Novera is a myth of broken images, of vignettes that blur the edges of fact and artifact, truth and belief, between mystery and mechanism. An image of a self modelled archetype of a bygone era, her hair coiled in a bun, eyes misty, a mark of coronation blazing between brows, all colluding to perform a craving self that sought distinction in 'differance', uncoiling in a recurrence of re-appearances/emergences.
The product of a time when a post colonial mise-en-scène of shifting modes, psycho-pathology of disenfranchisement and its attendant ruptures carved a treacherous path, every soul in the Subcontinent navigated across multi-fold plateaus of varied neo-realities, Novera, an embodied spirit of an unheralded contemporaneity fixed her gaze on a 'higher' horizon, unstained by the zeal or the horrors of the time; her soul was bound up in a spiritual quest. A privileged woman of substance, Novera, took to moulding models and carving stones, thus stepping outside 'form' to create sculptures that bore stamps of, what can be liberally seen as a ‘willfully autonomous’ (if you will) expression of a modernist vein which was routinely percolating throughout artistic practices around the world, of her time. A rebel undisguised, Novera's craft, like a tricky spin on a known tale, presented itself in the haute (high modernist) court of arts as a parabolic 'doubling' of her life, both running along un-linear courses.
Working from within the contours of the ‘debonair modern’, her earlier body of works carried the marks of a descent that linked her with global traditions she came upon, both as a student and an ardent 'seeker', which influenced her formatively, here, many an analyst of her modes, in a spurt of elemental comparison, readily refer to Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, as well as Picasso, Giacometti et al, while tracing a genealogy. However, there are irrefutable signs of an indefatigable spirit born of an innate longing for freedom from constraints which strains at the contours of her ‘forms’ inscribed as it is in the tug between subjective desire and dictates of objective or ‘object as form’, between means and ends. The strident determiners of convention (both societal and artistic) and convenience (in addressing the hazards embedded in one's spatiotemporal reality) infringed insistently upon and fomented her latent Quixotic drives, compelling her to re-negotiate the currency of art and above all to take on the so-accepted 'gendered space' to shake its artificial boundaries.
Though schooled in Europian avant-garde and its trellis of qualifiers, which she closely observed and interiorized avidly, her soul could not resist the call of an extra-rational adventure, an outré whimsy which modernist artistic tendencies attempted to discipline and tame.
As a second wave proponent of Bangladesh art, she received the bequeathal of the techne of synthetical confluence of modernism at large and indigenism of the locale, but with a perceptive urgency, as part of a dramatic monologue that engaged the viewing mind (that of the artist's) to inspect the labyrinths of an un-quiescent soul and consequently to open its window unto to the world accustomed to the diction of the real, in its representation. In her quiet dialectics of the inner and outer, she created an oeuvre resonating meditative as opposed to violent passions, nothing fanciful, extravagant, yet reflective of a devotion to her craft. She championed the feminine, a central anima that breathes life into all else that 'it' embraces. Many of her female figures appear like totemic objects of sacred rites, breathing vitality in the manner of fertility goddesses, endowed with maternal bounty/plentitude. Then, in the 'thrust' of the faces, which most of the time remain a barely discernible hint, of her figures there is something palpably defiant, something guarded and decisively not a give away. Her figures are cloaked in a sanguine lustre, sedately quarrelsome, diffidently mischievous, looking at them one is often tempted to imagine these as so many manifest personae/avatars of the artist, scornful of the prudish moral sway of society at large, with which it has often censored her. For in her lifestyle and in her practice she did mow down customs pertaining to the social realities of her time. Once again one might take the liberty to construe her forms as expressions of the many layers of selves that elude any one conclusive annotation, if one is to decipher Novera. She archaeologized the quintessential essence of her land by striking its magico-sensorial semblance in marble, stone, cement, wood, and metal; imbuing them with the infinite expanse of interiority, parleying modernity with an idiom rooted in a sensibility nourished on one's own cultural heritage with a marked affinity for the 'beyond', gliding across an accession of transcending, evolving selves.
