Profile: Lubna Agha
What though the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now forever taken from my sight?
There are no words to express my grief, but there is a host of memories of the late Lubna Agha’s life that speak myriads of a life that was lived to its fullest.
The early ’70s, following the break-up of Pakistan, were years of political turmoil, but there was an artistic vibrancy in Pakistan. In Karachi, some artists had formed a group to wrest control of the Arts Council from the hands of its bureaucracy and similar rumblings were being felt in Lahore. The great Gulgee was painter to kings, the prodigal Ahmed Pervez had returned and was his usual noisy and cantankerous self. There were galleries opening and shutting down – Bashir Mirza had closed his, but Ali Imam was opening up another. Sadequain had returned from his sojourn in the desert. Poets and artists mingled, and people were writing about art.
It was around this time that Lubna Latif, as she was known then, walked into the art scene and made her mark. A student of Rabia Zuberi’s Karachi School of Art, she had won several awards, including the Ghalib Gold Medal for her watercolours. But it was her solo exhibition at the Arts Council in 1971 that created a stir – a 22-year-old girl had filled the vast hall with several totally abstract images. She was the pioneer female painter for this kind of non-representational abstract art in Pakistan.
In the following years, she went on to win the second prize at the National Exhibition for the Arts. After that, there was no looking back. She painted and exhibited in Pakistan every couple of years. Her murals adorn the walls of the Habib Bank Plaza. Prolific in her work, almost everything she painted, sold.
But Lubna had captured more than the imagination of art patrons and lovers. In those days, I wrote features for the Herald and often met Lubna at inaugurations and other cultural events. After a few meetings, I too succumbed to her charms. When I qualified for the Civil Services and was posted to the academy in Lahore, I frequently bunked classes to take the night train to Karachi for short visits. Lubna was often surprised as to how I turned up ‘by accident’ at places she would normally frequent. Soon I was posted as Assistant Collector of Customs in Karachi. I proposed marriage to her, and she accepted.
The ’70s were also the years that shaped the English magazine industry in Pakistan. The Illustrated Weekly of Pakistan gave way to a new-sized colour magazine, the Herald – the precursor of Newsline. Guided into existence by S R Ghauri and Razia Bhatti (thenBondrey), few people know that Lubna was the art director who gave the magazine its original character and layout.
Those were the days of type-setting and Razia and Lubna and the other late-night, galley-fixing, chai-drinking crew worked overtime to get the magazine to press. We were blessed with two beautiful children, Aurangzeb and Diya. Lubna thoroughly enjoyed working with the Herald team and a few days every month I had to put the children to bed when she arrived home in the early hours of the morning when the magazine was being put to bed.
Years later when we moved to Boston, I learnt of Razia’s death. Razia and I had been contemporaries at Karachi University and I was greatly saddened. That bleak evening I picked Lubna up from her assignment as art director in Quincy, Massachusetts. As we drove home together, I broke the news to Lubna; she was so devastated I had to pull the car over to console her. I’ll never forget that day.
The latter half of ’70s were also years of turmoil. Bhutto had unleashed a new awami culture and Zia-ul-Haq after him was trying to shape it in his own image. Corruption had become rampant. Interference in the work of public servants was the order of the day. At one time, the governor of Sindh blocked my posting to favour one of his own. I had a personal run-in with President Zia and several with his Martial Law administrators at the airport where I was posted.
It also didn’t pay to be an ‘honest cop.’ I opted for deputation to PIA and Lubna and I had the opportunity to travel to Europe and America. We would end up in different countries in all seasons, staying in small hotels or with friends, eating sandwiches for lunch so that we could spend our money on gallery admissions! Lubna continued to paint and exhibit all through this time.
When my deputation ended, I decided to pursue further studies in the United States. With two children in tow, we moved to student-housing in Sacramento, California. Lubna immediately obtained work in a photographer’s studio to help support us. She took evening classes in printmaking at the university. And how she painted! The Sacramento years in the ’80s were memorable years for her – she had solo and group shows. She often returned to Pakistan to exhibit her work.
Her style underwent several transformations over the years. From the totally abstract, she moved to the figurative abstract, with several style variations.
In the 2000s, we travelled to Morocco and Turkey, and Lubna found herself fascinated by the old world of abstract Islamic paintings. She painted minarets, domes, muqarnas, motifs, calligraphy and lattice work in her own style. She painted each piece with thousands of individually crafted dots of paint – large pieces, small pieces, specially designed wood-worked rehels, doors and huge canvases.
She saw her new imagery as a contemporary answer to the “challenge posed by the immovable qualities of traditional Islamic art and artifacts”. She wanted her work to “provide a vibrant and ephemeral experience of two contradictory themes – infinity and oneness.”
In Sacramento, she established her own one-person graphic design company, Imagemakers, and turned it into a thriving business that catered to clients like Intel and Jeopardy. Later, working as a full-time art director at various world-class companies like Polaroid, she managed to find time to paint for hours, every day. Art was always her passion and she took it seriously, painting till the very end of life.
