agha lived the latter half of her life in Brookline, Boston, where she held a studio, where the following interview was conducted, and where she passed away in May 2012.
Throughout her career, Agha continued to shape convincing alternative visual scenarios for our encounters with the world; of how the world we inhabit and struggle with and against in our daily lives is, simultaneously, the world of cultural and religious myths, and that these also press, consciously and unconsciously, upon social being. Excerpts:
Aasim Akhtar: How did arriving in the United States liberate your artistic self?
Lubna Agha: Being completely on your own helps. It’s not quite possible to create ‘art’ every time you lift the brush. Yes, you may create a ‘painting.’ One requires a particular space, physical and psychological, to fathom the difference.
Apart from an entire change of venue and lifestyle, arriving in the United States meant ‘being away’ from constant scrutiny. When you get used to showing your work in a specific style that has come to be associated with you, it’s difficult to break away from and experiment with newer media. To explore new possibilities and to innovate may make one feel uncomfortable. On the one hand, one wants to be approached as a South Asian, Asian American, the Diaspora, or Pakistani in the US, while on the other, as none of them; only as an individual. There is a pressure to assimilate the collective culture, which is ironic, given the fact that the American society celebrates individualism!
Back home, one is fed on a Hollywood/Madison Avenue image of USA. One has to be an absolute moron to accept and digest that image. (By the way, that image is not totally inaccurate, either).
The US is like an onion – there are layers upon layers of diverse opinions, attitudes and ideas.
AA: Considering the multi-layered approach of your work, how do you establish the focus of your work?
LA: The focus of my work shifts constantly: personal or political events, news, social upheavals, can all be very inspiring. I tend to go all over the place – some may think it’s not such a good thing – and that helps in keeping my interest alive. It keeps me excited about what I do. Some subjects or themes offer me the opportunity to do several pieces, like the ‘Jaanamaz Series.’ Some end up in a singular work. Once, I feel I’ve said enough, I move on.
I find writers rather fascinating. The acceptance of the discipline to tackle multiple issues and topics in different works is fascinating still. Somehow, writers have a wider allowance to cover the entire spectrum of the infinite human condition, more than what the artists can do.
AA: Do you see your own work as providing some sort of a mystery to the Western viewer?
LA: Even though I’ve lived in the United States for almost twenty years, my work’s not been seen enough here. To say my work provides some sort of a ‘mystery’ to the Western viewer would, therefore, be presumptuous. Unfortunately, in comparison, modern art done by Western artists is even more ambiguous to the wider public. The viewer finds it hard to relate to it or it just fails to speak to the layman on any level, be it intellectual, emotional or circumstantial. One may conclude that modern art is mysterious to the viewer, whether Western or Eastern.
As a matter of fact, ‘mysterious’ should not be the word. My work may have been viewed in a way that was not relevant to the lives of Western viewers. Take, for instance, my painting called ‘Doli’ (The Last Journey), in which a woman clad in a red sari is being carried by men in loincloths over their shoulders like pallbearers or funeraries. The painting may easily be misunderstood and, therefore, become ‘mysterious.’ I have quoted this particular painting as an example because when it was exhibited in California, it didn’t invoke as strong a reaction in the viewers as it did in Bradford, England, where it was shown to a wide audience from India and Pakistan, in ‘An Intelligent Rebellion.’
The ‘Jaanamaz Series’ inspired by Clinton’s last visit to Pakistan is another example. I presume those who are unfamiliar with the politics in Pakistan and its foreign relations, may have been at a loss for meaning. Modern art, by and large, requires an aware and informed audience unlike art of the past, which touched the viewer on a different plane.
AA: Would you care to comment on modern painting, as a whole?
LA: Generally speaking, modern painting has become very exclusive, in my opinion. What’s commendable is that artists have attained absolute freedom; there’s a growing acceptance for a lot of experimental work, be it idea-based, medium oriented or issue-based, and for the way it’s executed, performed or installed. As a result, one sees some very provocative work created on different levels, such as the painting called ‘Madonna’ by Chris Ofili at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in which the artist used cow dung; the American flag by Jasper Johns or some feminist works, especially those by Sarah Charlesworth, etc. They are coherent, dynamic and relevant even though they are entirely different from each other, make different statements and assumptions, and come from very different backgrounds.
But one has to be either an artist or someone who takes art seriously to be able to approach such kind of ‘serious’ art, absorb it and then react to it or formulate an opinion of it. Unfortunately, modern art has lost its broad appeal. In my opinion, it doesn’t play a viable role in people’s lives, anymore, and when it does, it has only a subliminal effect as a ‘design’ on CD covers, fabric and furniture.
