What It is to Be Human: Meher Afroz – RM Studio Residency
What It is to Be Human: Meher Afroz – RM Studio Residency

Having a conversation with the artist Meher Afroz, about her month-long residency with Studio RM, was more than just a warm cup of soulfulness. A conversation about love, family, beliefs systems, history and the art of living itself are what define the works of the artist. To be able to articulate what her works are, and what they intend to represent, is a journey that take you to the core of what keeps humanity alive. A road that is as far reaching as the history of civilization, but the beginning and the end always being love.

It is not every day that you come across an individual who has shaped and given wings to the visions of future generations. Not just as an educationist of art but also a constant reminder of what life is about. Values that make us human, love that makes us whole. “Ishq” above all else, without which we would be but dust.

Such is the life of Meher Afroz, who is not only an example of staunch commitment to art and education but is also a student of life itself. To speak of her work is an attempt at encapsulating a vastness that grows deeper with every word. Words that become a part of her paintings in text that is written, metal carvings and the process of layering and repetition. To be recognized for their own continued flight and evolution of artistic endeavor over six decades and continuing to create a visual language that writes its own dictionary.

Meher Afroz at the Studio RM residency, Lahore. November 2023

The Studio RM residency, is a program that is designed to nurture and enrich the arts and culture of Pakistan. The artist Meher Afroz, better known as Meher Apa, was invited for the residency with the intent of bringing into the spotlight, the elders of our society who are the foundation of culture, art, education and above all the highest levels of principals that life should be led by. The love for education and life itself was what birthed this residency into being, a platform that pushes art beyond the limitations of visuals. Studio RM and RM Naeem himself have been at the forefront of creating new platforms for budding and established artists as well as becoming a bridge between them and galleries in order to highlight what is hidden in plain sight.

The residency culminated in a solo show titled Imkaan, at O Art Space in Lahore, where the works quietly sat in strength and humility. A life spent giving, and a legacy celebrated.

While nourishing the contemporary art scene and budding new talent is a necessity, the pioneers of the art world today, themselves sit comfortably and quietly cheering the youth on. In inviting Meher Afroz to the Studio RM residency, the idea was not just to create a moment of silence for the artist to be able to create in peace; it was also an endeavor to share her with future generations and spread her words and philosophies with as many as possible.

The cross-over between art and life, are seen and heard in both her art and her philosophies of life. Born and raised in Lucknow and moving to Pakistan has left a lasting impact on her. The old school etiquette that Lucknow is known for, blossoms in her words and demeanor and the softness and resounding resilience that her work emanates.

Speaking with Mehr Apa about the residency, her work and her experience was an outpour of love itself. The energy and care with which Naeem came and cared for her needs and engaged her every minute in activities while she was in Lahore was exemplary. Arranging lectures at multiple universities, studio visits for younger artists to benefit from her experiences and continuous socializing was a pace that Meher Apa constantly had to keep abreast with.

The positivity and the welcome that was so evident wherever she went, was overwhelming and reminiscent of the warmth and hospitality of Lucknow of olden times. The limitation of time and the pressure of deadlines aside, to show up in front of the canvas everyday uninterrupted, was the pleasure this residency provided for her.

Imkaan Series 5, acrylic on canvas, 18x18 inches, 2023

She approached painting the figure after long time— a challenge, but something she had been wanting to revisit for a while and decided to take on during her time here. We all can be very self-critical as artists about our own work especially in isolation. Artists can’t give paintings a direction or force it to go a certain way. How to train the medium to say what the artist wants it to say, even after six decades of practice, are all ingredients that make them strive harder.

For her non-figurative work, she had bags full of materials, dyed paper, stitching needles, threads, words carved in metal, and anything else you might need, is what she carried with her. The last were the visuals that came as she sat and created through layers of emotions and the histories that we carry within us.

When you find a moment to yourself at night right before retiring, and you analyze your own actions, those can be such supple moments of truth. Those moments where you realize that maybe you were a little at fault and a little out of line as well. Maybe you could have done things differently. But because we are in such a rush to gain wealth and fame we don’t always bother to wait and breathe. Social pressures to look a certain way and drive a certain car may become a big problem for some. You could either not care or fall prey to such expectations. The world being full of greed for power, wealth and popularity which creates so many problems that are man-made problems not created by nature.

However, if our training as children was along the right lines, we would have gratitude for what one has and no complaints about your troubles. The upbringing in today’s world where we no longer follow the religious ideologies of how to raise children. Where a seven-year old is to be treated like a king and you are their slave. From seven to fourteen you can only advise them on what to do and from fourteen to twenty-one you can only be a friend. You forget to hug and create the security of touch with our children in today’s world and lay expectations on them that are so heavy that the child cracks under pressure and retaliates. Discontent in society has spread so much with labels of poverty and privilege— what choice will people have than to rebel? These problems are in our system now. The world order hasn’t changed. The senses are the same, the sensibilities are the same but our way of dealing with the world is what has changed.

