Lubna Agha loses her final battle
AMONG the top ranking Pakistani-American artists, Lubna Agha, who sadly passed away on Sunday in Boston, did not opt to convey her themes to Western art enthusiasts through traditional genres like miniatures, but chose to communicate through an idiom which was unique and, at the same time, not totally alien to them. She combined the modern-abstract style of the West with traditional Islamic art motifs.
She imparted meditative and repetitive qualities to her paintings, when in her later life she was exposed to the art, architecture and manuscripts in North Africa and the Middle East. Her exposure to this genre of fine art was earlier restricted to the masterpieces she saw in the subcontinent.
The fact that she was highly successful is reflected in two recent events. The US National Endowment of the Arts decided to put two of her paintings on the covers of a couple of poetry anthologies and three of her paintings were also bought and featured by the prestigious “ART in Embassies” initiative, which places Americans’ art in embassies as part of a cultural diplomacy effort.
Lubna Agha was born in Quetta in 1949, where her father, a government officer, was posted. She belonged to a well-educated and widely-read family from Delhi which moved to Pakistan when her father opted to work for the newly created country.
Lubna inherited her flair for art from her mother, who used to draw and replicate pictures from magazines. She excelled in embroidery, a skill she inculcated in her daughters as well.
Lubna completed her school studies in Karachi, and joined the newly-opened Mina School of Art (later rechristened Karachi School of Art) which was run by Rabia and Hajira Zuberi, two young graduates from the Lucknow School of Art, and the young famous artist Mansur Rahi.
After graduating in 1967, Lubna Latif, as she was then known, taught painting at Ali Imam’s Central Institute of Art for a year.
She had her first solo exhibition at the Pakistan American Cultural Institute in 1969.
Trips to the UK did her much good, she saw masterpieces in different galleries, experiences which widened her artistic horizons.
On her return, she took part in a number of solo and group exhibitions.
In 1973, she was interviewed by a young art writer, Yusuf Agha. Her profile was published in the July 1973 issue of the Herald monthly. But that was not the end of it. Yusuf was bowled over by her charms and her talents. They got married the following year when Lubna Latif became Lubna Agha.
The Aghas moved to the United States in 1981 when Yusuf enrolled for his Masters degree at the university in Sacramento, California. His wife used the opportunity to study further and continued working and exhibited frequently in California before the family moved to Boston in 1995.
In the midst of the cultural hub of the East Coast, Boston proved to be an exciting place for Lubna Agha professionally. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts, which ranks among the top five art museums in the US, is not far from her residence. No wonder then that even though she missed Pakistan, she appreciated having benefited from life in a vastly different society.
“Though the nostalgia is overpowering, the influence of two cultures is a huge advantage to my artistic development. Living here and travelling as often as I have exposed me to a vast variety of experiences,” she told this writer in 2007. For her the fact that she could call both Boston and Pakistan her homes is what she termed ‘the tragedy of her generation’.
Lubna was a successful graphic designer too and was a senior art director for a major business communication agency in Boston, a position she resigned from when she fell ill. When this writer went to see the Aghas in Boston in August 2011, I was shocked to learn that she was battling with cancer.
She had for some reason kept her health problem under wraps and requested me not to mention it. She said she was feeling better and was preparing for a major exhibition at the Oklahoma State University in February 2012. A chance telephone call in April revealed that while the exhibition was a big success, soon afterwards the dreadful disease struck her again with a vengeance. Like all final battles, this one staged by Lubna proved to be a losing battle.
One may recall that in 2006 Dr Marcella Nisolm Sirhandi wrote a slim but all encompassing book on the late artist.