Novera Ahmed and her sculptural legacy
Rhetoric and Dialectic alone of all the Arts prove opposites; for both are equally concerned with them. – The Art of Rhetoric: Aristotle
Novera Ahmed is a mysterious name – a modern-day legend part of which is her own creation and the rest heaped on her by mostly perplexed admirers. It is not that in her lifetime there has been that much of a discourse around her – efforts that may be deemed necessary for an artist to occupy a place in history. Circulating mostly through words of mouth, myths around her persona continued to misinform the artistic circle since her departure from the art scene in Dhaka at the end of the 1960s. Few mainstream tracts loaded with interjections also fed our wild imagination in the last thirty or so years – one even speculated Novera's untimely death in 1995.
However, there are other reasons which make our plodding difficult as we attempt to trail the shadowy patches of the life and art of this legendary artist. First off, it is her lifestyle, which appears to be antagonistic to prevailing social norms, which prepared the seedbed for speculation. Her entanglements with men who became her consorts and mentors as she went on to lead a life of a bohemian, independent of social strictures also generated a sense of awe. Novera's artistic dimensions flowered at a time when it was not easy for a Bengali woman, let alone a woman artist, to forge a life in the vein of the Western libertines. Sculpting pursued as a vocation too seemed to have been difficult in a milieu of social and artistic constraints in the then East Pakistan. The second reason is her embracing a life of seclusion abroad, at a significant phase of her life, severing contact with the thriving cultural environment of her homeland right before the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. The other issue triggering the myth might have been the social and political reaction caused by her turning down an award as part of institutional recognition – the Ekushey Padak, in 1997. As she stayed hidden from public view, cloistered in an exilic life abroad, her absence translated into utter negligence – on the one hand we can say her works had fallen into disuse, and she herself came to be presented as an object of dispute over her stature as a pioneering artist, which she certainly was, even if one evaluates her in the context of modern art practice in the Indian subcontinent.
Novera not only became a locus of claims and countercalims, but her separation from her home as well as her works let loose a plethora of misperceptions. In the weekly Bichitra, in a column on October 17, 1997, Ikhtiyar Chowdhury wrote that Novera would not speak in Bangla when they met, neither could she write Bangla. She distanced herself from the expatriate Bengalis in Paris. According to Mehboob Ahmed, had she been offered a teaching position in the Art College, Novera might have settled in Dhaka. But Novera's total silence in these matters has further mystified these speculations.
The biggest question rising out of this context is why there is no archive in Bangladesh to conduct research on Novera. Only two informative nodal points are on offer which are worth delving into – Novera Ahmed a book, which is a collection of writings on Novera, edited by Abul Hasnat, and the Bengal Foundation production The Creative World of Artist Novera: Na-nanyate, a documentary film.
In Na-hanyate, Anna Islam declares she had met Novera a number of times towards the end of her life. According to her 'Novera was unwilling to return to the country for personal reasons', though she did not offer any clear elucidation on the nature of the 'personal reason'. In the same documentary artist Lala Rukh Selim mentions two reasons – the difficulty of pursuing an independent lifestyle and an innovative art form in a prohibitive social environment, and secondly the disappointment of not gaining appreciation from other contemporary artists which felt like injustice to her identity as an artist. Though Lala Rukh Selim's logic seems infallible, the situation can be viewed from another angle. If we search into history we will find that though the Dhaka art school saw its inception in 1948, the real art education started in 1954, with the establishment of the then East Pakistan College of Arts and Crafts in its own building at Shahbag. Novera returns to the country in 1956 when the level of excellence of this newly established institution might have been questionable. But apart from this circumstantial disadvantages, the unique artistic sensibility which Novera introduced to the then nascent art scene contrarily had ennobled her image as an innovator. Then how do we construct her artistic identity without understanding the individual?