But art was not the only thing that filled Lubna’s life. Family came first. She protected and guided her children like a mother lioness; she and her mother were best of friends; she was the go-to sister for all her sibling’s problems; she was the love of my life.
Lubna was actively involved in charity acts for the poor in Pakistan. A regular donor to the Edhi Foundation, she also financed building homes for two families, taking them out of hutments and into homes with electricity and water. She bought two families auto-rickshaws, helped set up another family with a fabric shop, and funded over 150 Kiva loans for entrepreneurs. Even in her last weeks, she was busy setting up another working woman in a home of her own.
Another passion of hers was reading. She read for a few hours every day, at least four to five books a month, and often a few at the same time. She listened to music of every flavour – ghazals, old Indian songs, modern Pakistani singers, classical European music, and everything in between. She had over 2000 songs in her iTunes collection, each heard over and over again. She had also heard Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Medhi Hasan, Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali, live, several times over. She loved western music concerts, theatre productions, the movies and television.
She loved nature and took long walks, exploring areas on the East and West coasts. Travel was her passion. We travelled to England, Scotland, Holland, France, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia (for Umra). A family trip to Spain had been planned for the fall this year. We visited many galleries and museums of art, landmarks, palaces and shrines.
A Sufi at heart, she loved to visit the saints of yore – this year we had planned to visit the Grand Chisti in Ajmer. A previous trip – visas and all – to India was thwarted by the attack on the Taj Hotel. We had visited the other shrines many times – Data Sahib in Lahore, saints in Karachi and Sindh, and even Morocco.
A few times we took cross-country trips. In Pakistan and in the US– from Karachi to Abbotabad in the ’70s and then again in the ’80s, and from California to Massachusetts in the ’90s. She loved the sea; we explored beaches and deserts, the Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe and camped overnight under a star-lit Sequoia Forest sky. She kayaked in deep lakes without knowing how to swim!
A designer at heart, together as a family we redesigned and repainted our apartment and our son’s fixer-upper home. She would map out built-in cabinets and have carpenters create them to her specifications. Every wall had to have picture railings so that there were no nails to damage them for her frequently changing paintings.
She designed and often stitched clothes for herself, her daughter and all her nieces. When there were marriages, her creativity was in great demand. She designed jewellery and had her patterns executed for family. My daughter’s wedding was orchestrated down to the last petal – Lubna would have it no other way. She found time to be a wonderful full-time wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister – and friend.
As an art director, she was a natural. She had a command of all the major design software – Quark, Photoshop and a dozen others. She used portrait software to convert photographs to give them a painting-like effect for professional photographers. She was an avid photographer herself, and took thousands of photographs of family and sceneries wherever she went.
In January 2011, what was to be a simple outpatient procedure for Lubna, resulted in the detection of cancer in the abdomen. Two major operations and a severe session of chemotherapy followed. The beast within was unrelenting. Doctors tried to convince her to go for further chemo, but she would have none of it. No more brutal medical assaults on her person. She would face the brunt of the demon on her own terms.
She continued to paint for hours each day for an upcoming show, featuring the Islamic motifs she had adopted – motifs which she recreated from her own perspective – abstract and beautiful. Several of these paintings have been incorporated in the US State Department ‘Art in Embassies’ programme, international museums, and she appears on several websites featuring Muslim talent.
She strove hard at her work. Even while she was in pain a few weeks ago, the doctors were spell-bound at how she went ahead with the exhibition of over 30 new paintings at the Gardiner Art Gallery in Oklahoma in February and March this year.
The show was curated by the Asian art historian, Professor Marcella Sirhandi. Lubna was feted at numerous receptions and lectures, and she participated in a marathon Q&A session about her work. She never showed that she was in pain from the cancer. Her courage would not allow that.
In April, the cancer became unbearable. Doctors recommended hospitalisation but she was steadfast in that she would fight the battle – in her own home, surrounded by her loved ones, her art, her books, her music.
Whoever said there is no dignity in death did not know Lubna. She was a warrior to the end. And when she breathed her last, the weather in Boston, which had witnessed incessant rain before and after, radiated sunshine on her final day on this earth.
Like my children and I, Lubna’s family and friends are devastated by her passing. She had so much more to offer to her loved ones and her art. There were weddings planned and loving grandchildren to see grow. She had sketches and plans for dozens more paintings. She spoke of her new Islamic motifs as an endless treasure trove from which she could paint for years to come.
Lubna loved life ferociously. In one of her last emails to Jalaluddin Ahmed of FOMMA, she wrote: “The important thing I try to remember is what a blessed life I have had. As for going from this world – this is the only most tangible and beautiful thing we know. One is never happy to leave even if we were to live to be a hundred!”
I began this piece with a quote from the poet William Wordsworth and I’ll draw it to a close with lines from the same poem:
Though nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower/We will grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind.
This profile was originally published in the June issue under the headline “A Portrait in White.”
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