Remembering Novera Ahmed on her fifth death anniversary

Priyanka Chowdhury

Remembering Novera Ahmed on her fifth death anniversary

Priyanka Chowdhury
Today marks the fifth death anniversary of distinguished Bangladeshi artist Novera Ahmed. Despite being the pioneer of modern sculpting in Bangladesh, she remains one of the most misrepresented artists in the country. “What Novera is doing now will take us a long time to understand – she is that kind of artist,” Shilpacharya Zainul Abedin once said about her work.

She produced just around 100 works in Dhaka. 33 of them are in the collection of Bangladesh National Museum. It is a well-known fact that she chose to lead her life in exile from 1970, first in London and later in France, where she breathed her last in May 2015. She was a confident yet mysterious artist.
Novera Ahmed’s ‘Reclining Figure’ at Bangladesh National Museum.
She was born into a culturally rich family in Chittagong. Her fascination towards three-dimensional shapes came from watching her mother make dolls and houses out of mud and everyday objects, from a young age.

She studied at the Camberwell School of Arts in London as well as in Florence. Her knowledge about sculptures was based on a combination of western ideas and folk traditions.

Her distinctive works are inspired by western, folk, indigenous, and Buddhist themes to reflect the experiences of women. In 1962, she travelled to Bombay to learn Bharatanatyam, and a year later, she moved to Paris, where she remained for the rest of her life. She lived in Thailand from 1968 to 1970, and held her second solo exhibition in Bangkok’s Alliance Française in 1970. At the time, she worked with remains from plane crashes of American aeroplanes from the Vietnam War.

The essay compilation, Novera, published by Bengal Publications and edited by journalist and poet Abul Hasnat, presents Novera Ahmed from the perspectives of different writers.

Art historian and researcher Rezaul Karim Sumon mentions in his essay that Novera Ahmed’s first solo show, Inner Gaze, held in 1960, was the first exhibition of its kind, featuring mainly cement works, in Pakistan. It was widely appreciated by art enthusiasts. According to a feature in Dainik Azad, at the time, Pakistan’s Lieutenant Governor was so impressed by her work that he announced a grant of BDT 10,000 for her. With 75 artworks, the exhibition ran for 10 days.

Novera Ahmed’s works were collected by several artistes, including poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911 – 1984), who later gave his collection to his daughter Salima Hashmi. In Forgotten Stories of Cross- Pollination, Hashmi states, “Novera Ahmed epitomised the women artists. I first encountered her prize-winning work, ‘The Child Philosopher’ at the National Exhibition in the Lahore Museum. For all of us at the NCA, her work and her commitment to sculpture were an inspiration.We would gape in awe when she made an appearance at a music concert or exhibition.” Moreover, Ana Islam’s book, Novera: Bibhuiye Swabhume, offers an intimate look into Novera Ahmed’s personal and artistic characteristics.
Novera Ahmed’s ‘Le Heroin’ (2013), collected by Durjoy Rahman
Abul Hasnat describes Novera Ahmed as an enigmatic personality. “Her art and way of life was much ahead of its time. It is unfortunate but appropriate to say that the society was not ready to accept her,” he adds. “We did not even give her the due credit as the co-designer of the Central Shaheed Minar. Many of her remarkable cement works were ruined due to negligence. I remember one of her works, placed behind the Dhaka University library, ran to waste right in front of our eyes. However, more recently, some of her notable works have been exhibited and collected. We can only hope to give her the right place in art history.” Although Novera Ahmed could have easily acquired a French passport, she held on to her Bangladeshi passport till the very end.

Avid art collector Durjoy Rahman, founder of Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation (DBF), recently collected three of Novera Ahmed’s monumental pieces. He also has a collection of her personal photographs and a spray paint on canvas, titled Snake, which was painted in 1973, as a gift from her husband Gregoire de Brouhns. “If Novera Ahmed was born in a different country, she probably would have been celebrated in a larger scale, much like most of her international contemporaries. She longed to be closer to her roots, but her homeland was foreign to her,” adds Durjoy. “Unfortunately, we only started to recognise her work after her departure.” DBF plans to host an international seminar, conduct museum-based activities and work on publications about Novera Ahmed.

Novera Ahmed was honoured with the Ekushey Padak in 1997. An exhibition, featuring her works that were left behind in Dhaka, was arranged in April and May in 1998. She was a true avant-garde artist, who extended her paradigms to unchartered directions throughout her life. Her death is not an end, but rather, a realisation of her creative brilliance.
WRITER Priyanka Chowdhury
SOURCE The Daily Star