Category Archives: Urban Absurdities

The Inevitable Self-Portrait

Valentina Cervi as Artemisia Gentileschi in "Artemisia" 1997

I cannot stop thinking about the myth of the artist. A teacher of mine from college brought this notion to my attention. Infact, her exact words were “living the myth” and I was struck dumb. Of course! I thought to myself. I was in college at that time and it was many years (many, many years) ago. Everything struck me dumb. But this was a revelation of sorts. It gave words to something that I had inarticulately tried to understand for a while. The myth did not bother me at all. I was exposed to a lot of popular culture that made the myth seem very desirable. I could love myself passionately if I lived the myth.

That brings me to the idea of the “self portrait” – the performance of the self on canvas (or any other surface/in any other space). In a way, the myth of the artist demands a self portrait. Where else do you begin? It’s ridiculous romance is hard to resist.

And so begins my half-assed rant. The painter is condemned please. Bataille, here we go again. You bite me, you do.

He (the other, watching me) uses words like succinct and reductionist and I’m watching his mouth. I watch mouths and I watch myself. I wonder how they see me. A friend recently told me that they (the proverbial them) only see ugliness in the difference. But again, that is just pop culture. The inevitable self-portrait of the artist. I see them as they see me and I see them. We all watch each other, watch ourselves. And there goes coherence, down the drain. Down, boy! Down it goes.

As a visual artist, I am condemned. This notion is fast turning into a belief. I could write pages of coherent rubbish disclaiming and claiming it. I could support all my bullshit with references. But here I am, writing about the self-portrait, fighting temptation – fighting the myth.

Fragment – consider revising. Ah yes. That old spiel.

What do you see? Do you see me? When I draw myself (when I draw myself out) do I see what you see? If I see you watching me, can I see what you see? I think I’ve tired myself of the pornographic form vs. content debate. I think I’ve tired myself of all the debates. My practice suffers from delays. And then I see such beauty and I am humbled. I am humbled by their mouths and their glances. I am humbled by the gaze. And yet, I draw myself over and over, hoping to see what they see as I watch them. I like to watch.

The self-portrait can be torture. Bataille, you bite me. In my metaphorical ass.

Sex and Religion

For some strange reason, the subjects of sex and religion pop up in classroom discussions a lot these days. Mostly, it seems like every discussion turns into talk about religion and the way it is seen and the way it really is etc. These conversations lead to no solid conclusion but it seems to be some kind of a trend. This is my observation and it sometimes interests me and worries me all at once.

What worries me most is their underlying smug belief that they have this perfect religion that is supreme and above all others. Perhaps, I read too much into their expressions. Perhaps, this is what most people are. I insist that we must not judge somebody for what they are and I try not to do so myself but I worry sometimes. It frightens me too. Am I afraid of religion? I don’t think so. Am I afraid of what I’ve been told is narrow-mindedness? Perhaps. But then what is narrow-mindedness, really? Am I narrow-minded in my fear?

Maybe we all draw the line somewhere. Maybe that is how we survive in our minds. The absolute conviction they have might frighten me but maybe they need it to understand themselves. When it will bother them, they will find something else to believe in just as strongly. Maybe they will believe in themselves. Maybe they will believe in something I can’t even think of. To each her/his own.

Sometimes we talk about perception of the body. These are also very interesting discussions (and less frightening). I have a class mostly of young women (and two young men) who are very opinionated about everything. Gender perception is also considered and they talk about it whenever they’re not talking about religion.

I have been thinking about the sexualization of girls in the context of the body. I think this is a subject that needs to be discussed. Recently, I realized that many people use the term “hot” to describe a woman’s appearance. In a comment on facebook, my cousin innocently remarked “Apa (sister), you are looking hot in this picture.” My mother also commented on the same picture asking me what hot really means. That actually made me think about it. It does have a sexual connotation but it is used so commonly that nobody ever thinks about it much.

So what is hot, really? I think it means to be sexually attractive. Why is that so easy to say here in Pakistan where in some circles, women actually believe a vagina is best ignored. It makes no sense. This took me to the idea of sexualization (make sexual, endow with sex, attribute sex to) and it seemed like something to think about.