Sculptor Novera Ahmed, according to some researchers, was born in Kolkata during the time of British India. Though Patrick Amine, who wrote a piece on the sculptor, available at the web portal Exporevue, provides a different account. 'She was born during a crocodile hunting expedition in the world's biggest Mangrove reserve located between the Ganges and Brahmapoutra,' he wrote. Novera's father Syed Ahmed was stationed in Kolkata. Her ancestral home was in Bangladesh, in the Asker Dighir Par area of Chittagong. There are controversies over the year of her birth as well. Mehboob Ahmed, in the book edited by Abul Hasnat, put on record her birth in 1930 which Rezaul Karim Sumon seconds. On the other hand, writer and researcher Faizul Latif Chowdhury's estimate says it is 1939 (?), a fact that tallies with Wikipedia, quoting Bangladesh-born French writer Anna Islam. Although such differing listings of the year of birth of artists appear both in the Western and Oriental biographies, but a staggering nine years of miscalculation can be attributed either to the artist's own penchant for secrecy or to the outmoded research methods in Bangladesh. Therefore, the deduction from these two approximations establish the year of her birth in the thirties– placing the growing up stage of her life within the British colonial era.
After the Partition in 1947, her father was posted in Comilla, and Novera got admitted in the Comilla Victoria College. Later, after her father's retirement, they started living in Chittagong and Novera studied for some time in Chittagong College. Her marriage to a police officer did not last long, after which, despite her parent's insistence, she did not agree to remarry. The family wanted her to study law but her interests lay in dancing and fine art.
In 1950 Novera went to London where she got acquainted with the BBC journalist Nazir Ahmed and through him, with his younger brother, Hamidur Rahman, a student of the Central School of Art in London, in 1951, Novera Ahmed enrolled in the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, taking the National Diploma in Design course in the Modelling and Sculpture Department, and completed the four year course in 1955. Notable among her teachers was the Principal of the Department of Sculpture, Karel Vogel. In 1954, Novera Ahmed and artist Hamidur Rahman went to Italy where they met Aminul Islam, a Bangladeshi student pursuing higher studies in Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze in Florence during 1953-1956. Here, with the help of Dr Karel, Novera got training from Venturino Venturi, and in the same year, during the Christmas holidays, visited the museum of Rodin with Hamid and then returned to London together. So, it is in Europe that Novera achieved a fusion of her knowledge and art. In June of 1956, Novera and Hamid both returned to the then East Pakistan to begin their respective artistic careers.
In 1947, the subcontinent was divided along religious line and the partying communities, Hindus and Muslims, were forced to consider their home either in Pakistan or in India depending on their religious identities. Both Bengal and Punjab were in tatters as millions were displaced and hundreds and thousands killed in the wake of a spate of riots that rocked the regions. The retreating colonial rulers were happy to leave behind heaps of corpse alongside the legacy of divide and rule. Both the new countries retained the social, political, economic and legal infrastructure of the colonial era. The prevailing atmosphere of turmoil born of the Partition, the pre-Partition and post-Partition Hindu-Muslim violence, the cataclysmic famine of the fifties – these are the scars that continue to plague the social body in this part of the world. However, these wounds had never been reflected in Novera Ahmed's work. It is not a crime to not commit oneself to an artistic language which might be addressed to social-political turmoil. Perhaps the artist did not want her work to crystallize around any specific concept. Whatever the reason for such detachment, she had consciously kept herself aloof from the field of politically motivated art. We can vouch for the claim that she followed only her academic as well as intuitive knowledge in the field of creativity, since her earliest artworks are contained within that formula. Being educated in England, she adequately imbibed the ethos of avant-gardism – one which grew out of the structurally deconstructive language of Picasso and lent an additional thrust in the harmonious coexistence of volume and absence of volume in Henry Moor. Especially noticeable in the works of sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth is the formal dynamics of mass, surface, form which are made to enter a coordination after an astute estimation of the emerging object and its place within the surrounding space. As is the case with all other modernists working in synchrony with the dominant strands of the Parisian avant-garde, Novera too was influenced by its development. What Novera learns from studying the formal dynamics of modern art, which quickly became an international phenomenon, is that form itself assumes the shape of a language. Perhaps, this is the reason why she never attempted to illustrate social and political themes. For her, to situate the language in the context of the region also meant reworking of the form by variously borrowing from rural cultural inherences. Perhaps in the intersection between avant-gardism and traditionalism lay the key to her praxis that saw its creative profusion in two consecutive decades – the 1950s and -60s.
