The Legends of Modern Pakistani Art #3: Zubeida Agha (1922-1997)
Living in a digital global village now, we all know about Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. We may even recognise Alexander Calder’s mobiles or Edvard Munch’s Scream but how well do we know our own modern art legends? Libas Now brings you art historian Samina Iqbal’s series on the Legends of Modern Pakistani Art.
Zubeida Agha was the first artist to introduce modern abstract art in Pakistan after its independence in 1947. In the First Group Exhibition of Karachi Fine Arts Society, Zubeida showed her abstract paintings. These were met with harsh criticism from the public since the style was a complete departure from the prevalent artistic practices in Pakistan. And yet, Zubeida stayed persistent and continued her practice.
Zubeida Agha was the first artist to introduce modern abstract art in Pakistan after its independence
Zubeida, after her Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy from Kinnaird College Lahore, received her art training first with the well-known Lahore-based artist Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal (1901-2003) and later with Mario Perlingieri, an Italian war prisoner and one-time student of Picasso.
Zubeida Agha received her art training with Mario Perlingieri, an Italian war prisoner and one-time student of Picasso
Perlingieri, who was at that time residing in the suburbs of Lahore, helped Zubeida further her art education by introducing her to the abstract art of the West. Between 1950 to 1953, Zubeida studied in St. Martin’s School London, and then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris.
Zubeida’s painting featured here – City by Night – is an abstract representation of the lively and bustling cosmopolitan city of Karachi, which was the capital of Pakistan until 1959. The simple rectangular shapes on the left and right sides of the painting are rendered with primary colours of red, yellow, and blue, which look like illuminated high-rise buildings.
Zubeida’s painting featured here – City by Night – is an abstract representation of the lively and bustling cosmopolitan city of Karachi
The background is ambiguously painted with broad brushstrokes of various shades of blue alluding to the sunset at sea. Toward the base of the painting, the background gives an impression of seawater that gradually fuses with the sky. At the middle of the bottom, a black rectangular shape bearing erected torches may be read like a ship in the sea.
The center of the painting is enhanced with several thick, black lines randomly fanning across the picture frame and connected to smaller rectangles, which makes one think of cranes used for construction, hence capturing the character of an industrial city in making.
There are also several candle-like lights spread across the painting that may be intended to capture the ambiance of Karachi, which is known as the city of lights. Since Karachi is both an industrial centre and also a port on the Arabian Sea, this painting may be a commentary of the rapid urbanisation happening in the early years of Pakistan’s formation.
Zubeida was very much interested in painting ideas rather than objects. The art critic Jalal Uddin Ahmed stated, “Zubeida insisted that her paintings do not consist of symbols, which are creations of individual imagination, but of ideas, which because they are real, are universally understood.”
Although Zubeida’s cutting-edge abstract art had a profound impact on Pakistan’s artists and intellectuals, she did not mingle with male artists. She continued her art practice away from her peers and never physically took part in any debates and conversations of the modernist artists of Lahore.