So I googled it and found some material. A commentary on the CNN World Edition led me to the American Psychological Association’s website which particularily interested me. According to the APA’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls’ report:

There are several components to sexualization, and these set it apart from healthy sexuality. Sexualization occurs when

  1. a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  2. a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  3. a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  4. sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

All four conditions need not be present; any one is an indication of sexualization. The fourth condition (the inappropriate imposition of sexuality) is especially relevant to children. Anyone (girls, boys, men, women) can be sexualized. But when children are imbued with adult sexuality, it is often imposed upon them rather than chosen by them. Self-motivated sexual exploration, on the other hand, is not sexualization by our definition, nor is age-appropriate exposure to information about sexuality.

I feel the relevance of this study in what I’m trying to understand. “Hot” used for women in this context makes sense to me. The question that arises is that why can’t women just be “pretty” or “beautiful” anymore? I’m not assuming that those words did not objectify women (or children or men) but they sound harmless enough when compared to people being sexual objects.

In study after study, findings have indicated that women more often than men are portrayed in a sexual manner (e.g., dressed in revealing clothing, with bodily postures or facial expressions that imply sexual readiness) and are objectified (e.g., used as a decorative object, or as body parts rather than a whole person). In addition, a narrow (and unrealistic) standard of physical beauty is heavily emphasized. These are the models of femininity presented for young girls to study and emulate.

This brings me back to female bodies. I am ignoring art-history here and just considering pop-culture (which I believe is a phenomenon not unrelated to art-history but that is another story altogether). We speak a funny language. We express lust so casually. Oh, we say, she is SO HOT – without batting an eyelash. And then we get on with our lives without giving much thought to what we have really said. Or implied.

I don’t mean to nit-pick here but it’s something to think about. I believe people have the right to do whatever they want as long as they don’t force others to do the same. But then the question of social responsibility arises and everything becomes murky or too intense.

Which brings me back to religion-talk in the classroom. We want to be open-minded and accept every opinion and consider every side. However, sometimes, a line is crossed and strange arguments pop up which leave me flustered. As an educator, it is difficult to negotiate between the various belief structures of my students and the need to help them break away from preconceived notions. It is a daunting task that keeps me on my toes. But it also drains me but that is an acceptable price for what I’m trying to accomplish – guide my students to an understanding of themselves that would help them articulate their words and pictures. I suppose that is the best I can do. If the talk of religion and sex helps them, then so be it. To each her own, really.

Disclaimer: I realize a lot of words I have used in this post are quite cliched. I am just recording my concerns and observations. By no means do I intend to enforce “social” laws based on my own understanding on my students or other people. Also, I am heavily medicated for anxiety and whatever I have written comes from a place far, far away from the rest of me. However, it will help me function normally tomorrow and that’s what counts.

Another One Bites the Dust

I’ve been thinking about my progressive loss of innocence. This is a continuing process. Understanding it requires some thought and practice. It gives birth to cynicism and pessimism, the almost identical sisters that run along, hand in hand, spreading poison.

But enough of that whining and bitching. In the end, I’m just pissed off that the world didn’t turn out the way I expected. So now, the ranting can begin:

The art-world in Pakistan bites me in the ass every now and then. It can’t even be called the art-world really. It’s probably just an art-meteor – the kind that burns when it hits the atmosphere and some random debris might just plonk down in somebody’s backyard – or some gallery, in other words. You see a shooting star when it burns, and make a wish, which never comes true. So, it’s pretty lame. It involves a bunch of suits and aunties in galleries oohing and aahing and stuffing their faces with oily samosas. Yes, that’s a pretty good definition of the Pakistani art-world/meteor. Shiny but no cigar. And oily samosas (ofcourse).

A recent event disappointed me more than usual. It was an epic fail. An International Artist residency came to its drab conclusion and left quite a few of us fiesty types in the doldrums. I’m quite sure the intentions of the various organizers were honorable – though I’m sure they couldn’t have predicted the outcome: a complete “shartfest” as I’d like to call it.

Shart: (According the Urban Dictionary) 1. a small, unintended defecation that occurs when one relaxes the anal sphincter to fart (blend of “shit” and “fart”) and 2. gas followed by mass.

Now, I’ve had some minimal experience with International Artist Residencies before, but the outcome was mostly interesting and sometimes mindblowing. Or maybe not. My mind just refuses to blow. It is firmly held together with cynical armor. This particular event was the result of five weeks of – well, I don’t know what, really.

