An artist is like a diamond, with different dimensions. A teacher, a mentor, a painter, a reader, a friend, a family member, an ordinary citizen etc. And in every role, the creative personality is distinct due to its uniqueness and individuality. Meher Afroze is a significant name in this regard. She taught for many years at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, is recognized being one of the leading artist of this country, and exhibited regularly in the country and outside. She has influenced a number of artists, inspired her students, and contributed to the world of art and literature with her presence.
It would be interesting to know earlier and formative years of Meher Afroze. After her arrival in Pakistan from India in 1970 (she graduated from the Government College of Art Lucknow), she practiced her work in Karachi, exhibited in the city, and since 1973 started teaching at the Central Institute of Arts in Crafts, Karachi.
The power of perception in her work makes Afroze a painter relevant for all times. Although she hardly exhibited her realistic or naturalistic work, but her canvases created with precision of mark making, strength of stylization, and sophistication of surface testify her maturity of an observer, who gathers information from her surroundings, translates them and transforms them into works of visual arts, which like the elements of nature, appear real, believable – almost physical, because artist’s care in rendering her subjects and pictorial element and makes her work tangible – almost eternal.
At the beginning of her career Meher Afroze was more recognized as a printmaker. Before migrating to Pakistan she participated in two exhibitions in India (Lalit Kala Academy, Lucknow, 1970, and All India Graphic Exhibition, Calcutta, 1971). She won a prize in the category of printmaking at the National Exhibition of Pakistan in 1972. She also took part in ‘Asia Today’, the International Graphic Exhibition which was inaugurated in Milan before touring to various European cities. She also held solo exhibition of her prints at the Art Council in Karachi, and her earlier works reminded of surfaces of Mohenjo-Daro seals. These prints and later etchings indicated the artist’s passion for texture. The imprints of metal wire mesh, fabric, and other objects contributed towards the sensitivity of surfaces, often created as collograph prints. Talking about her process, in her interview published in the 50 Years of Visual Arts in Pakistan (1998) she shared: “In my painting layers and textures convey idea of time, when you want to change the content, you change the medium. As sound and accent can speak about your feelings, thoughts and attitudes; texture can be read similarly. What I want to say is reinforced through texture.” She also incorporated patterns of different kinds in these works, so these prints appear heavily laid surfaces to be dig and deciphered. Like an archaeological site, ruin or abandoned land. These also suggest antique artefacts with coats of times on their outer side.
Salima Hashmi commenting on this aspect of her work, writes: “Meher’s work has evolved slowly from being sensitive to motif and texture in the early years, to very intricate statements with images in mysterious and complex relationships. Known initially for her prints, which were mainly collographs, she chose to indicate these ideas through interpretive cityscapes over which the moon or sun presided.”
The later period witnessed a shift in her imagery, mainly derived from her observation of her surroundings: physical, social, cultural and religious. In her earlier series of paintings – the Mask Series of 1986 and the Portrait Series from 1989, she painted a number of portraits of people from the region. Observed, rendered and composed as if she was documenting the living history of a place; she infused love, emotion and feelings in these canvases. Their features, colour of skin, style of hair, and dresses recall a place that is particular, but can be understood as universal, since the regional identity gave way to a humanistic approach. Although they were from this region, but were not confined to a certain geography.
This approach blossomed in her works based upon Shiite iconography: torn shirts, flowers, bloodied garments, but more than the religious imagery, her work depicted her inclination to represent women, in their situations and surroundings. From the Niche Series of 1997 one can gather the artist’s position on a female living in a conventional society. Talking about her work, Afroze said: “My work always comes from emotions, including human values. All these are recorded within oneself, intentionally and naturally; some things fade out, some are brought out through emotion and tradition”.
Discussing these aspects in his book Image and Identity Akbar Naqvi observes: “The issue that Meher Afroze engaged in her painting was not motivated by gender conflict, though what she painted reflected her woman’s sensibility.” However, she continued to explore the territory of womanhood through her richly fabricated canvases, in which women, either clothed in normal attires, or without a piece of fabric assert their presence in a society that denies their right, place and position. But in the way Afroze speaks, her work is also soft, yet firm, polite yet clear, visually engaging yet thought provoking.
Her ideas about self, society and situations have been translated into a symbolic and metaphoric idiom. Using geometry, minimal marks, and sensitive surfaces she makes works which encourages a viewer to see beyond the depth of surface and reach to the complexity of ideas. Her work is a testimony of a person’s life long search and commitment to art, and at every stage of her life, she has continued to pursue her personal concerns without pressures from outside, may those be of gallery, collectors, or art market. Her unique vision is reflected in the way she works, by building layers and layers, by interconnecting marks, and by using colour to its maximum spiritual and pictorial value. These works, reveal her interest in geometry as a representation of reality, and that reality is built, formed and felt through various coats of paint, strokes, lines and shades that lead to remarkable textures – inviting not only to see or touch them, but these also enter into and are etched in our visions. Describing her process Meher Afroze, one of the most important artists of our country, revealed: “Before the white surface I start by staring at it for a good while. White paper is a complete joy. I work with layers. Normally on paper I give two, three washes to bring out the colours. I do sketches to form the idea but I never have the idea of the ultimate image. It is gradually formed, it is redrawn, erased. It passes through many changes.”