I have met Meher Afroz on numerous occasions, but this is the first time that I have set foot in her residence. It is afternoon and I find the space around me to be cozy, dimly lit and comfortable. I anticipate an engrossing conversation with one of the most intellectually stimulating artists of our time.
Around me, the walls and the floor are adorned by a wonderful art collection. I am excited to see a rare sculpture by the late Mian Salahuddin, mellow landscapes by Musarrat Mirza and many ceramics from the ASNA Clay Triennial. There is only one work by Afroz on the wall, a series of palimpsest prints from the ‘Scarce Water’ series (2019), and we begin talking by exploring their significance.
“The painted waves in blue in the print are telling us about the environment and the passage of time,” Afroz says. “This work incorporates a silver foil that is continuously eroding away — ‘maturing’ — as it is exposed to open air and thus the material’s actual ageing speaks volumes about how water and its dearth impacts us.”
Curious about her studio practices, I ask her about her printmaking processes. “I collect and save material, especially paper, from everywhere,” she says with a smile. “In the beginning, my prints were figurative, when everyone was involved with calligraphy, but I think that phase has passed. Now, my work is more abstract, and I like to think that the artistic process should reflect the traits of the medium that is being used to make it. Just like the prints and media of the ‘Scarce Water’ series.
That time will inevitably pass and shape human behaviour (and art practices), brings me to ask Afroz about the early days, when she had just begun to explore opportunities in printmaking in Karachi.
A conversation with one of the most intellectually stimulating artists of our time
Afroz’s move from her beloved home in Lucknow in India in the early 1970s, which has significantly impacted her art practice over the years, is a well-explored subject, also taken up as a point of departure by many essayists in her latest monograph. The urban ambience of Karachi of the early ’70s differed from that of Lucknow where she was educated. Home to many ‘nawabs’ and a luxurious art heritage, life in Lucknow often followed a peaceful routine.
“Every other household [in Lucknow] was a training centre, that imparted traditional knowledge, manners and skills to its inhabitants,” she says. Thus, ethical values that were based in religion and humanism were deeply inculcated in young Afroz when she moved to the lively Karachi, which was different than the city she had come to cherish.
“I knew no one when I moved here. I was unaware who to reach out to, and that too for printmaking — a practice that was not very popular in Karachi four decades ago. The people in the city were new to me and their interpersonal dynamics in the metropolitan space were different and more informal than the people of Lucknow. Gradually, these differences, or behaviours, let’s say, have sprung in mysterious ways in my art, over the course of many years.”
I ask Afroz if she ever considered herself an artist representing both locations. She says, “But my work is not to be considered as ‘diasporic’ art, for the latter is a cliched and reductive term for my practice. I am a Karachi-based artist and, as my practice has evolved, I continue to return to the civil values and discipline I was brought up with in Lucknow back in the day.”
Afroz has been instrumental in introducing printmaking to Karachi. She began teaching at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (CSAC) in the ’70s and has imparted her experience of the arts to many at the Indus Valley School (IVS) of Art and Architecture.
“I have learnt massively from my students over the years. [But] students must be patient. They have got to focus ethically on their practice and not run after only fame to acquire a ‘celebrity artist’ status,” she says.
Valuable advice for all endeavours, I think.
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, January 31st, 2021