Looking closely at the developing trajectories of modern art, we can see that the enmeshing of two or more artistic traditions inaugurated by Picasso et al, often leads to the birth of a new genre. The failure to achieve this is but a limitation on the part of the artist. In the case of Novera, features of the tepa putul or hand-made clay dolls of Bengal were brought into alignment with the formal rigour of modernity, thereby opening up the possibility of the 'new'. And this is one of the conclusive factors to be considered before one starts to speak about Novera.
Everyone agrees to the fact that Novera is a modern artist. Then the question arises, what type of modernism does she represent? We can assume that Novera's artistic imagination is rooted in the idea of modern constructivist art of which Brancusi was an extension. The early constructivist conceptualization was basically couched in the geometric forms employed in dispassionate reserve, whereas Novera's work can be dubbed as minimalism of a conceptual nature –a method she internalized during her studies in Europe. Sculptor Novera was steeped in the inspiring styles of the artists who, after the World War II, worked under the shadow of Picasso and Brancusi.
She was simple, maybe a little naïve, the way Moore and Hepworth were simple in the nature of their work –their awareness of an object resulted in an emotional awakening so that the object was translated into a language saturated with feeling. The expression ‘naïve’ entails an unqualified submission to the realm of feelings, without striating them with cognitive nuances. This simplicity/naivety is discernible in her sculptures of the Composition series. At a casual glance, they may seem a simplified version of early Moore, because Novera did not deconstruct Moore's structure, rather assimilated it in her simple renditions. Henry Moore's take on the subject of 'mother and child', inspired by primitive specimen as seen in Dogon sculptures, etc., yet rendered variously in his signature graceful dimorphism, or in semi-abstract figuration, one is able to trace the aesthetic superstructure which Novera aspired to construct. The Mother and Child in Saint Paul's cathedral, London, representing Moor’s signature lumps-in-motion abstraction which rests on the principle of what Herbert Read called 'tactility' of modern sculptures had its counterpoint in the pictorially inclined versions. A series of work created as homage to the Neolithic obsession with the same subject matter dates back to the early 1930s, belongs to this latter category. One is able to detect the modern diction with global appeal in these creations.
As has been declared by James Hyman in the pretext for an exhibition, '[a]t the forefront of this was the use of shared visual languages, a concern with the form in space and its movement…. (Henry Moore and The Geometry of Fear). So the issue of 'influence' can only be seen in the globally circulated ethos of sculpture making during Novera's time when the European modernity entered this clime via many other artists in search of a new idiom. However the archaic quality plumbed by Novera separates her from her European counterpart. Perhaps the static yet culturally potent objects – the clay dolls of the region – made her resign to a line of creation which resided in between her learning from Europe and an understanding of her own context.
Novera's Composition, especially those that prioritize visual-tactile unity and represent movement of forms, recalling Moor's craft, can be viewed from different angles. By placing holes in the figures or objects, she provides a scope for an enmeshing of presence and absence (of form). This type of sculpture has two different effects: firstly the object comes out of its isolated existence to become a part of the given space and secondly the empty space within the figure is occupied by another space echoing nature itself. Both the art object and its background merge to become one and the refraction of light through the hole, the additional beauty of another aspect of nature, enhances the aesthetic appeal of the figure or the object. It is like sedimental formation, layering the actual sprawl of nature with one created.
The dehumanization techne popularized by Picasso entered the idiom of Henry Moore, and at times assumed an architectonic form. It flows around the centre of gravity, carrying the shape, and expression of what it imitates. The abstractness of the human form, which is the result of the dehumanization process, is a lesson Novera learned from Europe and brought to bear upon similar abstractness identifiable in regional rural clay dolls. This process of sublimation demarcates the artist's areas of operation, lending a historical perspective to the development.
