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Quiet Intensity

Author: Saquib Hanif      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.164)      Dated: Nov 2001

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Meher Afrozs success must remain something of an enigma for her more liberal women colleagues. Without lamenting the fate of the hapless Zainabs of the World or decrying the chadar and chardiwari, she has not only managed to gain a reputation as a thinking artist but an increasingly marketable one as well. The fact that Afroz does not stand in the thick of what is grandiloquently billed as feminist discourse doesnt mean that her art is devoid of social context and relevance.

On the contrary, since her first major solo exhibition in 1987, she has been hailed as an extremely sensitive artist who is deeply critical of the anything-goes moral climate characteristic of contemporary society. In this vein, Afroz has over the years focused on a number of issues, including hypocrisy in her Puppets and Masks Series, spiritual bankruptcy in her Amulet paintings and egocentrism in another collection titled Niche.

Besides its value as social comment, there is much else to recommend Afrozs art. Rooted firmly in the history and culture of the subcontinent, her Work provides an alternative to the Eurocentric trends creeping into Pakistani art and helps us recall a part of our history that is fast receding from memory. Moreover, unlike a lot of other artists who are veritable art factories, Afroz takes time over her work, gradually building up the surface with layer upon layer of paint in order to elicit the maximum response and expression from the medium.

All this was in evidence last month at Chawkandi Art where the artist showed her latest collection of paintings and prints titled Zindaan or imprisonment. As Afroz explains, she uses the term as a point of -reference to look at a society that is held hostage by its lust for power and a blind acceptance of norms, values, practices and beliefs, without any thought to their true meaning or intent. Speaking in a language rich with symbols, the artist seeks to reveal the emptiness that lies at the core of such an existence.

Our constant hankering after power is highlighted in the line-up of empty chairs or the courtly tunics worn by missing subjects whose identity has been eroded by their position. Recalling Afrozs earlier work; one figure sports seven masks, one of which has fallen off.

Meanwhile, another reclining female figure pulls at a section of the moon, as if appropriating from it what she needs. Such is the manner, Afroz seems to suggest, in which we use values to suit our own convenience.

In a separate group of paintings and prints, the artist presents a host of very ordinary images to question whether we truly appreciate the spirit behind them. These include the rose, the universal symbol of love, and the alam or standard, traditionally used to represent the tragedy of Karbala. Walking in a Moharram procession behind the alam, do we really understand the nature of the sacrifice made by the Martyrs of Karbala? Or are we blindly following rituals because we are imprisoned by our mindset? So far so good – Now to the not-so-good – Though Afroz appears to have made a distinct departure from her earlier series, there is an element of rehash in some of her current Work, perhaps to ensure good sales. Similarly, one notices a hint of dilettantism and ornamentation, especially in the display of some paintings on the cute mini easels. In putting together a large body of work for the exhibition, particularly by her standards, Afroz also seems to have compromised on the overall coherence of the series.

Consequently, several paintings and prints, despite being interesting by themselves or in groups, strike a discordant note. In fact, some of them have to be really shoehorned to tit the central theme. That said, an artist deserves to be judged on their best Work. And here Afroz clearly does not disappoint.

Many of the paintings boast a sensitivity of thought and technique that show Afroz at her best. Derived entirely from our own cultural and historical heritage, the artists iconography brings to mind a host of associations, lending a distinct resonance to the work. Afrozs eastern sensibility also appears to infuse a restraint and quiet intensity to her paintings that comes as a pleasant change to the must-say-out- loud ethic embraced by many of our artists. Ironic, isnt it, when muted tones become difficult to ignore.