Novera was temporarily/historically situated in a riotous flurry of an amalgam of sometimes successive and more often than not co-existent ideological frameworks that were slowly ossifying around the nascent but tumultuous playing field of identity polity: in an eddy of cross currents of nationalism, modernism, traditionalism, transnationalism meeting and unmeeting in a continuous struggle for the articulation of an imaginary unity of self/subjectivity (which remained essentially fractured). Modernism in the subcontinental diegesis of the desire for autonomy in its postcolonial quest for an 'authentic voice' was released through the reworking of the 'given/found' modernism – in a way more akin to trespassing its overriding precepts by way of inflecting it with a ready ware of indigenous cultural 'apriori'. The orientalist algorithm, that had defined/delimited the reception of colonial aesthetics in post-colonial locations continued to (mis)inform cultural practices, making way for self-alienating reading, meaning making as artists delved into mining the contents, styles and techniques of local art forms as a way to forge a differential diorama of art peculiarly and paradoxically one's own. Tradition was dislodged from its mooring and in telltale fragments was reoriented/assimilated/estranged into a new form of art, a nativization of modernism, whose disembodied/dislocated 'body' was infused with an atavistic temperament, purportedly representative of the locale; (arguably it rather led to a defusion of the impetus of 'belonging' by embedding it into the diction/lexis of the 'other') thus, setting it off on a path of becoming, of an emergence, of a new language.
What emerged was transnationalism, a term that characterizes South Asian modernism of the 20th century (or modernism's deterritorialized other) according to Iftekhar Dadi in Modernism: And the Art of Muslim South Asia, which entered this territory through the local coterie of intelligentsia acting on the politically radicalized nationalist fervour, though genuine/honest in intention, to fashion a cultural protest against, a territorial division that tore the 'multigrain' morass of India into arbitrarily but progressively asundered states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This saw a migration across newly drawn borders (primarily ideological) of artists who relocated themselves according to their allegiance and affiliation to newly formed political/ethical configurations/persuasions. The microbes of local art thus implanted would still take a long time to evolve into a full-bodied organism (if ever), yet, this initial thrust towards formulating a local register of art, discursive in vein as it attempts to rearticulate 'lived practices' of this region in relation to contemporary (and hegemonic) practice of modernism, by stalwarts in the persons of Zainul Abedin, Quamrul Hassan, Shafiuddin Ahmed, would leave a lasting imprint on the nostalgic/mnemonic imagination of the nation in the manner of a 'big bang effect', an ontological marker, moulding a virgin ground for others to tread. The decolonizing minds, nevertheless, inevitably as it is, remained overcast with an 'orientalist' fog. The simplicity, linearity/economy of lines, bold steady strokes, concentrated imagery couching minimal conceptual jugglery – all testify to European avant-garde anti-realist/illusionist, medium specific self-expressivity, albeit, one sizzling with an inexorable inner force/spirit pushing towards 'coming into one's own'.
Novera, as a successor, worked from a studied and at the same time instinctual detachment from any ideological initiation, or rather from a position of complicit understanding of European eclecticism; pooling from indigenous art forms, she refashioned a postcubist syntagma, in her works the strands of global modernism and local forms retained their temperaments in a spontaneous migratory harmony.
Her works cannot be dissociated at a far cry from the likes that she studied as part of her 'Western' education. What sets her apart is that she was able to sidestep the inertia of a potentially mimetic praxis, perforce, with the alacrity of an avant-garde, bulldozing her way through socio-cultural barriers/enforcements buttressing the shrine of the obola nari (the acquiescent damsel) and picked up her carving tools to inscribe her reflexive/ discursive insignia upon stone, wood, cement, metals, heretofore untraditional mediums in a country still splashing in the backwaters of 'art-civilization'. For a woman, it was a gargantuan feat or shall we say a manifesto of her fealty to art!
Modernism or modernity for that matter, an urban phenomenon, is strikingly resonant of the ideological valences of space and the gaze. City as a spatial construct, rests on the divisive laws of gendered class that maps its 'ground' in hierarchical grids/axes of public/private, of rich/poor, within which women's appearance/visibility is regulated by the restrictive/proprietorial topos of masculine semiosis. In this teleology of appearance, in a psycho-social context of her time, Novera's art works and their placement in the public sphere, a relief work (first of its kind) glimmering out of the walls of the then Central Public Library in 1957 and the city's first open air fountain sculpture in the courtyard of the residence of an industrialist in Tejgaon (1958) signifies a break from the crucible of norms that enshrined women's 'space' outside public domain.