These concerns are what she wants her work to talk about as well. Where she takes historical world events like the Karbala and converse with them. Events that actually happened and dictate the world order. Historical, religious, meaningful events that have been recorded and still stand to be relevant in our times. For her this is not a religion, it is the entity— Imam Hussain, who is everything for her.

She respects artists and writers and poets but it is the events of Karbala that inspire her to make work. He made the greatest sacrifices to teach society a lesson. The greatest lesson in her mind that no author or poet can parallel in her view. Talking about Buddha and Ashoka and the civilizations of Gandhara and Mohenjodaro as well, but her own history and religion are what evoke love, fear and respect in her. She talks about her respect for other religions of love a lot as well, but they can’t dictate her practice the way Imam Hussain does. He proved to the world through his actions how to lead and preach love. How Hazrat Zainab replied with gratitude in times of grave adversity, that she had found nothing but beauty in life. That we were chosen to bring truth to light in our lives by Allah.

Society does not progress with money, but with love. The smile of a child is what comes with our humanity, humility and actions. This love is what her work tries to reflect. All relationships are about love. It’s not that her sisters and friends don’t have differences of opinion, but it is all about how we respect each other. How guests used to be considered a blessing and the entire family came together to cater to them. These values are what she wants her work to represent. It is not just a visual that she wants to create for the sake of creativity but a lesson on life, love and history that is being lost in the progression of the world.

The title of her show Imkaan offers hope to how we perceive the world and how we can choose to remain positive in the world still. The reason that society still survives is the optimism that art offers. It is not a conversation of good art or what good art is. It is the idea that art has the capacity to reach beyond the senses.

Imkaan Series 8, acrylic on canvas, 18x24", 2023

Technically speaking there are colors and processes that lead you to the visual. Whether abstract or figurative, the work is about finding expressions through strokes and deconstructing the obvious. Making a distinct figure that is recognizable for the artists style, is not about being realistic. How every individual is different, similarly every artists’ idea of representation is also different.

The text used in the works themselves are words representing emotions and faith which the artist wants you to feel. She does not want her intent to be interpreted in anyway other than what she wants to say. Her words are used with intent along with the mark making that is expression in itself. When we don’t know the process that leads to the final image, the understanding of the artist’s intent might get lost. Thus, her use of words like “iman” and “ishq” are very specific in order to lead the visual in the direction that she wants. Like Karbala is an event of love, but the process involved in it is recorded in its entirety with a plethora of emotions involved in it. The war, the loss of life, the pain and suffering and the heavy heartedness of its memory. However, the idea is to be able to respect what happened and to acknowledge and understand its significance. To be able to leave the self and to accept the history of humanity as part of your very being. Every word is a message in itself. Speaking of the event of Karbala and the bravery in the name of love is what defined it.

Imkaan Series 10, acrylic on canvas, 18x60 inches, 2023

Imkaan, as a word, varies in meaning from person to person, as do her colors in both moods and meaning, from one painting to the other. The layers of reds and blues have been applied layer after layer until just right. There no longer is a name for the hue because the process makes each color an individual self.

To talk about her work can only happen if you take all of humanity, society, her belief systems and religious history in its entirety. It is a process in itself to understand that her work is as intertwined with the history of Karbala as the closeness of breath and life itself. If only the soulfulness of the conversation could be felt, it would need all the layers of emotions in all their colors to get to the exact tone, where the color no longer has a name but becomes a sensation.

The residency took place in October of 2023 and the show was held in O Art Space November 24, 2023 till December 4, 2023. We move towards a new chapter of the Studio RM Residency 2024 in October of this year.

Images courtesy Studio RM residency and RM Naeem. All images are copyrighted and cannot be used without permission of Studio RM residency.

Title Image: Imkaan Series 2, acrylic on canvas, 18×18 inches, 2023

Saulat Ajmal, b. 1984, is an artist, educator, writer and curator. She went to Virginia Commonwealth University for her Masters of Fine Arts and Hunter College New York for both her undergraduate degrees; Bachelors of Fine Arts and dual Bachelors of Arts in Sociology and Studio Art. While she has studied and practiced in the US for most of her life she now lives in Lahore, Pakistan and teaches at the National College of Arts as a permanent faculty member. Her practice includes paintings, performances and installations that investigate the overlapping of social constructs such as feminism, religion, sexuality and the idea of the ‘other’ in a rapidly evolving global society. Where form and function are at odds with rationality is where her works enter the space of the feminine sublime. Her writing and curation further this research through the lens of contemporary art and criticism and culminate into public events and publications.

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