All other arts, such as literature, poetry, theatre and independent cinema need some amount of commercial success to survive. I strongly believe that in today’s time and age the museums and the way they receive funding is paradoxical; without them, a lot of art will not be created or survive. On the other hand, museums and art galleries have encouraged art to become ‘remote.’ I remember reading somewhere that as their faith weakened, the Greeks built even bigger temples. To some degree, the museums and galleries today remind me of those Greek temples!
AA: What do you feel about your contemporaries and how is your work different from some of your contemporaries, back home?
LA: Most non-western nations are, especially those that were under the colonial rule and Muslim, going through the process of redefining themselves. It is as if they are trying to see themselves through their own eyes, and not through the eye of the colonial master or the brief glance of the west. That makes me think of a child looking at himself for the first time in a mirror – staring at himself in a stuporous gaze!
I believe, art in Pakistan will take just as long to become a viable force of any consequence, as it would take our society to locate its soul and rediscover its past. Like all other professionals, artists are part of a bigger whole; to create meaningful and vibrant art, we need to have a soul and memory.
Having said that, Pakistani artists are commendable for all the work they’re doing, in a society, which has taken a U-turn from total rejection of the artist to total acceptance of the artist primarily because artists are ‘fashionable’; and where the artists do not find themselves in the most conducive of environments. Given the circumstances and limited access to new materials, many artists are doing work that can be considered ‘meaningful’ in the context of our surroundings. Some women artists, for instance, particularly, think of feminist work as provoking. I do feel, though, there is a lack of ability to comment on a lot of political, social and other serious issues that dominate our lives in Pakistan. I don’t remember seeing any work on Partition, which was an event of huge historical importance that touched the lives of almost every single human on some one level or the other. In contrast, the Holocaust, the Second World War, Industrialisation and the Feminist discourse all affected and influenced the western artist and his creative spirit.
In my opinion, modern art has to be ambitious to be viable. In Pakistan, generally speaking, there has been a ‘push’ to create works that are more style-based than content-based.
AA: How do you feel about being a woman painter?
LA: Some of my work, like ‘Doli’, ‘Three Days’ or the earlier paintings in white, were done from a woman’s perspective. In general, I do not like to be grouped or categorised. However, I am glad to be living in times when being a ‘woman painter’ has become almost inconsequential. It’s acceptable to ‘paint like a woman’, to have a woman’s point of view, but in my mind, being a ‘woman painter’ is no longer an issue of much significance.
AA: Are you able to define the particular character of your work of the last 3-4 years, by contrast with your preceding periods?
LA: Most of my earlier work – the white paintings, for instance – were renditions of a basic concept or idea. I think the entire phase must have lasted ten odd years. Collectively speaking, this phase dealt with personal and feminine issues. Around the same time, Fehmida Riaz was employing similar imagery and vocabulary in her poetry. Those works were a highly stylistic approach to issues I was dealing with!
Most of my present work cannot be labelled easily. As a starting point, I am beginning to incorporate images from Pakistani culture into my work, addressing political, social and personal issues. My new work is meant to define yet also retain my relationship with these issues. ‘Jaanamaz’, ‘Jhanda’, ‘Sarajevo’, ‘Doorways or Windows’ are all visual commentaries resulting from a dialogue with my self – self that, I believe, is part of a larger Pakistani sensibility.
There are several pitfalls in adopting this approach because the multiple, layered focus can digress in various directions, stylistically. But this can also be challenging and interesting. Like Emerson said, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” this approach keeps my enthusiasm intact. I am also moved by images invoked by poetry and literature. It’s interesting to read Tagore and Faiz, and ponder over their use of certain metaphors. It helps to create visual metaphors using their vocabulary as the starting point.
AA: Could you tell us about the evolution of some of the pertinent images and symbols in your work, such as the ‘hands’ or the ‘windows?’
LA: Pablo Neruda while commenting on poetry, once said, “If you explain it, it becomes banal.”
Many artists, such as Paul Klee and Shemza, have used window and/or arch as a motif. It has almost become an iconic representation of Muslim architecture, art and popular imagery. I had wanted to use their form, and see what I could do with them. I have tried to explore this symbol in a metaphorical sense by linking it with past and memory while placing it within an historical context.
‘Hands’ initially began as studies – drawings in either pen and ink or charcoal. I started to think about the lines on our hands, the gestures and expressions conveyed through hands and about the meanings they are supposed to hold – zaahir and baatin. The idea presented itself as a potential one to explore the form further.
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