NOVERA: AT THE CROSSCURRENTS OF HISTORY
ফারসি শব্দ নভেরার অর্থ নবাগত, নতুন জন্ম। পরবর্তী জীবনে নভেরা শব্দটি যথার্থই অর্থবহ হয়ে উঠেছিল।
(The Persian word 'Novera' stands for newcomer or of novel birth. The name
acquired its true meaning in her later life.)
–Ana Islam, on Novera's retrospective exhibition in Paris, in Prothom Alo ,
January 16, 2014.
'The fine feeling for form',1 which Karel Vogel saw in Novera Ahmed's early forays while she was studying sculpture under his tutelage at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, remained a mainstay in the works of this Bangladeshi modern pioneer sculptor throughout the 1950s. Vogel's evaluative remark was issued in 1953. Coming as it did in the form of an official testimonial at the end of Novera's successful completion of the Diploma course, the comment also effectively bears down on her engagement with the tide of the era when sculpture was seen as an answer to the contemporary thirst for the 'sublime' alongside attaining a 'signature'. The ultimate embodiment of the 'contradicting logic' of modernism seeking 'self-criticism' and 'self-definition of art', to tap Greenbarg's account, is to be found in 'Dhaka's first open-air sculpture completed in 1958',2 entitled Family.
'[T]he associations of things represented', to resort once again to Greenbargian explanation, as opposed to illustration or representation of a chosen subject matter, artistically peaked in this clime with the region's first major public sculpture that was Novera's Family, the cement structure where the cow, the human members are united in one cosmic whole, barely recognizable as sources existing in real life. This is the 'prototype' by which Novera is popularly recognized. Though, there are other important offshoots growing out of the pale of her modernist enterprise – the contours that flowed in various streams which inadvertently remain out of foci of the cognoscenti. As the trailblazer modern sculptor of this region Novera's creative genius can only be understood in the 'plural' – this is a fact which must not escape our (re)cognition while we ponder her place in the history of art.
A close survey of her oeuvres available in catalogues, books and even Facebook posts of the last couple years from both informed and ill-informed enthusiasts, makes one realize how sinuous a trail she has left behind for art enthusiasts to mull over.
Her sudden death in May 2015 finally ended her self-imposed exile in Paris, adding another layer to the apparently unsolvable puzzle her personal life has become to people who are inquisitive about her lifestyle and uncontained artistic spirit. Her death draws the final curtain to the past she herself was not particularly willing to fully unveil. Ana Islam's much touted intermittent encounters with the artist in the last 18 years did not finally result in the demystification of the pertinent issues, at least the way any researcher would wish. Her contributions to the major dailies of the country posted from Paris testify to the simple fact that Novera could not be scoured off her memory of a past she had once willfully renounced. Biographical details and testimonies often seem inadequate for one to unpack works produced at many phases by this reticent artist who, after a tragic accident in Paris, had to adjust to a life incapacitated by a badly affected spine. In spite of the fact that she has been the subject of a major Bengali novel by Hasnat Abdul Hye entitled Novera, first published in an Eid supplement of a national daily in 1994, and then appeared in book format a year after, she remains a cultish figure in the public imagination. The rumour of her death in 1989, which appeared in print in a Women's Directory in 1995, courtesy of Bangladesh Writers' Association, is proof that not many among her aficionados were well informed of her life in exile.3
Novera's final departure in 2015, shocking as it was, dashed the hope a number of researchers planning to meet her in person, including Shibu Kumar Shill who was only half way through his documentary on the artist. Her life and death away from the public eye affected works in progress, especially of those who were particularly interested in untangling some of the enduring issues she had left behind in knots following her exit from her motherland in 1962 never to return again. One such contentious issue involves her role in the making of the Shaheed Minar or the memorial monument for the language martyrs, which is officially attributed to painter Hamidur Rahman, her one time mentor and partner. However, in the span of the last twenty or so years, with Novera enthusiasts regularly excavating crucial aspects of her works into light, adding to the developing index of her career before and after her disappearance from the mainstream, one can easily skirt round this controversy as well as references to her unconventional lifestyle to place a historical lens on the works which have reappeared in the mainstream at both actual and virtual spaces.
