Narrative Interrupted


Veteran artist Meher Afroz mounted an unusual show at Karachis Chawkandi Art Gallery last month. Titled Pindar, the exhibition is hinged on the universal concerns of self and spirituality. Though successful in the maturity of its mode as well as the depth of its message, the show suffers on account of being unable to bridge the two. It is, alas, fraught with obliquity, its narrative allusions impenetrable to the point of requiring verbal explanation.

Trained in printmaking as well as painting, Afroz is widely regarded as a master of both media and persists in bringing them together through her interest in ageing her surfaces to connote the passage of time and the resultant accumulation of experience. Similarly, the paintings on exhibit are in acrylics but are dealt with as etchings: scoured, scratched and scribbled on, dotted and dashed, each painting is built in successive layers of marks. While each mark betrays a felicity that is characteristic of a painterly painter, each layer, in turn, serves to camouflage the plasticity of acrylics and is wrought to give the appearance of a more transparent medium. Thus, as the medium is tamed it comes to be conflated with a shimmering surface.

Afroz also uses decorative frames boarded up from the back and assimilates them into her paintings. The multiple spaces enclosed by the frame are used effectively to isolate and underscore symbols, referencing at once Zahoorul Akhlaques inquiry into the use of multiple frames in traditional miniature painting as well as Jamal Shahs use of windows and doors as painting surfaces. While the parts that constitute the whole are thereby delineated in their isolation, the ground of the painting overflows on to the frame and the dots applied thereon anchor it into the outer limits of the whole. Medium tamed, image cut up and then contained, Pindar is a series about pastiche and painterly self-amusement.

This playful approach to paint remains unchanged in Afrozs work. But the transition that her palette began to undergo in her last show Zindan now stands complete. After a life spent painting in serious browns, the artist freely employs rich reds, plush purples, burnished bronzes and effervescent yellows. This trend in Afrozs oeuvre is indeed unforeseen as it opposes the norm whereby painters move from flamboyant colours to muted ones as their sensibility and its attendant palette mature with time. In her own words, Afroz is giving voice to her “inner vibrancy”. Indeed, the vigour of her colour and the intensity of her marks converge to create the pure visual pleasure that holds primacy in her body of work.

So far, so good! But there is something irksome at play in this show. The same painterly primacy that emboldens the visual in the paintings also mutes the narrative voice. Dominated by seated female figures, the paintings furthermore show their bearded male counterparts, garments, flowers, moons, light bulbs as well as more abstract symbols such as circles and squares. Instead of weaving a web of meaning, though, these signifiers seem to get into a tangle. What indeed does Afroz mean by putting them together? Her message is so mixed up it may as well be encoded in Morse. Indeed, the only cue into this abstruse symbology is the equally perplexing title Pindar, the Urdu word meaning ego or arrogance. So, is the centralised bearded, sagely figure in a large purple painting flanked by female figures arrogant for demanding homage? Is the light bulb that illuminates the figure on the right an allusion to a contrived imagination as opposed to the authentic inspiration of the figure illuminated by the moon? Apparently not!

Asked to explain herself, Afroz pontificates on the vices of ego, which she bemoans as the mark of her times on the one hand and her own yearning for sophistic self- annihilation on the other. The bearded men, she adds, are Sufis while the garments represent the garb of wool or surf donned by them from which the term itself is derived. For their part, the flowers denote the purity that the artist hopes to emulate, the moons the celestial bodies that reflect the light of knowledge and the light bulbs the materialism Afroz seeks to debunk. Ah. The paintings, then, are about self-deprecation and wish-fulfilment. Suddenly they are doubly powerful.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask a painting to make a narrative point at all, let alone illustrate it clearly. In fact, Afroz claims she shirks from the illustrative painting that delivers its message literally. That said, the ideas that this class of art embodies should at least be conveyed subliminally if not through the active interaction of symbols that so obviously seek to connote something beyond the visual sensation they elicit.

Yet the paintings in the collection neither emote nor do their symbols relate in any meaningful way to each other so that they may narrate with minimal clarity. Rather, they just titillate the eye. In fact, the very form that provides the visual pleasure of the series also enhances the displeasure of encountering disparate ciphers in this show of cryptograms. These self- consciously crafted symbols are isolated by frames into stasis and therefore obfuscate the content that girds their intent. Replete with elusive allusions, the paintings thus ask too much of the public by way of clairvoyant interpretation.