Zubeida Agha (b. 1922, Lyallpur; d. 1997, Islamabad) was undoubtedly the first painter in Pakistan who understood and achieved the conceptual aspects of modernism. Her journey was a complicated and determined pursuit of self-actualisation—an uphill task, given the times she lived in. Electing to create art between the first and second World Wars, as well as living in the Indian subcontinent in a post-Partition setting, came with a lot of baggage and sense of shared loss. Perceptions had changed, far-reaching in their consequences, and there was also biting criticism. Yet she carried on with dignified composure in the face of it all, choosing to live mostly in seclusion and devote her life to her practice.
Agha grew up in a unique family that cultivated and encouraged progressive thinking. Unlike most young women around her, she had the privilege of following her dreams and read philosophy at Kinnaird College, Lahore (1944). This academic background gave her the tools for analysis, but it was Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings and her own vivid dreams of colour that led her start working in the studio of B. C. Sanyal. He was a nonconformist artist and teacher who offered a gathering place for artists, intellectuals and literary figures of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, when artists such as Sher-Gil, Ustad Allah Bux and Anna Molka Ahmed frequented Lahore because of its creative energy. Exhibitions and seminars took place regularly, stimulating innovation and critical dialogue and bringing international influences that inspired a younger generation to think outside the box, artists like Moyene Najmi, Anwar Jalal Shemza, S. Safdar and Ahmed Parvez amongst them.
Agha’s eldest brother, Agha Abdul Hamid, was a civil servant with a deep knowledge of art and literature. He was her greatest supporter and, in 1946, introduced her to Mario Perlingieri, an Italian prisoner of war based in Walton, suburban Lahore. Perlingieri had been a student of Picasso and was able to address some of Agha’s unrest and guide her through the concerns she had regarding form and structure, and the compulsion for artists to attribute deeper meaning to objects without necessarily trying to capture their natural appearance. It was under his tutelage that she learnt to paint ideas instead of objects, breaking free from academic painting. The Cotton Pickers (1949) is one of her most important paintings. She also turned it into a bronze relief and it is a prime example of how she reworked her subject—in this case, figures—over and over again to achieve the desired mood and posture. By simplifying her style, her works ended up looking misleadingly easy—part of the innate charm of her work. Very few people understood the intricacy of her expression until much later.
Also in 1946, Dr. Charles Fabri, curator of Lahore Museum encouraged her to be part of the 20th Exhibition of Punjab Fine Arts Society, Lahore. Her talent was validated by the fact that she won not only the painting prize but also the prize for sculpture! However, her debut exhibition in Karachi in 1949 was followed by a plethora of criticism. Agha once noted, “People said I was crazy to want to paint ideas, which is much more difficult than painting something from life. It is very difficult to create something from your mind.” She went on to receive a scholarship at Saint Martin’s School of Art, London. During her time there, she held her first solo exhibition abroad at Trafford Gallery (1951). It prompted the art critic Maurice Collis to write, “This Moslim girl’s painting gives us an idea of what is happening at Lahore in artistic circles. While the general public in India has not the smallest interest in painting, there evidently exists in the capital of the Punjab, a set, which is as up-to-date as any art set in Europe or America. Miss Agha must be one of its leading members.” Agha later enrolled at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and held a solo exhibition at Galerie Henri Tronche, Paris (1952).
Art criticism was a double-edged sword in that it separated two distinctive views about painting—the academicians in Paris versus the modernists, who were against systems and challenged the status quo vis-à-vis painting. Artists became more adventurous and, through this breaking-free, one of the most exciting chapters in the history of painting gradually unfurled. It took a few decades for this revolution to travel to South Asia, where Agha introduced this form of painting in which ordinary people and the mundane were subjects of importance equal to those in traditional highbrow art forms, such as depictions of Mughal Kings. In the same way, using colour was not just a means to an end within art but accepted as a subject and valid form of expression itself. Agha became Pakistan’s first Colourist; “She seems to have had an instinctive awareness about how a colour would react in association and upon its juxtaposition with other colours which enable some of her hues to take on a radiance that shimmers according to the tempo and mood of her painting.” (Dr. Musarrat Hasan, I, FOMMA; 2004). Her work started changing perceptions in art and a new movement naturally followed suit, with Shakir Ali and other artists working in this vein carrying forward and strengthening what she pioneered.
Returning to Pakistan in 1953, Agha started working in Karachi. Many of her paintings seem to reference skyscrapers or form what appear to be cityscapes—the inky dark structures with yellow squares of light seem to have been ingrained in her memory. They reflect the essence of the hustle and bustle of such city upon an individual—how one can feel overwhelmed and lonely all at once—and by 1961 she had moved to Rawalpindi, where she was appointed Director of the Contemporary Art Gallery. She ran the gallery with immense dedication for 16 years, promoting and enriching modern art in Pakistan, eventually leaving the post only to focus on her practice. Apart from curating numerous memorable exhibitions of local as well as international artists, she planned various art related seminars, lectures and arranged film viewings. Many see this as the groundwork for the idea of creating a National Art Gallery for Pakistan, for which there were many debates and committees formed to weigh the benefits and drawbacks. It was also through her efforts that an art council in Islamabad was established.
As Agha is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of modern painting in Pakistan, she is the obvious beginning for this representation of our contemporary art practice. Her work has never been exhibited in an art fair before, despite a career that spanned over half a century. Furthermore, to our knowledge, apart from a retrospective with 32 of her paintings in 2012 at the National Art Gallery, Islamabad, there has been no significant showcasing of her works in the last 20 years in Pakistan and none at all on an international level. All these reasons make it imperative that we show the world what this leading artist did for Pakistan. She virtually transformed what was acceptable as art in an atmosphere where either the typical figurative 19th Century European tradition was followed, or the Chinese and Japanese influenced Bengal School watercolour techniques were employed. She was indifferent to the surge of criticism that rose against her and continued working in her own way, never repeating herself. This is an attitude that echoes the ethos of Khaas Gallery and the type of artists we enjoy working with.
Timeline of Key Events
1922: Born in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad)
1944: Graduated from Kinnaird College, Lahore
1944: Started working in the studio of B. C. Sanyal
1946: Started taking lessons from Mario Perlingieri
1946: Won first prizes for both painting and sculpture at the 20th Exhibition of Punjab Fine Arts Society, Lahore
1949: Debut solo show, Karachi
1950: Studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art, London
1951: Solo exhibition at Trafford Gallery, London
1952: Joined École des Beaux-Arts, Paris
1952: Solo exhibition at Galerie Henri Tronche, Paris
1953: Returned to Pakistan
1955 & 1960: Solo exhibitions in Karachi
1961–77: Director of Contemporary Art Gallery, Rawalpindi
1965: Awarded the President’s Medal for Pride of Performance
1973: Solo exhibition in Rawalpindi
1978–9: Open studio and solo exhibitions at home, Islamabad
1982: Awarded the Tamgha-e-Quaid-e-Azam by the Government of Pakistan
1983 & 1985: Solo exhibitions, Rawalpindi
1993: Last solo exhibition at The National Art Gallery, Islamabad
1996: Awarded the PNCA’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in Art
1997: Died on 31 October
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