She challenged the perception of ethico-religious strictures that shunned replication of 'life' in art with her open-air sculpture that represented an anthropomorphic tangle of man and animal; radicalized the bigoted cultural perception of a woman's sublated recognition in terms of her contribution to society or 'progress' when she clinched the commission to erect the first urban sculpture as the first woman artist to be entrusted such a pioneering project with. She blazed a trail that was unprecedented in its significance in denoting a radical social reformation, which, unsustained, fell to ill use in later years as we witness how her name dwindles away from public memory in a calamity of amnesia that fated her art work with nightmarish negligence. In a premonitory statement in the catalogue of Novera's first exhibition, Zainul Abedin wrote, 'We, the citizens of Dacca [now Dhaka], have been living with this magnificent work (referring to the frieze and the fountain)… But I think we shall take generations to assess the impact of these two works in our art life.' As if to prove him right, Novera continues to inhabit a lacuna in the historical annals/canons of subcontinental art. Novera remained a vestige of an 'urban myth' who in her first 'flush' of glory usurped the art arena of both East and West Pakistan riding the wings of a ground-breaking exhibition, in 1960, that heralded a new era, one that outwitted the local art encounter/entourage by introducing three dimensionality of sculptures to an unsuspecting audience accustomed at the most to easel- painting.
In the 90s, through the efforts of some local art critics, a somewhat sporadic interest in Novera's legacy was revived culminating in an exhibition of some 30 sculptures in the National Museum in 1998, excavated and restored from a state of ignominious dereliction in which these languished for years, left mercilessly to the erosion of time and memory. 2015 saw another exhibition in the National Museum, providing a cursory glimpse of her earlier works and much was left to be desired as the show remained nonchalantly bereft of literature of any kind throwing light on Novera's significance as an avant-garde artist in the history of Bangladesh art.
A cultural movement was set afoot with the establishment of Government Institute of Arts in Dhaka in 1948. Institutionalization of art activity was a revolutionary first step towards defining a new system of art production and circulation as well as art's reception/appreciation in this region. With the accelerated ardour of coining an idiom of local art in the offing, one can only imagine how young, impressionable minds like Novera's must have found new inspiration to pursue a deep-seated desire to model visual stamps/representations of her inner most thoughts. She travelled to the UK in the 1950s in defiance of parental ordain and enrolled to Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, subsequently completing the National Diploma in Design modelling and Sculpture, a move construed by many as a natural consequence of her inherited (from her mother) childhood inclination to fashioning shapes in clay. In her founding years as a sculptor Novera traversed a geographical panorama that formed a crucial axis of epistemic-aesthetic shifts: the modern flanuer was trotting across London, Paris, Florence, Vienna, training under Joseph Epstein and Venturino Venturi during the latter half of the 50s. It was no surprise that she was inducted into the contemporary art 'cult/tribal convention' that wedged itself midway between (post)impressionist and expressionist tendencies in an ongoing evolutionary art-making process, predominantly of a Western strain with influences far flung. Now, art arises out of an evolving interplay of aesthetic, moral, cultural experience of a receptive consciousness. An artist's subjectivity is an inalienable component in any production of art giving visual expression to the individual's impetuses and concerns inextricably related to her spatio-temporal loci, internal as well as external. Such was also the case with Novera.
Novera returned to her homeland in 1957, which initiated a shift both in her practice and perception of art. She was faced with an unforeseeable obstacle that veered her into a new trajectory, ushering in a transition from largely purely academic practice to experimentation. Thrown off by the difficulty of casting in metal and moulding with clay she began to scavenge indigenous materials and unrelenting, delved into experimenting with wood, plaster and cement. Her zealous appetite for yielding shapes and forms – in response to 'le verite interieure'(subjective sensory impressions) – out of what lies dormant in these natural elements, that is the arcane and the meaningful, is simultaneously a testament to an irrepressible 'expressionist' impulse seeking its realization in 'will to form' often resulting in abstract, distorted models that belied the veracity of the 'seen'. She was prolifically whittling out a staggering number of sculptures while still mastering, and seemingly consummately at that, the techniques of manipulating the hidden properties of new materials. It was a feverish time in the then East Pakistan, as a nation was awakening to the prospects of self-determination vis-à-vis a war-levelled world that was increasingly recasting itself in a vivacious cultural topology emerging out of a global traffic across national boundaries; unequivocally set in a 'quandary of modernity' where the self and society is found locked in a dialectics of antinomy. Cuing in on the title, Inner Gaze, for Novera's exhibition of 1960 held in the current Central Library of Dhaka University, suffice it to say that Novera was on a quest to give forms to visual equivalences of her inner states of mind. As a modern man/artist began to identify the inner recesses of his mind as a vehicle for re-creating impressions of the world, he rejected the 'illusion' of optical truth in favour of cognition/cognizance and intimations; preferring knowing over seeing.
