Text: Nafisa Rizvi
Photography: Courtesy Nafisa Rizvi

Art students in Pakistan should be grateful that there are so many political, social and moral crises brewing in the country at any given moment. Imagine if they lived in countries like Sweden or Wales where the extent of drama in their lives is an occasional plane crash or blizzard. With the proliferation of art in Pakistan and burgeoning ranks of artists, it is only befitting the scheme of things progressive that art schools and colleges would be established with an urgency impelled by the need to validate praxis with pedagogy.

That however is easier said than done because the infrastructural requirements of an art school is fundamentally more demanding than that of say an MBA programme in areas of physical resource, space, not to mention the overriding factor of qualified teachers. Not all artists can teach effectively and the grounds for arbitrary subjectivity is so vast that the room to maneuver and manipulate becomes unmanageable and too much restraint and control on the part of instructors is required to conflate the dichotomies between allowing the freedom to explore and enforcing rigorous discipline necessary for the fruitful development of artistic practice. At best of times, this is a Herculean task but add to it the constraints of financial limitations and lack of effectual teachers and the entire premise of art education packs up like a house of cards. The few institutions that are managing to keep their head above the water are to be credited with fortitude and resilience in the face of all odds. In Karachi, the reputable art institutions are Karachi University Department of Visual Studies, Karachi School of Art and Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. In Lahore, National College of Art and Punjab University are formidable pillars of art education. The other smaller institution to emerge more recently is the Center of Excellence in Arts and Design, Mehran University Jamshoro which has only held two degree shows so far but speaks of a potential far greater than its visible capacity.

The greatest danger facing all art institutions is the influence that teachers sometimes cast on the students. Most times, the act of influencing is a passive one and is done unwittingly. In some rare cases, it stems from a need for power and control. But the danger lies not with teachers forcing their views on students but in fact of students picking up on the threads of their instructor’s or thesis advisor’s practice and using it because they have so little to offer themselves and because they believe sycophancy will get them grades. The problem is that much of the time it does. There are concrete reasons for this inability on the part of students to think for themselves. Students are exposed to such little critical thinking that when deadlines are upon them and the threat of the dreaded jury is looming, derivation and appropriation are the only ways forward. The reason for their lack of investigation and analysis is, amongst other factors, their complete disregard for the written word. Students are not hesitant or even disconcerted to admit that they do not read and in fact have no inclination to do so. In fact it has been suggested that the reading of literature should be made an integral part of the curriculum of every art school comprising at least 10 to 15 pieces of literary writing, apart from the referential art theory and history reading, during the four-year period leading to the Bachelor’s degree. These writings must comprise local as well as international authors and contain works of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

The suggestion is yet to be made mandatory.It is well-understood that all art stems from only two sources – internal and external. True, the external source is a vast one and includes in its entirety all human experience. The introspective space is more limited for a twenty- something youth and more difficult to access as many adolescents are not able to hone the psychological tools required for self-analysis. So in general, students are inclined to take the road less resistant and borrow from a pre-determined and ‘successful’ visual lexicon, rather than take the time to create their own personal metaphors.

Art students in Pakistan should be grateful that there are so many political, social and moral crises brewing in the country at any given moment. Imagine if they lived in countries like Sweden or Wales where the extent of drama in their lives is an occasional plane crash or blizzard. But there are exceptions to the rule and the students who have been able to present an insight into their own experience with lucidity and understanding have been the ones to go on and achieve heights in their careers.

A significant example is the work of Iqbal Hussain who painted the people he knew and lived with right from the time of his degree show at NCA and then went on to become an acclaimed artist. In the recent degree show held at Centre for Excellence two of the five graduating students explored their inner angst. The one who explored the idea insightfully and maturely Manisha Jiani was able to sift the sentimentality from the emotional response and emerged as the artist more able to communicate the inner voice with clarity. The other student Ambreen was unable to process the introspection effectively and her work disintegrated into a pit of chaos and confusion. The graduating students at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture have a wider perspective on worldviews and even their personal explorations are guided by external modes of analysis and examination. It was a relief to see that these students had stayed well away from the limitations of ‘fashionable’ subject matter and had detached themselves from BABS (Bombs and Burqa Syndrome) which is a topic used prolifically by artists in Pakistan. One of the students at IVSAA bravely addressed the issue of personal sexuality, a concern that faces many young people but is never confronted and especially not at this tender age. It can be said, however, that the objects created by the young artist overstepped the limits of boldness and entered the realm of crassness with the intent to shock and amaze viewers. On the other hand, it can also be said that when students are controlled in their work they are criticized for ‘playing it safe’ and when they are audacious, they are condemned for being insensitive and seeking shock value. A lose-lose situation? Education systems of the world today are questioning the goal of pedagogy. Are students taught to pass exams or are they imbued with relevant knowledge? The same rigorous questioning must be applied to art students if they are to graduate as thinking exploring art practitioners. The expectations from them should not be to break new ground or achieve financial success but to be authentic artists who are truthful to their art.

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