The person who prepared the ground for other enthusiasts to carry out further excavation to ensure gradual unveiling of Novera was artist and researcher Lala Rukh Selim. She took genuine interest in Novera's work and life as an inimitable predecessor, providing the much needed thrust towards a greater understanding of Novera and her pioneering role as a modern sculptor, or rather 'indigenous modern' sculptor, sparking interest in others for further enquiry. Still the efforts that followed seemed to have been invested in retracing a biographical/art practising timeline rather than assessing her overall achievement. The small book which Abul Hasnat edited following the sculptor's demise is a testimony to that. A few even seem to rue over the lack of biographical details from within its covers. An essential companion for Novera enthusiasts as well as researchers, the book is mostly composed of already published articles by a medley of writers. It merits historical value in that that it amasses works penned as prefaces to Novera's catalogue of the first solo exhibition as well as the path-breaking article by Mehboob Ahmed and a chronological survey and a summation by Rezaul Karim Sumon who has written a number of articles on Novera, each bearing telltale signs of extensive dredging.
Alongside the writings that map her development, Novera's works with their generic simplicity and formal rigour, serve as a repertory of cuneiforms revealing two interlocking narratives – one tracing her shifts in style and stratagem and the other pointing at the substantial achievements of modern sculpture in Bangladesh. In the retrospective exhibition organized by Bangladesh National Museum, Dhaka, in 2015, her sculptural and relief pieces, 40 in all, one had the opportunity to take stock of her contributions to the arts. The works efficiently represented her variegated style through the idioms that enriched the regional praxes while some of them were also fervently absorbed by many a sculptor that followed including Shamim Sikder during her only memorable period – the abstract phase.
Novera's relief work entitled Relie, which means 'connect' in English, judged in light of what transpired in the then art scene provides clear indications that her scenographic model threatened to make her contemporary painters look like valedictorians. With its elongated figures reaching out for cosmic spheres and suns and moons, rendered in extremes of morphs, easily made the temperate compositions of Novera's male counterparts, the aspirant abstractionists flexing their muscles in geometric compositions, look somewhat disciplined and domesticated.
To take stock of Novera's initial spurt of creativity following her sudden emergence in the Dhaka art scene, one must begin to retrace what ensued after her return to Dhaka in 1957 till her first solo exhibition in1960, a robust display of her artistic might. The monolithic sculptural trope Novera became habituated to hinge her practice upon, which she absorbed through her education in the West, unconsciously dispersed into many facets, and also, through conscious internalization of the rural inheritance, started to flow in two recognizably divergent strains of language. One of them clearly suggested her alignment with the avant-garde, though her modern 'self' was not fully resigned to the structural models she had encountered in the Western modern tradition during her study between 1950 and 1955. She spent her first three years in London to acquire a Diploma under the Czech-born artist Karel Vogel, and was fortuitously introduced to Jacob Epstein and to work in his studio, and then in Florence, Italy, she received further training from sculptor Venturino Venturi. Dehumanization as a scheme, co-opted by Novera who toyed with it cautiously and sought avenues to enmesh it with situated models, reflects her education in the West. The latter strategy gave rise to the framework to dwell on cultural difference and remained operational for a decade or so as an active mode for harnessing the 'rural'. This creation of the 'otherness' to voice the 'difference' was made possible by her reworking of the indigenous terracotta dolls. With evidences of convergence between global modernity and indigenous forms enabling various degrees of successful fusion and diffusion, one realizes that Novera's 'modernist enterprise' clearly boiled down to the working out of a solution to the problem of situating the modern on the native soil.
Novera's understanding of the avant-garde went deeper than that of other modernists of her era mostly consisting of the emerging contingent of male 'painter heroes' who were oblivious to the 'primitivizing spirit' taken up as a 'guiding principle' by most Western artists including Picasso, Brancusi and Henry Moore. The idea of the 'primordial' drove the European architects of modern dictions to various directions. Novera felt attached to those who were given to the formalistic strain carefully administering their forms in order to bring them down to the level of the 'subliminal' to infuse their languages with the essence of the 'primitive'. She too wanted to elicit unconscious response from the viewers. In her invocation of the primitive, achieved through sublimation, Novera chose to ground her technique in the European modern diction using the tropes/motifs found in her own locale. The inflection of the hand-made clay dolls of the region was thus translated into austere pieces of stand-alone figures. It is the rustic simplicity of the terracotta dolls which apparently informed the 'matriarchs' she portrayed and proposed as local sculptural form. Each was radically clad in paints to make their connection to the rural inheritance more pronounced.