Novera was also seeking self-knowledge. Progressively her works became more concentrated and provocative, often leading the viewing eyes to the facial expressions of her sculptures, particularly the female ones, etched sympathetically in an invocation of a seething inner life.
Caught under the modernist spell and pegging their aesthetics more or less on principles inaugurated and developed in the '50s chiefly by the British artist Henry Moore, few of the sculptural pieces by Novera, Pakistani artists Ozzir Zuby and Nasir Shamsie (who held his first exhibition in Karachi in 1959) seem queerly interchangeable as evinced by a catalogue entitled Art in Pakistan by Jalal Uddin Ahmed, first published in 1954 (revised in 1962). Contemporaries like Murtaja Baseer, Aminul Islam, Syed Jahangir, Kazi Abdul Baset during the turn of the decade of the 50s are also seen dabbling in the monophony of largely cubist-inspired figurative painting that found an abstract spin in Kibria's canvases. The ethical tension between continuity and change was resolved with a unanimous resignation to this monolithic/unilinear cult; while the phantom of a sovereign identity chased at the outer edge of national consciousness, it seemed also to have hemmed in a fraternity of artists within the protective circle of a homogenous pale of artistic praxis. Novera, on the other hand, held her 'own' ground, flitting between lands, (Dhaka, Lahore, Yangon, Bangkok, and finally to Paris until her demise) haunted by a creative anxiety continued to challenge the false consciousness of all pigeonholes, be it of space, time or national categories.
Reference to Henry Moore is seen to be indispensable in any discussion on Novera's works. Apparently it does seem that Novera's repertoire forms a non-Western approximation of the works of Moore, more so since they share similar influences of primitive art forms, in the traditions of Picasso, Brancusi, Giocometti, let alone in the recurrence of the theme of family throughout their careers. However, as a result of direct carving Moore's sculptures are more volumetric, especially, the mature sculptures seem to be unmistakably endowed with sensual interlacing curves, lending them a unique circumferential openness. Novera's ensemble, on the other hand, displays a marked predisposition towards the monolithic, cynidrical/oblong figures that ran the gamut of ancient civilizations. Her forms, however, retain a peculiar morphology of their own owing to an allusion to local traditional terracotta specimens, whose rendition in cement in Novera's recasting lent the figures a pulsating tactility; as the archaic rhythm of the curves and lines caught in their gestural immobility at the same time bespoke the potency of immanence.
She was also restricted by an alternative technique of moulding cement, concrete, and plaster around iron skeletons that translated into more jagged, angular and pronouncedly frontal sculptures which appear as intense embodiment of the vitality of some primordial life force, in which man and nature remain indistinguishable from each other. Barbara Hepworth is also accorded mention, by virtue of the undulating holes that feature prominently in her sculptures, draping the pieces in an air of sparse, organic weightlessness which when transcribed in Novera's works suggest a 'contrived' possibility of movement, representing portholes looking out/in to new horizons viewers are invited to enter; an opening out that also implodes into itself in a free flow of inner and outer, of light and mass, caught in a morphic play of re-creation/invention.
Her low-reliefs are studies in the traditional geometric forms of subcontimental origin, three-dimensional shapes chiseled in deep, sharp lines, arranged with a keen sense of balance in an ordered space. Terraced and flat, each surface grows out of the one below, the forms following a 'design' and structure letting out possibility of the 'new'. That brings to mind the relief work that adorns the wall of the lobby leading to the cyber section of the Central library of Dhaka University, which remains hidden from sight and also knowledge although situated at the site of its so-called highest seat. Neither a plaque nor any elegiac tribute in 'enlightened' language could be seen accompanying this rectangular block of lonely relic of both past and present artistic glory. Encased in its own ecology/environment, in which geometric patterns are overlaid with 'episodically' built strata of robust and supple figures, each sustained by the ambient hue from which they draw their mana. The steely calmness of the relief hums magical tales of a locale whose history is marked with the beauty of grandeur. The universality of the celebration of life rooted in magical properties of remembrance and veneration thus define a 'will' to collective consciousness, the modern individual's retroactive flight of desire from alienating anonymity to merge with ripples of selves. The splayed legs of the figures seal a resemblance with native earthen toys and artifacts, an iconicity Novera returned to time and again as if by dint of an existential compulsion.