I had a bad feeling about it from the beginning. A friend and I were asked to be on board as working members. Ofcourse, I was interested. I’m always interested. We were also led to believe that we’d be on the selection panel for the applicants to this residency. However, the “selection” was a complete sham. We were shown the work of the already selected artists and then the rest of the “rabble” who were rejected for vague reasons. We selected some of our own anyway but nothing really became of that. I suppose there were valid reasons. Besides, not having had the experience in such things, our selections were probably not considered. Again, I’m sure that the organizers had good intentions. Or not enough time. Or something.

Being reasonable adults, we welcomed them to the best of our combined abilities. But I have a job so I couldn’t really spend much time with the artists. Neither could my friend (who is also my colleague). We had nice conversations. We laughed. We went for dinner. The usual. I even arranged some volunteers to help them and take them around. These volunteers were young people who had graduated in the last two years. I figured it would be a good experience for them. Everything was making sense. Or so I thought.

A few days ago, the students (mine included) visited this residency space to look at the artists at work and to speak to them about it. This was a disappointing experience as one artist – a young woman from Pakistan – was extremely rude during her “talk” – she began by yelling “shut up everyone” even though nobody was talking. Being reasonable adults (and horrified and insulted adults), we didn’t walk out and sat through an excruciatingly boring presentation of her excruciatingly trite and boring work. Some students questioned her which led to a very heated argument (which kept us awake) but she ended up talking rubbish. We heard that later she went somewhere to hide and cry. We weren’t too concerned, however. She insulted us all throughout her “talk” and didn’t answer most of our questions with anything that made any sense. We realized that an artist cannot be a moron and then expect to be respected. We learnt a very valuable lesson. We also lost some of our innocence right then since we learnt that:

  1. Morons are funded and promoted as artists of some value.
  2. Morons with excruciatingly ridiculous work are also promoted and funded.
  3. Morons who insult large groups of people are accepted into programs that are meant for artistic and cultural exchange.

Having learnt all that, we were then presented with a complete “shartfest” on the open day of this program/residency. The work was dull mostly with a few exceptions – mostly work by two of the artists “from abroad” – although the third one (also from an Islamic Republic like our own pure and holy land) created mildly offensive work. The work was mostly offensive because it was boring and we had all seen it many times before. We decided we like to look at things we haven’t seen before. However, we are gracious enough to accept that everything has been done before but we also expect that people show us a new and interesting was to look at what we have seen before.

We saw arrogance and lack of common sense. We saw a complete disregard for our feelings. We saw decadence and lack of respect. We also felt insulted and bored. Then we felt more insulted because this open day and residency space was quite far from civilization and we had made a great effort to be there.

Some of the important things we (my students, my colleagues and myself) learnt were mostly related to what it means to be an artist. Having an artistic license does not mean that:

  1. You turn into a moron overnight
  2. You can be rude whenever you like and insult people
  3. You can make anything and call it art and then refuse to answer people’s questions. When you put something up for people to see, answering their questions should be the next on your list of things to do.
  4. You become arrogant and strut about with a knowing look on your face. Then you’re just a pompous ass.
  5. You disrespect people’s beliefs like it’s your right.
  6. You expect people to love you and your work even though you’re a pompous ass and your work is dull.

Perhaps I am very harsh in my evaluation of this event. But pulling punches when something as dumb as this occurs only makes it worse. A student has been very accurate in her understanding of the whole mess. This is a very hopeful sign. This new wave of young people who will have artistic license will not be complete morons who are disrespectful and pompous. They will have common sense and the courage to be honest.

We Are Conformity

 

Ha! The work of an aspiring smart-ass

 

I might get your heart racing
In my skin-tight jeans
Be your teenage dream tonight

Conformity: 1. Correspondence in form or appearance 2. Acting according to certain accepted standards.

The space called art-school is an interesting construct. You can find all kinds of sub-cultures within this space. Justinian the Bieber illustrates such a reality. The dream of Success, or Love can also be found within this space. Individuals that bring with them the burden of various languages and cultures come together in this space to create the dream of the art-school.

Now all that might sound like a bunch of bull to most but I’ve been watching and learning. This particular art-school construct is far more interesting since it is a spin-off of a much older parent in a much more culturally laden city. This art-school exists in a city known for its military past and within a space where (important) people were assassinated. It’s a bubble inside a bigger bubble of fear and terror and everyday urban happenings. This art-school is an idea within many other ideas, guarded by barbed wire and barriers and bored security. This art-school is an anomaly yet it fits the idea too well sometimes.

