During a time when society bound women to their homes, Novera Ahmed, born in Chattogram in 1939, defied all odds and pursued her education in Kolkata and Comilla, prior to studying modelling and sculpture at Camberwell College of Arts in London.
Best known as one of the original designers of the Central Shaheed Minar, where she collaborated with Hamidur Rahman, Novera introduced modern sculpture in Bangladesh at a time when the Government School of Arts and Crafts, presently the Faculty of Fine Art in the University of Dhaka, did not have a department for sculpture.
"What Novera is doing now will take us a long time to understand – she is that kind of an artist," said Zainul Abedin at the time.
Women artists, even to this day, continue to struggle to find recognition, argues art historian and researcher Shikoa Nazneen. "The world has not produced distinguished women artists, that is the common notion. We cannot name a woman artist as great as Picasso or Michelangelo. But what does this really mean? Is it impossible for women to be as gifted? Or did history not recognise the works of gifted women artists?"
"Novera's life and progressive thoughts are still hidden within the unwritten pages of history. I wanted to show her story through the works of women artists in Bangladesh."
Curated by Nazneen, group exhibition 'Noverar Khoje' at Gallery Shilpangan features the works of 16 women artists – Asmita Alam, Afsana Sharmin, Bipasha Hayat, Dipti Datta, Fareha Zeba, Farhana Ferdousi, Farzana Islam Milky, Farzana Rahman Bobby, Najmun Nahar Keya, Nazia Andaleeb Preema, Promiti Hossain, Rumana Rahman, Suborna Morsheda, Silvia Nazneen, Sulekha Chowdhury and Tahmina Hafiz Lisa – who expressed themselves through a variety of media – painting, sculpture, installation, photography, etc.
"Novera redefined the language of art and beauty, she worked with everyday subjects and materials and created spectacular artworks – a trait of a revolutionary artist. I wanted to show how modern women artists are finding inspiration from the works of Novera," explained Nazneen.
Novera Ahmed's works often depicted her stance against elitism and her art portrayed the lives and struggles of rural and marginalised communities – particularly evident in the roughness of her style and choice of materials such as cement and found objects. The artist was known to use a singular form to express a variety of subjects in her works and she was very deliberate when selecting the materials. These were some of the traits visible in the exhibits.
The roughness of her style was particularly evident in the sculptures by Farzana Islam. Promiti Hossain's paintings on a leaf also paid homage to Novera's works with found objects.
"Some of the artworks featured in the show were created specifically for this exhibition. However, others were created by the artists some time ago. But during our selection we could see the traits of Novera within them," said Nazneen. "Novera as an artist created paintings and sculptures which also depicted female forms, forms of family, fertility, impact of politics, and a woman's place in society; we tried to shed a light on all of these subjects through this exhibition."
Some of the artworks addressed the works of Novera Ahmed directly. Farzana Rahman Bobby's abstract watercolour paintings featured forms which were representative of some of Novera's sculptures. Other artists' work, such as Najmun Nahar Keya's metal sculpture, made a connection to Novera through its subject and material. It gave the viewer a feeling of emptiness, and a long-forgotten memory.
Collectively the show talks about what it means to be a female artist in the modern world. It questions if time has really changed; it celebrates the female form and freedom and it shows us a path of an artist who defied all odds to become the best version of herself.
"The life and history of Novera Ahmed has not yet been written as extensively as it should have and that is what we tried to do here. We have tried to find Novera in more ways than one in this exhibition. Most of Novera's works are in the collection of private collectors, and when that happens, we don't have access to them any longer. We can only see some of them through photographs. But her story can potentially inspire younger generations, and that is why her story needs to be told," explained Nazneen.
Noverar Khoje can be viewed today from 3 PM to 8 PM at Gallery Shilpangan. The exhibition ends today.
TBS Picks: A selection of artworks from the show with a description from the curator
1. We know Novera Ahmed only through a few photographs. This is her look which is most recognisable. This was a woodcut print by artist Rumana Rahman. She beautifully captured the artist's essence in her work.
2. The passport was a big part of Novera's life. When we cross the border, we need a passport. There are a couple of rules when taking a photo for a passport – eyes and ears must be visible, and we cannot have any form of expression. The passport photo feels like a criminal identification, but it is the norm. I have made this collage to show how our artists confront this norm.
3. Novera Ahmed's choice of materials were very deliberate, and they often had a meaning behind it. Whether it was a found object, the use of concrete, or the type of paper she had worked on had meaning behind it. Promiti Hossain's painting on a leaf is very reminiscent of Novera's works with found objects.