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Agony and Ecstasy

Author: Salwat Ali      Publications: Newsline - Artline (p.132)      Dated: May 2008

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Felt experiences, provoked by external realities or as manifestations of personal beliefs, are essentially subjective in character. Chawkandi Arts two-person show, featuring Mussarat Mirza and Mehr Afroz, centralise on this individuality. As inhabitants of a country rocked by turmoil, both have expressed their stance in a vocabulary that is representative of their established oeuvres. Mussarat Mirza, searching for answers within the dictates of faith and religion, emotes from the heart while Mehr Afroz indulges in a cerebral dialogue to document and rationalise injuries to the soul.

A resident of Sukkur, Mirzas art has always been informed by the underlying mystical presence in this land of the Sufi saints. She paints an ethnic environment of pilgrimage sites, shrines, mosques and mausoleums, with the intention of portraying an atmosphere of transcendence. Other than this al- lusive architectural imagery, faint traces of religious devotees, as shrouded figural images, is her only acknowledgement of the physical world. Loosening her ties with the material and the tangible, she produces art that inclines towards the atmosphere and ambience of the other-worldly to establish her quest.

Taking into account the theory of a divine spark in man, her work reveals itself when viewed in the perspective of a visionary world where the artist is seeking a higher state of being. In the Islamic context, while all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to God and will become close to God in Paradise – after death and after the Final Judgment – Sufis believe that it is possible to become close to God and to experience this closeness while one is alive. Among the arts, music and dancing have played a truly spectacular role in creating such spiritual transcendence for the Mawlawiyya in Anatolia. Collective remembrance of God (Dhikr), listening to music (Sema) and dancing (Whirling) to intensify the effect of the music are known stimulants towards acquiring an exalted state of inner harmony. However, the art of painting requires deeper engagement as it does not lend itself as readily to the spiritual exercise. Pictorial representation carnarrate a state of ecstasy or define the tempest within, but semi-abstract modulations as those painted by Mirza require enhanced awareness of mysticism and, for viewers, the ability to read her nuanced expression.

Almost monochrome and caught in a haze of tonalities with slight variation, a Mussarat Mirza canvas needs to be absorbed for the effect it aspires to create. Shadowy enclaves, illumined by faint strains of light or radiant beams slicing through dark recesses, speak of a seekers search for enlightenment. This is further accentuated in her titles like Teri Janib, Rah me tere, Har ja tu, Safar and lntezar.

Technically, she has not broken fresh ground. Her forceful but spontaneously applied strokes still mimic the impressionistic mannerism where forms were generalised rather than defined to convey feeling. However, her colour palette sports some bright hues in this new series of lworks; but the overall temperament of her works is still the same. In a large canvas, Haq tu, she has handled the subtler luminosity of shady areas with considerable deftness and succeeds in creating the daze of one in a trance.

Layered with meaning, a Mehr Afroz artwork speaks on many levels. Informed by Urdu prose and poetry, folk heritage and memories of life in Lucknow, her art has always resonated with human emotion. Moving away from complex abstraction towards relative clarity, she now resorts to forms and figuration to address her concerns. Using a coded vocabulary of Symbols, she builds narratives that speak like pages from a personal diary.

Referring to her current show as a “chronicle of my times,” she documents the upheaval within. The nails, pins and needlles in her Dastawaiz series signify the hurt and pain one is constantly subjected to in a turbulent society like ours. Encountering violence, terrorism and aggression on a daily basis can confuse and desensitise the public, but then there are those who cannot snuffle the voice of their conscience. Afroz paints this inner struggle that is destroying the fabric of life. Her mute figures, alienated and estranged, stare vacantly at the viewer. Verses by Faiz Ahmed Faiz do not just echo past disruptions but reinforce the gravity of the present chaos.

For Afroz, the focus has been mainly on spiritual and moral lapses in human nature. She makes ample use of floral references to signify the loss of innocence, freedom and integrity and to signal hope and courage. Dismembered hands and feet, spearheads raining on blossoms, masks hovering over profiles – are cruel juxtapositions that disturb and disconcert the viewer. Visuals from her Poshak series are equally bleak. Her soof vestments (woollen robes worn by Sufis) also record a spiritual and moral depletion. Devoid of a noble human presence that once ensured their sanctity, they are novv mere empty robes – like bodies without souls.

Mehr Afrozs work is visual evidence of ceaseless probing into the general self and in her present series she comments on the repercussions of societal chaos on the human psyche. The terminology is intensely personal and the onus to understand is on the viewer.