Her forms also show signs of compulsion both for vertical and horizontal mobility, fuelled by a desire for expansion, pushing the boundaries and finally to transgress/transcend. The architectural forms of her sculptures, acquired both by design and chance as her cement and mortar constructions are in appearance similar to the shapes of buildings intended to rise and expand in space, their plasticity concomitantly inflecting and absorbing the elements of the openness of its environment. Sharing in the Bauhaus principle of 'composite character of a building as an entity', Novera also fulfills another of its tenets by injecting the static structures with the dynamism of movement, especially demonstrated by the indispensable posture of traipsing figures that appear to be precariously perched in a unique choreography of balance with arms flailing outwards. The structural simplicity, and discernible disdain for any complex maneuver, these flat beam-like masonry emanating out an inherent logic of growth mark Novera's ludic engagement with the modernist language. Semi-abstract female figures are seen with exaggerated, deconstructed bodies/breasts, with figures of frolicking children emerging like spectres out of their torso, turning these into a symbol pf self-generating power. Corporeal and teetering at the very opposite pole of sensuality, they breathe eroticism, paradoxically as unfetishized images of fertility. Elongated figures with eyes staring into space, or gazing squarely back at the viewer, seem like voyeurs with eyes trained on higher planes, beyond gravity, beyond the banal and the 'stock', towards a tryst with the 'grand', the sublime. These very figures were transported to the planes of her paintings in later years, however, the gravitas of these final works grow increasingly solemn. Her canvases that can be traced from the early 70s down to mid-millennium, boast high toned palette of clear, bright, arbitrary colours, applied with varied, broken brushstrokes in the manner of fauvist/expressionist paintings, representing surreal worlds or rather aviaries, where birds and humans concurrently remain suspended in flight more like an unbound, unfulfilled wish. Her paintings can be seen as an essay in childlike creative play combined with a barbaric sense of decoration, creating an atmosphere of exhilaration, in which out of the inter-penetration between elemental colours and shapes, the picture emerges of its own, as if out of the unconscious. The psychic disquiet manifest in the predatory tone of the earlier birds finds repose in Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1992, as a recognizably earthly bird locks gazes with a nude Eve, translucent in a wash of warm orange, her body as if unnaturally lit from within. The same colour revisits Road Lalumiere (2012) to frame human figures, reduced to essential lines, as if in a void of time eternal. In 1970, Novera had her second exhibition in Bangkok, showcasing sculptures in bronze, metal sheet, welded as well as stainless steel. There were 11 assemblages, one of which was created out of broken pieces of an American aircraft gunned down in Vietnam. These were simple, unornamental, skeletal structures born of spontaneously welding together disparate materials. Experimental, bold and resplendent in a lack of finesse, these pieces avouch an insatiable spirit, an innate letch for testing one's own mettle, time and again. At every new turn of her artistic journey Novera seem to rejuvenate her 'numinous'. Even when she dabbled into metal sculptures, tapping out statuettes, bringing to life an extra-sensory menagerie. Novera, the person unravels through numerous selves, which needs little evidence as even in death and afterwards she continues to re-appear in many 'form'-defying chimeras.
In The New Painting: Art Notes, Guillaume Apollonaire, a poet and an essayist, who was the most influential figures in the Parisian avant-garde observed, 'I would say that in the plastic arts the fourth dimension is generated by the three known dimensions: it represents the immensity of space eternalized in all directions at a given moment. It is the space itself, or the dimension of infinity; it is what gives objects plasticity.' Novera's art objects are closely allied with the spatial infinite, reorganizing a known world in a poetic rhapsody of simple forms, aided by an inner vision and its primal language of expression, and thus, exorcising the here and now with the redemptive power of the 'beyond', the unseen. Now, it waits to be seen what tributes are paid this visionary woman, in this clime of accelerated art endeavours!