Putting paint to the surface of modern sculptures was akin to a breach of contract with the 'high-modernist' operational logic in general where the material always as a rule dictated the quality of the surface. With her motif-driven pieces Novera sought to transcribe vividly the rural, externalizing her passion for the atavistic through the overarching arc of the matriarch, thereby making it her point of departure – a method she would go back to more than once. However, the activation of a language where a point of concurrency between modern and rural occurs, which Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the famous Urdu poet and the then president of Pakistan Arts Council, once referred to as 'organic visual', was not continued beyond the 1950s.
Novera harboured multiple desires in one soul. She explicated her drive towards the attainment of a self-contained piece placing it between a 'thing' and 'theme' in her formal type of works. Her academic learning paved the way for her to emphasize the 'materiality' of an emerging form attained through learned sculptural maneuvering imputed to a desired formal beauty. The second type mentioned above was unmistakably tied to her effort in 'indigenization' of forms by placing 'theme' over 'thing', brought into being through direct referencing. And the theme for her had either been 'womanhood' or 'motherhood' created in allegiance with the archaic form of the terracotta dolls.
After navigating in their entirety her oeuvres (many of them available in print and some in actual form) from the first phase of her career, what seems convincingly revolutionary is not only the successful syncretism found in the formal type of works which gave rise to a new language of art in this clime, and where the indigenous is intertwined with the avant-garde, but also the novelty of putting colour to her cement sculptures representing the matriarch in a form that clearly suggested her attachment to her locale.
The modernist 'formalesque' seemed to have extruded into an almost abstract configuration of space and forms in many a piece by Novera. The form arrived at appears voluminous and grand is also often subjected to eloquent application of hollows, an inheritance from Henry Moore who had absorbed it from Picasso. In others the formalist ploy remains simple, or rather 'archaic in expression' to resonate with what is deshi or local.
But the signature-seeking Novera who was carefully scripting her modernist formalist language in synchrony with the avant-garde, also sought to extend her work in various directions. If by making things appear as distant from the source by exploring the thematics that clearly suggests her indebtedness to the Western avant-garde, there are works in which this canonical ethos encounters the archaic beauty of the rural dolls. Especially when in Novera's constructed structure horizontally flayed arms became the point of emphasis, her language also begs to be interpreted from within the logic of the symbolism of the land, without fully taking leave of the Western pantheon. However, with her portrayal of the matriarch with children appearing close to her bosoms or a single woman portrayed in a standing posture, Novera was operating from within the 'communality of the popular', to use Pedro G. Romero's trope, sacrificing the 'sophisticated' formal attributes beholden to the Western modernism. Perhaps, the 'tug' between the West and the East never actually simmered into a 'conflict', rather it remained a viable force used to materialize her artistic goals.
From 'experiencing design', mostly worked through the mechanics of the formalesque, or, as an alternative, the 'statuesque' of indigenous origin, Novera soon veered towards the 'behaving medium', choosing to bring into view the gestural aspect of her emerging forms. Gesture finally gave rise to the expressionistic totem-like motifs, or, the other way around.
Whichever way we may approach her sculptures of the late 1960s and early 1970s, what becomes discernible in retrospect is that her 'totemic' forms or figures tilted towards the non-decorative. This is the vicinity where she succinctly articulated the thirst for the 'numinous'. Before all this, a sense of 'beyondness' became legible early on in her Peace (Buddha) series of which one survives.4 In it an elongated triangular form synecdochically encapsulates emotion looking like a religious relic from the past. The work was inspired by her exposure to Buddhist figures in Yangoon, a city she visited in the late 1950s. The same sense of transcendence is dealt with, though on another register, with a statute entitled Standing Female Figure where one notices a decisive collapse of the lower body into an austere column on which the oversized face rests longingly staring at the absent sky.
The 'quality of the soul and imagination rather than palpable fact',5 to which Brancusi, a European pioneer, showed an unrestraint attachment, re-appeared in Novera's metal casts. What she had begun to plumb sparingly during her cement-era (exemplified by the works cited above), exploring a technique she herself devised using mortar made of cement and stone dust to supplement stone, began to overshadow all other aesthetic nuances in her second burst of creativity. The singular semi-totemic structure was apparently extended to a series of works which she situated beyond the paradigmatic concerns of European avant-garde which attained universal appeal and/or localism which she herself improvised, to enter what appears to be a self-fashioned 'shamanic' space.
