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Painting a Niche

Author: Dr. Akber Naqvi      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.140)      Dated: April 1997

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Meher Afroze journeys into the realm of the goddess of memory in her new Niche series of vivid paintings. To lend her endeavour thoughtful intent, though, one must bend ones mind to play with meaning.

The word niche implies a place that is empty unless it is filled with something. In Urdu, a taq is a small recess in a wall, quite different from the European niche. It is a place of convenience where things are stored safely beyond the reach of meddlesome children. The Quran is kept here, or a lamp, or even dry food in traditional Muslim households. Obviously, Meher Afroze has no use for such a recess unless she stowed her dolls there once upon a time.

The word recess itself, even as the Urdu taq, carries the weight of memory and is associated with, say, the recesses of the mind. However, translating taq into English as niche causes some problems. According to the New Websters Dictionary, a niche is any recess in a wall in which art objects are kept to decorate a room. Whereas in Hindu culture, a niche normally holds an idol of the deity worshipped daily. Both meanings apply to Mehers paintings.

The Niche series evokes the idea of decor and simultaneously refers to the idolisation of a self embellished with memory. But the cultural sweep and thoughtful reach implicit in this play with meaning are subjectively restricted in the actual images. As statements, the pictures affirm little more than the stereotypical feminist conceptions with which our women have been asserting their space.

Unlike Nahid Razas preoccupation with the plight of abused women, Mehers work is not grounded in a social context. At best, what comes across is a sense of pathos, the vagaries of a life wasted because it was-to translate an Urdu saying literally-“put on the taq and forgotten.” Our memory is nevertheless jogged by the work, although the taq itself has little to do with this process. What is familiar is the artists obsession with a particular technique of ornamentation, which she applies to canvas as well as the heavily worked wood panels, like shallow relief, on which many of her images are rendered. Unfortunately, the design of the wood panels is difficult to decipher because sharp lights are trained on the work in the gallery. As such, one accepts these paintings as a kind a braille for blind emotion knocking against images clothed in vivid colour.

The great poet, Ghalib, sublimely exploits the hollow of the taq and its void in the couplet: “Yad they hum ko bhi ranga rung bazm araiyan/ Lekin ab naqsh-0-nigare taqe nisyun ho gaye” (ghazal 112). If Meher Afroze had this ghazal in mind, she would have found the taqe nisyan and evolved her own technique of keeping mere memory at a resplendent distance. The theme of irrevocable loss and the imaginative remembering of that loss would have acted as point and counterpoint, and a sense of tragedy as well as decorative self-indulgence may have been allowed to maintain their respective integrity.

In an earlier exhibition of imaginative recall, evoking her days in Luck now before she came to Pakistan, the artist could be said to have interpreted visually another of Ghalibs couplets: “Bus ke roka main ne aur sine mein ubhrein pai bu pai/ Meri aahein bukhiue chuke gariban ho gaein ” She called this work the Tawiz (amulet) series, and invoked the memory of a culture which included Ghalib as much as the fine Hindu Urdu poet, Chakbast, through whom we learnt of Ramayana and other Indian legends with the sulahe kul or deep understanding of the Muslim heritage of the subcontinent. Had she called that work the Taq series, she could have given it a sharper focus and clearer cultural underpinning.

Mehers problem is that she wishes to appeal to the buying elite, who speak English without knowledge of the languages literature, yet take pride in calling the national language of this country a foreign tongue. However much they may admire her work, one wonders if such an audience understands or empathises with her memories.