One may go back to the same trope to underpin Novera's innovation – her forms were mostly vertical and erect. Unlike Moor's, structurally light – never lumpy. For example a giraffe-like elongated body with a taut head creates a tension because the height of the figure makes the balance precarious compared to its point of gravity. In Novera's modern stylized construction these forms are made to host the simple postures of Bangladeshi rural art – the terracotta finger-pressed dolls. Then how are Novera's sculptures modern? Those dolls of the folk art are made of clay, hence fragile, and also modally realistic – somewhat like still-life. Novera's art is of a different nature. The material she used was cement, combining architectural durability with her structural simplicity, she gave her plain shapes a sense of permanence. She remains unique in her ability to create beauty by elevating the shapes from the confines of reality to the realm of art. Philosophically speaking, when reality becomes the reflection of a perceived image, it attains a rare quality of beauty by transcending its materiality. Reality of Novera's work is thus the reality she is able to create through the condition of coalition of form with its 'other' by way of sublimation. In 1960, Novera Ahmed's first solo sculpture exhibition entitled Monolok or Inner Gaze was held in Dhaka and brought her tremendous accolade. The concept of this naming is significant because Monolok or the inner world is the expression of the unconscious – a way to re-frame the relationship between subject and object. One can also see it as a subjective effusion of 'the light of the mind' – the ever illuminated space of immense possibilities. This exhibition was held four years before the establishment of a full-fledged Art College in Dhaka, in 1964, when the Department of Sculpture launched its journey. Therefore, Novera had established herself as a milestone in this field even before this discipline of art was formally introduced in the academic curriculum. The writings of Secretary of the Lahore Art Council of that time, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, journalist S M Ali, Abdus Salam and Shilpacharja Zainul Abedin, once provided the ground for triggering discourses on Novera. Their meditations on Novera's early oeuvre lay the foundation for future curiosities. Of the four, the tracts of first three were showcased in the catalogue of the exhibition. Just a few examples suffice to show that the idea of Novera being neglected as an artist in her time is not fully valid. Shilpacharja Zainul Abedin, in a short note dedicated to the artist recognized the emergence of Novera. His pithy remark on her style as well as her stature can easily be summed up in the following expression: The two art works of Novera Ahmed, on one of the walls of the Central Public Library of 1957 and the 1958 sculpture under the open sky, can be called revolutionary to a certain extent. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in his preface to the catalogue dwelled upon what we may recognize as the 'reality' entrenched in her 'abstraction': 'The abstracted children dance as joyously as real ones, the symbolic mother broods with realistic sorrow, and the distortion of a nude merely adds to her tragic sensuousness.' and the editor of The Pakistan Observer, Abdus Salam's comment also enlightens us on the very skein of her aesthetic schema. He concluded that 'Artworks like these, filled with such perfection, elegance and spirituality – have been rarities so far'. Novera clearly suggested a point of departure with her syncretism, which was rare in the nascent art scene of the subcontinent.
Novera's art stands out as a composite of nature, context and experience of the modern whose accrual resulted in novel expressions.
Her sculptures lay the grounds for experiencing immanence rather than transcendence. This is because through her art Novera wanted to establish a synthesis between the western concepts and indigenous materials. In the sculpture entitled Child Philosopher, named by her teacher Karel Vogel, alludes to her firm grounding in realism; it won the best sculpture award in the All Pakistan Painting and Sculpture Exhibition. Realism has been invested with geometrical measurement in this work –, the head is triangular, the eyes and body are elliptical. Another such sculpture is Buddha, which, when viewed in the context of latter-day abstraction the Buddha as real presence seem more pronounced, than the meditative dissolution of his self. If one interprets meditation as the conduit of the unconscious– surpassing of the individual reality– rising of the self in a quest to be lost in the unattainable/disembodied entity, an admittance of the outsider into one's heart, like a grand communion of souls, that bit of abstraction is nowhere to be located. The visage of Buddha with the eyes closed creates an impression of silence positing, perhaps, a sense of ultimate emancipation.
There are some incongruities in the naming of the sculptures. What is Buddha in the catalogue of the National Museum is recognized as Shanti in the book Novera Ahmed edited by Abul Hasnat. Inadequate research work might have caused these variance in titles of her work. But the name that appears in Abul Hasnat's book could be the right one because it is more harmonious with the image. At the apex the structure is horizontal and upright. The form is an elongated equilateral triangle. The abstract form can be likened to a Buddhist Stupa or minaret. The skyward point is suggestive of an appeal for peace. This form is noticeable in ancient churches and temples. The other images used by Novera are cow, goat, elephant, horse, owl, fish, bird, snake and objects from the folk culture of Bangladesh. Sometimes these are divested of their concrete/natural form to be presented as abstract images and at other times kept in their natural form.