From this uncertain ground the archaic appeared in an animistic garb. Resided as they did between the totemic and the anticonic6 or abstract, one is able to translate Novera's works of the second phase forwarded as a homage to the 'immaterial' forces dealt with in every religion, be that major or minor. Though one is enticed to draw an analogy to the symbolic usage of saligrama in Vaishnavite Hinduism, or the primal object of veneration in Abrahamic tradition, one also remains aware that the symbols of her own concoction simply catapulted her into a world of transtheism – a region where both belief and disbelief unfalteringly fall into disuse.
If formalistic dehumanization, explored in its broadest scope, which sprang out of her sensitive reworking of the avant-garde and/or the indigenous forms, served as Novera's seedbed to launch her career, the shift to terse symbolism was the outcome of her final economics of self-realization. The animist was always present in the core of the modernist that Novera was recognized as. As she renounced the 'smooth' in favour of the 'striated' in her visual dictions, an act which seems mystifying at the outset to anyone tracing her mutation, the fact remains that the 'persona' she projected with her ritualistic claddings – black saris, rudraksh garland around the neck, etc., signalled long ago her entry into the domain of the sacred or the magical. One remembers S M Ali, one of her mentors who penned a longish piece for the catalogue of the 1st exhibition, mentioning her frequent disappearances from Dhaka and the ensuing visits to the Sufi shrines strewn across the country.
Her enthusiasm for the 'liminal experience', once allowed a fuller treatment, gave rise to the series of figures such as Sunflower Women (1973) and the absurdly mutant-like The Djinn (1973). Representing a seemingly docile population, the Sunflower Women were clearly exhibitive of the primal thirst for 'light' (in its spiritual connotation) and were part of her solo exhibition of sculptures and paintings at Galerie Rive Gauche, Paris, circa 1973.
A year before, Novera built a solitary figure entitled Sun Dance in a similar vein – where a single 'sun person' is basking in the glory of life. The joie de vivre that morphed into this dancing figure, with its left leg high up in air, stands in opposition to the pensive mood with which she infuses the collective worshippers of the sun. To Novera they were 'lunatic totems' constructive of a totemism at once her own (as their cognates are hard to find) and were connected to the long-abiding primeval state of mind they are apparently accommodative to since the intention was to invoke the bhuta or spirit.
These pieces had their precursor in a large bronze cast figure done in 1968. Collectively they pique the viewer for their uncanny silence besides effectuating a sense of the primordial by way of their respective static postures and uneven ripples applied to their surfaces.
Small in scale, the lunatic totems function as an expressionistic homage to a totemic culture where meditation is the main transmitter of knowledge. These structures serve as a way for the artist to move outward rather than inward, the latter sense having captured once through her early works and aptly encapsulated in the expression 'Inner Gaze', the title of her ground-breaking first solo exhibition in Dhaka. The country's art scene in later years seems to have thrived on similar linguistic appellations: tropes such as 'inner eye', or 'inner feeling' seem, in retrospect, derivative of Novera's exhibition title.
The work that flagged the turn of the tide in Novera's language of expression in the post-Inner Gaze era, the visibly portentous structure built in 1972, also appeared in, the Paris exhibition of 1973. The work occasioned the most memorable photographic moment in her life. Imaginatively titled The Snake Named Desire, the six-foot long surreal object appears on her shoulder in a photograph in the catalogue of the same exhibition..
Paintings of similar valance look more phantasmagorical. The full-blown animism that emerged is exemplified by Soul of the Phantom (1973), Grand Duke Red (1971), or Spirit River (1973), etc. The third of the trio portrays a double-headed snake with the same zeal for the magical expressed in an elemental mechanical totem that is The Snake Named Desire. Some of her later-day works assume spectre-like visages as is the most formidable of her creation For the Baron, a bust made in 2009 and showcased in her last retrospective exhibition which came under the rubric Novera Retrospective 1969-2014, which ran its course from January 16 to April 26, 2014, at Grand Pierre Road in Paris where Gregoire de Brouhns, Novera's spouse(?) still has his salon.