Here the boys and girls from far-flung “remote areas” wear their skin-tight jeans and their bandannas and paint their faces and build dreams. Frankly, it overwhelms me sometimes. Another interesting take on this is here. Very interesting.

In trying to connect pop-culture with sub-culture and further with the idea of the art-school I’ve managed to draw no hard conclusions. The best I can do is observe and state what I see. This is a phenomenon that deserves further study as far as I am concerned. Also, it is very late at night and I am heavily medicated as usual. Hence, the random musing.

Uncle-Aunty

In Rawalpindi (or Pindi) I see many exciting things besides the profound car-stickers and burning tires. The following is my latest discovery:

Huh?

What is that?

I was born and raised in Karachi and I’ve always lived in cities. I’m not very familiar with animals that have aunty-like asses stuck to their tails. I watched this animal closely – it looked like a cross between a dog, a goat and an aunty. But it had testicles so it must be an uncle instead. One couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was as uncle on his way to becoming an aunty.

Anyway, since I write commentaries on aunties often, this image seemed very relevant to my research on Pakistani Aunties (and now Uncles).

No Rulz

As always, amongst all the treasures on Murree Road, Rawalpindi, I found this:

No Rulz

No Rulz. This profundity brings to mind all kinds of possibilities:

  1. The word NO rules. Say NO to everything. Say NO to reason and sense. Say NO to education that would build a nation. Say NO to basic human rights. Say NO to decency and morality. Just say NO.
  2. Ignore RULES. They are for morons who want to be boring. On the road especially, ignore all the RULES of the road. Never indicate when you’re about to turn into a lane. Never brake at a red light. That’s just a dumb RULE for the safety of the countless morons on the road.  Get rid of all your mirrors and ride into the sunset. RULES are for no-good losers who want to live or want their children to live. Life is for losers and so are RULES.
  3. There are NO RULZ (NO RULES). No fucking way. Deny everything. It’s great to have NO RULZ. It’s great to be here – in this time and place with NO RULZ.

Yes. Exactly.

Murree Road Madness

For over three years now, I take Murree Road to work and then back to Islamabad. It sounds like a great road – it’s name inspiring thoughts of pretty hills (now not so pretty but even so) and cool breezes. In reality, this road is a traffic-infested hell that I have to endure atleast twice a day – every working day and sometimes even on the weekends. And it’s almost always noisy and sweltering most of the year.

Today, it got exceptionally hot when protesters decided to – well, protest in rush hour (which on Murree Road, is every hour) and held up a whole lot of traffic which was already threatening to push my little (and hopelessly useless) vehicle on to a kerb or into large menacing “wagons” (that’s what they call the dangerously swerving Toyota Hiaces which serve as buses and are overflowing with sweating people) or even larger menacing SUVs with tinted windows and important looking number plates.

Tires were burning everywhere and the smell was making things worse. People (mostly young boys with school bags) were standing around grinning. Some people were holding banners. Near the Benazir Bhutto Hospital, things got more serious. There was a huge fire and people were shouting. I think I spent about 2 hours stuck in all of that and I never did get to work. However work did manage to come to me but that is another story for another time.

I got two lame pictures from my phone that I’m posting here. The huge fire was too impressive for me to remember to click. I guess I’m just getting slow in my old age.

The smaller fires

I spent about 45 minutes watching at this point as the protesters got bored and left to protest somewhere else. In retrospect, I should have gotten more pictures.

Notice how some people (including some policemen) are just standing around and watching

Soon, more people collected and random beggars appeared on the scene. This also reminds me – there were policemen everywhere and they were standing around and some were yawning. Others were more watchful but they kept a safe distance. It was very hot and everyone was sweating. A begging woman with a very drugged-looking baby kept telling me that I should give her a thousand rupees and when I rolled up the window, she kept knocking. She was very serious about her job.

Eventually, I had to turn around and it took me a while to come back home. On my way back, the same drugged-looking child was being carried around by another begging woman while the previous one sat on the kerb eating something.

I wonder what these protests will achieve. On a brighter note, my kids managed to get to Islamabad and we had excellent discussions in random places. We went to Bari Imam (a shrine for a saint) and documented/recorded rituals. We also spoke to exotic looking old people who were very happy about being photographed. In the shrine, life went on as always. The protests seemed very far away and dream-like.