A Painter’s Reflections on Fragments by Parvin Shere
by Ray Dirks

Parvin Shere and I have rarely met. Yet, it feels as if our paths have often crossed, even as if we have trod the same ground side by side for a time. For more than 20 years my work -- as an artist, photographer, writer and curator -- has focused on respectfully revealing the realities of ordinary lives, beyond Western stereotypes, in places we in the West tend to know little about. I believe Shere and I would share many interests if we traveled to the same places. Due to her humanity and spiritual energy, even without seeing her art I would be predisposed to admiring it.  

My comments come out of viewing Shere’s art, reading some of her words and essays about her by others. They do not come out of a personal knowledge of the artist as a person. As a result, I am sure that some of my observations will be outside of what the artist has considered, maybe even occasionally incorrect. However, I believe the general sentiments and overall picture of a graceful and caring humanitarian, multitalented artist, mother and spouse are correct. 

Not understanding nor able to read the Urdu text and believing that not the meaning but likely some of the flow of Shere’s thoughts is lost in translation, I do not want to concentrate on the written word in the book Fragments. I read the book to capture the general direction and then went back to look at the art with the odd glance at the text to fill in a few blanks. My wish in this brief reflection is to stay with the art and my perception of the soul of the artist. 

My first general impression when seeing Shere’s art as a whole is that she is a Canadian. I say this as a compliment, as often to be a Canadian in the 21st Century is to be a person grounded in more than one land – hopefully, comfortable in both the new and first land and culture. Shere grew up in India but her brush knows the Canadian landscape as if she is at home. Calling Silence, for example, is the Canadian prairie, evocative for anyone having spent time in its wide open but loosely corralled spaces. Defeat, a narrow vertical piece, calls to mind the crunch of snow under foot as the last light of day heralds the coming dark and bitter cold of an inland Canadian winter night. That crunch of snow is not known at the western edge of Canada, in Vancouver and Victoria where the cold does not fall to crunch level. It is certainly not known anywhere near where Shere grew up.

But Shere’s landscapes, Canadian or otherwise, are not just about the literal, realistically rendered scene. A look at the poems that do directly correlate confirm that. She is not set on simply painting pretty pictures. There seems to always be emotion – longing, wondering, loving, gentle, thoughtful, hurting, hoping, seldom if ever crying out loudly or triumphantly. Hers seems a gentle soul crying out for goodness to raise its head for the sake of her children, for the sake of all those who suffer.  

Tears, with a close up of a distraught child backed by a stark, desert landscape, soldiers clamoring for cover behind a wall in a land they do not know or understand, brings Shere’s work out from searching for meaning in common landscape. Her anti-war statement is clear and focused on those most vulnerable. As our leaders toy with lives, abuse religion, spread xenophobia and propagate war out of sight of cameras, we lose sight of this child and the millions of others like her throughout the world. Embedded reporters are kept away from contact with the human cost, war becomes a sort of video game, impersonal, shock and awe. The innocent victims, such as the child in Tears, are out of sight. Study this child. How can anyone believe war is an answer?

Shere cries. God must surely also cry.  

In many of Shere’s paintings the light is in late day, the shadows long, the light pierces forests, falls on lonely roads. There is great transforming beauty in the late day shadows and light. In the desert, furnace blasted, lifeless dirt, rock and sand turn to soothing, warm orange and gold, places where myths and legends can dance. In the Canadian forest, flattened layers of green gain depth and richness, turn to sparkling fairylands. The shadows, which enhance the view, foreshadow the coming dark, when the scene, whether desert or forest, blends to nothing. Are Shere’s artworks the hope found in light or the nothingness of the dark? 

Regardless, they come from the heart of a loving mother and wife, who hopes against hope for a better world. 

Shere’s love of family is obvious. Her portrait of her son, Feraz, highlights great technical ability. The Nest shows a need for each other, between mother and baby. The love, the comfort sought, travels in both directions. Sheraz is a lovely pencil sketch, where, again, Shere uses light and shadow as in her late day paintings. Her son brings Shere’s world into the light. 

Homeless moves from the loving realism of Feraz and Sheraz to a looser, rougher style. The child’s eyes are hollow, not beautiful like those in the artworks of her sons. The accompanying words say there is “never a hope of escape”.  

Juxtapose that with the calm beauty and hope of new beginnings in the blossoms in Paradise. Where Homeless indicates all is lost, hopeless, Paradise says we can follow a trail to the light of a better day, a better world where the love rendered in the family portraits can become, we pray becomes, the focus of the world. If humanity continues down the road of revenge and retaliation, a distorted sense of honour, shock and awe, unholy holy war and preemptive strikes our future will not be found in Paradise but rather in the despair of Homeless. Look at each scene. In which would you rather find yourself? 

A future in the light can be found in sharing, in getting to know each other. In the West, most people fear a trip to Pakistan, only thinking of extremists wanting to even kill us. My brother, whose work has brought him often to Pakistan and in contact with Pakistani families, knows Pakistan as a place he loves. The Democratic Republic of Congo is, without doubt, one of the most unruly places on earth, full of sorrow and danger. For me, however, it is like Pakistan for my brother. I know the country, have friends there. I know where the heart of the people dwells.

Whether Pakistani, Congolese, Indian or Canadian, most people want the light, not the darkness. We are often kept from seeing the people who suffer and need and want the light. As we let our spirit wander through the paintings and words of Shere, I pray that we, like her, wish for the light. Light found in getting to know each other and those who suffer. Thanks to Shere for pointing us to beauty, and for me best of all, to those who suffer in innocence. Shere directs to love, to suffering, to long shadows and despair, but there must always be hope, hope seen in the late afternoon sparkling forest air. Believe in the light, not the darkness. As one person, I fear Shere possibly believes her wish for light is futile. However, if one finds hope -- knowledge, steps beyond ignorance -- and passes it to another and another…  

Ray Dirks is the curator/director of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Gallery in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is also a painter, writer and photographer. He has worked either as an artist or with artists in 30 countries around the world, about half in Africa. He has had solo exhibitions of his internationally themed watercolours in Canada, the US (including at Yale University), Ethiopia(Goethe Institute) and Cuba (invited by the National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba). In 2002 he was invited to be a research fellow at Yale University due to his work in Africa.