What seems decisive to Novera's development is the decision to exorcise representation at one point in her career – one can easily place this artistic leap in the late 60s.
Even before the spirits were let loose on the small and medium-sized totemic forms at the behest of metaphysically-inclined Novera there transpired another intermediary stage. Her sojourn in Lahore in 1961, where she went to participate in the National Exhibition and stayed for almost a year, her forays went on to display some 'radical twist and turns.’7 A number of tendencies made their appearances in the very site of the National-level exhibition where her bust of a strange-looking boy entitled Child Philosopher clinched the national award for sculpture. Even before the bifurcation became easily recognizable in her praxis through her engagement in totemism via her metal casts, her works entered a period of experimentation with both form and material in the early 1960s. The accompanying pieces of the award winning bust that employed naturalism to unveil an uncannily seductive face bearing multiracial attributes brought to the fore Novera's search for entry points into ulterior possibilities. The most striking was her large cement cast entitled Exterminating Angel (1960), where one, for the first time, sensed an outward thrust rather than a harmony of 'the associations of things represented'.
There were other moments of departure the artist scripted with variegated results. 'Novera began spray paintings, using plane crash remains from the US army (1964-1969)’8, a piece that formed an array of works prepared for the 1968 exhibition in Bangkok. These examples only reinforce the fact that along the trail the artist left behind there remains shadowy patches in places about which more excavation is necessary.
Death of Novera awakened in us a sense of the creative person she was – an artist who set in motion a mid-twentieth century renewal of the language of expression. This she accomplished through a keen understanding of 'locational identity' coupled with an awareness of the 'avant-garde' innovations making their rounds in the global circuits following their inception in the Western centers. Consequently, the unself-conscious selection of the paradigms easily extended beyond, thereby instigated her self-conscious productions that parsed between the modern and the rural. If in Novera's oeuvres the rural as reportorial appears in 'ludic' simplicity, the avant-garde is articulated in its finest nuances. Using exemplary processual gambits she traversed many a phase in her lifetime leaving behind a set of sufficient group of sculptures and paintings for posterity to take cue from.
Novera can never be bracketed as an 'abstract' presence even if we assume that is exactly she herself wanted to propagate by appearing to look like a chimera at different points in her life. She would always be remembered as a pioneer of modern sculpture in this clime. The fruits of her lifetime engagement with artistic creation from the vantage point of our time warrant a renewal of assessment. Perhaps, an assembly of issues pertaining to her life will forever remain shrouded in mystery, but that should never come in the way of posterity which now begins with an obvious reference to her secure position at the pantheon of the arts. It is a simple fact that to place her on the horizon of national icons only takes assessment of some hundred works she produced in Dhaka, of which 33 rest in the collection of Bangladesh National Museum. In the final analysis, Novera the artist can easily be placed at the apex of Bangladesh's modern art movement. Though, Novera the person will forever rest within the labyrinth of life – where she traversed several interconnected realms including the accessible ones – the enclosure of a studio, the exclusive social spaces she knew well and the others that lie beyond her artistic ambit where she could renew her 'self' through her intermittent excursions drawing nourishments from regional faith and culture.
- Meboob Ahmed, Novera: Natun Pother Disharee, Novera Ahmed, ed Abul Hasnat, Bengal Foundation, 2015, p 18.
- Salima Hashmi, Unveiling the Visible, Lives and Works of Women Artists in Pakistan, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2002, p 49.
- Rezaul Karim Sumon, Novera: Dead or Alive, Muktangan blog, 2009, accessed in May 2016, at http://nirmanblog.com/sumon/4428.
- S M Ali addresses them as a series in the preface to the catalogue of the exhibition Inner Gaze, as 'the group of sculptures titled 'Peace'.
- Quote used in one of the prefaces to the catalogue of Inner Gaze entitled 'A Spirit Devoted to Art', by Abdus Salam, editor, Pakistan Observer.
- Wikipedia defines ‘Aniconism’ as the absence of material representations of the natural and supernatural world in various cultures, particularly in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions.
- Salima Hashmi posits that the duration of Novera's stay was one year in Unveiling the Visible, Lives and Works of Woman Artists in Pakistan, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore 2002, p 49.
- Patrick Amine, Exporevue, 2014, accessed in May 2016, at http://www.exporevue.com/magazine/fr/index_novera.html.