A Karachi School of Art graduate from the late 1960s, Lubna Agha had her first solo show in 1969. Living in the United States since 1980s, her works amalgamate a modern-abstract style with traditional Islamic art motifs, using large wooden pieces as her canvas. There is a meditative and repetitive quality to her work, the kind familiar to the art, architecture and manuscripts of North Africa, the Middle East and also the subcontinent.
Recently, the National Endowment of the Arts in America showed Agha’s works on the covers of two poetry anthologies. The “Art in Embassies” initiative, a project exhibiting artwork within embassies as part of a cultural diplomacy effort, has also acquired her works. Agha’s upcoming show in February 2012 at the Gardiner Art Gallery at Oklahoma State University will show her new works and a small collection of pen drawings and watercolours from the 1980s. Here she talks to the Herald about how her Turkish travels inspired her work and why the political and spiritual has driven her creativity.
Q. Using dots and symmetrical patterns, you have chosen a style akin to writing in fine print. Does it take more effort to produce art works of this nature?
A. This style of work is definitely very time consuming but when an artist is involved in the creative process the quantity of artwork produced is not, or should not, be an issue. The slow meditative process where every brush stroke is a conscious action is in itself conducive to the kind of work I am doing.
Q. Did your travels to Morocco and Turkey inspire you to use wood in your works?
A. Yes. Before visiting these places I was not aware of creative work done on wood. There were whole ceilings, walls and doorways, particularly inMorocco, where wood had been painted. But wood has its limitations – different types of wood behave in a variety of ways in various climates – so I still use canvas for my larger works.
Q. How challenging has it been for Pakistani artists to tackle censorship or backlash when political concerns are unmistakably visible in their work?
A. As far as my own political/social views in my art are concerned, I haven’t, fortunately, experienced any censorship or backlash. However, when Colin David exhibited nude paintings at his house inLahorein 1990, students from a rightwing political party destroyed several of the works. In 1984, Iqbal Hussain was not allowed to exhibit his canvases that depicted the prostitutes of Lahore.
During the late 1970s, paintings that were suspected of having references to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging or political executions were labeled objectionable and not shown in public. Ijazul Hassan and Salima Hashmi were banned from state-sponsored exhibitions because they addressed issues such as military dictatorship, political oppression, religious fundamentalism and suppression of women.
But this sort of censorship from the 1980s has almost dissipated and there is an overall sense of openness as to what you can write and how you create art. At the same time, society in general has become far more conservative and intolerant. One wonders how many artists and writers censor their own works. In Pakistan, the issue of censorship is quite complex. It is not simply censorship versus total freedom, as it is in the West. Artists and writers are part and parcel of this society and, therefore, how they deal with truly expressing themselves and at the same time remaining a part of the society is a balancing act.
Q. The question of identity is important for art practitioners today, whether working out of Pakistanor living in diaspora. How have you dealt with that in your work?
A. Over the years, I have dealt with various topics in my work, spanning over several decades and across several themes — such as political, spiritual and gender. I have to admit I get bored with the idea of dealing with the same concerns year after year, decade after decade. After all, I live in a dynamic world; I have evolved and grown, and my self-perception and the world I live in shifted over time. My art is like a journey with different destinations and different choices. I am at a place where I am not dealing with the “political” overtly. But let us remember that all art and literature is political on some level by its very nature.
I am somewhat weary of the trends in art in the western world and also in Pakistan. My observation is that in most instances – though not all – artists succumb to a western narration and western point of view. For instance, women’s issues and the increasing Islamisation of society have in recent years been extensively addressed by Pakistani artists because the West has focused its searchlight on these issues. Admittedly, these subjects are very valid concerns in their own right, yet there are issues such as class differences, child labour and population growth as well, many of which are reaching devastating levels, but they are rarely being raised.
Q. What are the themes in the body of work for your upcoming exhibition?
A. Some of the motivation behind my present work is to counter the images and narrations about the Muslims. Perceptions that have emerged over the past decade are negative. Diversity among the Muslims has been ignored to a great extent. Applying an infinite number of painted pixels and organic shapes that evoke mosaic tiling, intricate carvings and ornate metalwork, my intention is to evoke an emotional response to things and places from our collective past. The process of creating this work is also meditative, labour-intensive and very slow, almost in complete contrast to the times we live in.