Active, Reflective and Dynamic

By Saira Danish Ahmed | December 2020


A Beautiful Despair: The Art and Life of Meher Afroz, is a compendium of analytical essays which pays particular attention to both the subject and craft of Meher Afroz. Conceived and edited by Nillofur Farrukh, the book looks into and positions the artist’s deep-rooted praxis through a seamlessly woven and effortless set of writings which expound on the creative and artistic fervour that Afroz’s work represents.

A variety of conversations ensue on a space, both palpable and abstract, to engage in conceptual and concentric discussions on the visceral quality of Afroz’s artwork which pursues hope, meaning and purpose on the one hand and a sense of bedeviling tension on the other. An intensity which silently feeds on and grows from a sense of geographical displacement and the consequent instinctual pull towards spirituality, becomes a recurrent theme. Afroz’s intrinsically complex practice, which reflects her sense of longing and her desire to belong, is illuminated, documented and hailed by the sixteen contributors who provide vivid historical and pragmatic insights on how expectations were astutely and incisively replaced by the desire to thrive. Of how the artist overrides resilience through thriving and rises to the circumstantial challenges rather than becoming affected by adversity of an unknown place and culture, focusing entirely on centeredness and growth. Through ‘thriving’, the artist not only re-examines the self but also motivates herself to function at a higher level.

Soon after migrating to Karachi, Afroz began her formal art practice at a time when Modernism was at its peak. Being independent, spirited and full-blooded, the artist did not conform to producing art stereotypically fixated on misogyny, suppression and feminist ideals simply because she couldn’t, given her nature. In her introduction to the book, Farrukh elucidates on a number of trajectories the artist embarks upon, including philosophical and erudite traditions and the powerful approach she undertakes to question the continuing tensions of colonization, not to mention the artist’s effortless method of creating a distinctive cultural blend with contemporary art. However, one trajectory that cannot be overlooked is the artist’s own inner conflict and struggle that arose from displacement.

The generous use of Urdu poetry meandering its way through the book serves as an allegiance to the multi-layered nuances that string together a visual, visceral and textual discourse. The arrangement of the essays is non-linear to calculatingly avoid a sense of chronology so that the thesis remains active, reflective and dynamic. Spread over 167 pages, the book comprises a sizeable introduction, sixteen essays, plates of intriguingly composite and captivating works of the artist, photographs of Afroz taken over recent years and those borrowed from her personal archives.

The hard-bound coloured edition becomes an exclusive publication, making connections between intuitive dialogue, technique and form, poetic traditions and investigational narrative. Distinguished art critics, writers and practitioners, including Salima Hashmi, Aasim Akhtar, Amra Ali, Savita Apte, Salman Asif, Laila Rahman, Atteqa Ali, Niilofur Farrukh and more, have contributed towards the materialization of a valuable archival resource. For Farrukh it was crucial that the person who was entrusted with the task of designing the book equally responded to the sensibility of the artist’s work and, with this merit in mind, she invited Sabiha Imani to design it.

The challenge Farrukh faced the most was to get a local publisher to invest in a book on art. After extensive premeditations with publishers, the mission almost seemed accomplished and then the pandemic lockdown occurred. Publishing firms either refrained from taking on any new printing jobs or completely shut down. This setback did not weaken Farrukh’s commitment to her long-standing project and she continued in her lookout, unabated. Propitiously, Naseer Baloch of Le Topical Pvt Ltd realized the importance of the book and then, as they say, the rest is history.

Books on Pakistani artists have to be conceptualized, to materialize in ways to allow possibilities for research and groundwork. To make a place for themselves and get their presence acknowledged in the compendia of museums, libraries and on the shelves of bibliophiles. In recent years there has been a progressive growth of curators, writers and critics writing on art; what we need now are publishers with a vision and aficionados of Pakistani art.

While the conception of this book leisurely brewed and incubated in Farrukh’s head over the last twenty years, she has had the opportunity to publish two other books – Pioneering Perspectives (1998) and Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade: An Informal Cultural History of the 1970s (2019). The first focused on three pioneering women artists viz, Meher Afroz, Nahid Raza and Sheherezade, and the latter, which she co-edited along with Amin Gulgee and John McCarry, brought into the spotlight 40 artists and 40 writers to talk about the cultural landscape of the 1970s. An artist’s monograph, A Beautiful Despair: The Art and Life of Meher Afroz is a first for both the editor and the artist.