Karachi in the 1970s was experiencing a time of great social and political upheaval – much like in the rest of Pakistan. With the country reeling from the separation of East Pakistan into the independent nation of Bangladesh and the subsequent years of restrictions under the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, the arts became a medium to lift people out of the unending gloom. Art galleries opened up, presenting works from the prolific painters of the time – from Sadequain to Gulgee and many others. But conspicuously missing from these displays were the voices of female artists.
However, not ones to be left behind, a group of nine gifted young women soon challenged the status quo and began to break into local art circles. Among them were sisters Rabia and Hajra Zuberi (now Mansur), both trained artists from Lucknow who founded the Karachi School of Arts, the city’s first art school, and their students Lubna Agha, Sumbul Nazir and Riffat Alvi. After group exhibitions for these artists at painter Ali Imam’s gallery, one-person shows soon followed. These talented women soon won national acclaim for their work and, being the pioneers of their time, paved the way for mainstream art education as we know it today.
Therefore, it is entirely fitting that for International Women’s Day their achievements have been celebrated. “Renaissance Women”, a week-long exhibition of the works of these prolific women is currently underway at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi.
They were breaking through in a male-dominated artscape – vying for shows, experimenting and daring to touch upon taboo subjects like nudity
For curator Yusuf Agha, the exhibition holds special significance. Not only has he witnessed the struggles, hard work and perseverance of these women, he happens to have been married to one of them, Lubna Agha, an acclaimed abstractionist. The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Lubna, who passed away in 2012 in the United States.
“This is sort of like a collection of my memories put together,” says Yusuf on the opening day.
These women can be considered feminists of their time. They were breaking through in a male-dominated artscape, vying for shows, experimenting with and modulating traditionally established forms and daring to touch upon taboo subjects such as nudity – all the while paving the way for other women artists.
“I call it a quiet revolution, a renaissance of sorts,” says Yusuf. “They are silent heroes. If they hadn’t done it, saying to themselves that it is too hard to get a show, maybe there wouldn’t be as many young women in art as there are today.”
The exhibition has brought together the works of Nahid Raza, Noor Jehan Bilgrami, Meher Afroze, Rabia Zuberi, Hajra Mansur, Riffat Alvi, Qudsia Nisar and the late Lubna Agha. With the exception of Agha and Afroze, everyone else was present for the opening day.
From her series “Let Peace Survive,” renowned arts educationist Qudsia Nisar contributed three watercolour pieces to the exhibition. Nisar mostly paints non-figurative abstracts in watercolour, a breakaway from traditional figurative painting. The latter, she explains, are generally clear landscapes and portraits.
“The ‘Renaissance’ refers to that time when there was a breakthrough in art, where new forms and freedoms were introduced,” she says. “We are being thought of as the people who played that role in their individual capacity. And that is very true.”
But as Nisar recalls, the road to success is usually rocky. “We had to face a lot of opposition. People didn’t appreciate us, they didn’t think of our work as art and would say this is ‘ruining’ art. But there was truth in our work, so we did well,” she said.
The exhibition gives space to a variety of themes in all kinds of media: oil, watercolour, silverleaf, etchings and charcoal.
Using black and white in her series “Portrait of a Woman”, Nahid Raza explores longing, love and loneliness. Her figures are women on a black canvas, sitting by themselves in deep thought.
“The color is flowing on her. It’s like the woman is melting. Love melts her – the love of children, of parents and of siblings. That’s what happens to a woman when she loves,” says Raza.
In another piece she leaves the head of a woman on the ground, replacing it with a fish – a symbol, she says, of women’s productivity and their ability to bring forth life like the fish do in the seas.
“People didn’t appreciate us, they didn’t think of our work as art and would say this is ‘ruining’ art. But there was truth in our work, so we did well!”
Standing in front of the painting Yusuf Agha, the curator, has a somewhat different outlook. He thinks about what a woman’s place is in society.
“Is she supposed to be a non-thinker and that’s why her head is on the ground? Or is it because she is supposed to look after household affairs like food?” he wonders. To him the painting speaks about the inequality in domestic life. A husband and wife may both work, he points out, but at the end of the day it remains only the woman’s responsibility to cook and take care of the kids.
Lubna Agha’s work revisits the concept of fish as life-givers in watercolour, “Women and Fish.” Women are prominent in her work, though her figures never touch the ground.
Yusuf explains that as an immigrant, Lubna never really put her foot down in any other soil. “Her soil was always Pakistan and that’s how she shows it in her work.”
An omnipresent theme in several of the paintings is violence and the need for stability and peace – highlighted both in Riffat Alvi’s figuratives, painted with sand and charcoal, and Nisar’s bright, abstract watercolours.
Alvi, curator of the prestigious VM Art Gallery in Rangoonwala, used pale whites, deep blacks and reds to comment on social woes. Her figures in the “Silent Souls” series are clad in white,performing their religious duties, but standing under a bloody sky.
“We go there (the Holy Sanctuary), we stand and we pray, but you see the sky isn’t blue, it’s red. It shows that despite doing all our religious duties we are still living amidst bloodshed and violence,” she said.
On the other hand, with brushstrokes that look like wild winds, Nisar envisions what the world looks like without peace. “It shows entanglement. Life is entangled. It’s in chains,” she says. “This work speaks to the importance of peace and we have to be the ones to let it survive through our art.”
The opening day brought together several of these pioneering women under the same roof and highlighted their significant contribution to contemporary art in the last four decades as artists and later as educationists. The exhibition continued until the 18th of March.