Cement casting is the predominant method used by Novera though there are some bronze and steel works as well. If this preference is taken as a point of reference, Novera could be deemed to be an artist who willingly embraces the constraints of place she was part of where marble is a rare material. She celebrated her personal solitude through her sculpture, filtering the collective through the personal, desiring to view the self as evolving out of the two way tugs between the universal and the contextual. The loneliness of the individual which is encapsulated within a family, which again is a part of the wider nature– this interrelationship is discernible in Novera's work, as if by liberating the individual the liberation of society is possible. This portrayal of this crucial desire that marks the modern social condition instills a dense silence into these sculptures. If a person is just a symbol, then beauty likewise is singularly the symbol of the person. Alternately, if beauty of a collective community symbolizes the person, then in society the idea of beauty becomes all-encompassing. In that sense, Novera is a formalist given to structural simplicity. The beauty she plumbs are to be found in her sublimated forms as its essence takes off from the 'particular' only to be uplifted onto/overlaid upon what is 'universal' – the basic underpinning of modernism. Works like Ma o Shishu, or Mother and Child, Standing Woman, Head of A Woman and Family series remain as symbols of singular elegance.
In 1970 the stage was set for Novera's exit from her former idiom and her homeland. The signals of change in her praxis came via a solo exhibition, second extensive showcasing of her work, held in Bangkok, displaying sculptures made of bronze, steel, sheet metal, welded and stainless steel. In the bronze sculpture called Murti (statue in literal translation), one can see that the structure is rather engraved and not smooth. A torso standing on a spine giving an impression of an erect, uncompromising posture. A piece of art that can be considered ahistorical or timeless by virtue of its eternal appeal. Her third show was held in Paris in July 1973. There was a sculpture entitled The Sun Dance (showing a figure balanced on one leg, the other raised high – an image of physical dislocation reflected in the brooding melancholia of the abstract face. Or the Suryamukhi Nari (sunflower women), longing for a liberating force of light, because human desire for freedom is lodged in a 'counter' logic. It is nature that leads to reflection and is transformed through it. Novera moved along that line of thought.
This modernist stalwart breathed her last on May 5, 2015. She was buried in the city of Val-d'Oise in France. She was much attached to her adopted domicile in the last days of her life. From 1984 through 2015 her partner in wedlock has been Gregoire de Brouhns. Novera Ahmed embodies the angst of her time. She isolated herself from the general trends of thought. This isolation vested her with a unique personality, turning her into a reclusive loner. She lived the silence in her art, the silence that gave her the freedom she so cherished. This need for isolation cannot be separated from the idea of modernism, definitely not in the case of Novera and the history of her art speaks of that. We will look at history and think she is there, in a different land. In Bangladesh there have not been sculptors of her caliber preceding her and one comparable is still rare to find. In this life we have simply made gestures towards her work; the rest will be done by the grand beyond and for that we depend on the ever after. hopefully true vindication will be served in the 'elsewhere'.
- Novera Ahmed, ed Abul Hasnat, Bengal Publication Ltd, Dhaka, 2015.
- Sayeed Ahmed Rachanabali: ed Hasnat Abdul Hai, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, May 2012.
- Hamidur Rahman, ed Sayeed Ahmed, Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka, 1997.
- Shilpi Novera Ahmeder Srijon Bhubon: Na-hanyate, directed by N Rashed Chowdhury, A Bengal Foundation, Dhaka.
- Art and Craft, edited by Lala Rukh Selim, Bangladesh Asiatic Society.
- Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, Visva Bharati, West Bengal.
- The Art of Rhetoric: Aristotle, translated by John Henry Freese, edited by E Capps and others. William Heinmann, London.
- Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics: George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, edited by M J Inwood, translated by Bernard Bosanquet, Penguin Books Ltd, 1993.
Translated by Sitara Jabeen Ahmed