Feminist art and the tenacious spirit of Novera

Sharmillie Rahman

Feminist art and the tenacious spirit of Novera

Sharmillie Rahman
Sharmillie Rahman
If one is to trace the contours of feminist expression in the art scene of Bangladesh, s/he has to deal with a teleological narrative first, since identity politics is rooted in the order of the dominant discourse, namely patriarchal discourse. Now, while looking for a language in which a woman might articulate her desires, one always stumbles upon a binary opposition. While men speak the language derived from an episteme that women have very little to contribute to, women speak from within the pauses, and silences, or in other words, the uneasy holes in the fabric of semantics — the ruptures that arise out of failures to recognize the needs of the other.
Image courtesy: Gregoire De Brouhns
Traditionally, women have always found their own niche in the realm of rural crafts. The craft of nakshi kantha undoubtedly was a feminine forte. The linear fluidity often interspersed with convoluted patterns, as we see stitched on quilts, are actually feminine libidinal markers evenly etched out over lengths of fabric. On that singular patch of a sacred space, women painted their existence and wrote about their own sagas.

As far as the mainstream was concerned, art institutions came into being in Dhaka, as late as 1948. Though couched in the model of its then Calcutta counterpart, it saw a host of female students enrolling in the early 1950s. Most of them, needless to say, are forgotten now while conforming to the diktats of society, of which marriage was as much an obstacle as it was an insurance of security and sanctimony.

This article aims to examine Novera Ahmed’s artworks in the context of Bangladesh from a feminist perspective.

Novera seems to enjoy a newly found celebrity status these days. That does look promising. Being “the pioneering sculptor” in a country that had just suffered a forced secession along religious lines, Novera’s meteoric shot to stardom following her exhibition in Dhaka University’s Central Library in 1960 in what was then East Pakistan, seems quite surreal now. This exhibition sealed her fate as an artist of enormous caliber who successfully melded a modern sculptural diction with indigenous idiom. Between 1956 and 1957, she had already executed two public art projects: one was frieze adorning the outer wall of Dhaka Central Library and the other was an anthropomorphic sculpture basking in the courtyard of an industrialist’s house. Both these works show a splendid combination of local/indigenous motifs with modern techniques identified with Western modernism.
Le baron fou (Bronze Edition 1/4) Image courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation.
Novera has been critically linked, in terms of derivational influence, with Henry Moore and Barbara. But it is not difficult to a discern Novera’s point of departure from their works. Novera treated space contextually in its situated-ness in the here and now. Moore and Hepworth played with vanishing nature of volume and mass with a sheer maneuvering of form and space, hence gargantuan pieces appeared somewhat as elusive as formations of clouds. Conversely, Novera, returning from England after completing her diploma in Modelling and Sculpture from Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, devoted herself to crafting a new idiom , quite distinct from what she had learnt as a student.

Novera embarked on a mission to explore the latent characteristics of cement and plaster. Instead of carving out of stones, she challenged herself to yielding shapes by applying cement over central rod armatures. The results were monumental, static sculptures of less circumferential and more frontal appearance, animated by an atavistic force resembling totem figures, that which also inheres in our local terracotta tepa putul. From 1950 to 56, she traversed across Europe and was able to study closely the language of cubism which she later applied to her own works by deconstructing the semi-figural forms. The surface appeared rough-hewn, an unabashed acknowledgment to remain true to the material, which brought a seething primordially to bear on her sculptures. An unsaturated feminine instinct/passion was breathed into most of the pieces as we see mother and child interlocked in an eternal embrace.

From 1956 to 1961, Novera was traveling across the country in a spiritual quest and was visiting sufi shrines. Her most familiar portrait in which she appears dressed as a vaishnavite speaks effusively about her allegiance to the doctrine of “otherworldly” love. She had sculpted the form of Buddha in the manner of a spire; her A Snake Named Desire vouches for her trans-theistic orientation that went hand in hand with her trans-nationalism. In the early 1970s, she settled down in Paris, and tore all ties with her motherland. She turned down the Ekushey Padak, one of the highest civilian awards in the country, in 1997.
La baleine (Bronze Edition 1/4) Image courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation.
Her contribution to designing the Shahid Minar remains overcast in doubts. The post-liberation nationalistic fervor must have made her recoil in anticipation especially of the revival of conservatism which went against the grain of her free-wheeling experimentations with life and work. An accident that forced her to use a wheelchair unleashed a spurt of creativity that found expressions on canvas. Shapes, again, seem to come into view of their own accord through a childlike interplay of riotous colors and violent forms. She continued to paint into the millennium. Her paintings bore the lacerations of a mind that in her earlier days as a sculptor had seemed more tamed and at peace with the several facets of selves which constitute Novera, a name veiled in the mystique of an unfulfilled wish.
Le Heron (Bronze Edition 1/4) Image courtesy: Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation.
She was laid to eternal rest in Paris in May 2017. Her legacy would continue to inspire younger generations seeking an independent feminist voice. She was a sculptor who always claimed her spot in the realm of art as well as public sphere, and refused anarchically to conform to what was expected of her.

SHE was a true artist!
Sharmillie Rahman