Tag Archives: art education

Debunking the Myth of the Artist?

I stopped writing. Suddenly, I had nothing more to say than the occasional 140 characters on Twitter. But a student showed me something she wrote – something so honest and painful and here I am again. What particularly struck me was the belief of my students that anything was possible in my studio class. Anything. And that, just that, reduced me to tears. What have I done?

In building the myth, I broke my own heart.

This myth of the artist is a notion I need to address over and over – in my work and in teaching young people who want to make things. The sheer responsibilty of it scares me silly. Every day I am frightened of what I might be doing. I am not ashamed, I am simply very, very scared.

I found something I wrote a few years ago in a statement of purpose for something I barely recall.  And all I could read in it was the damn myth:

If I were to really think about it, the question simply asks me who I am. Or maybe, what I am. Or what I think I am. This, ofcourse, existing within the context of art-making and studying art. Then who indeed is this I? And what makes me different or distinct as a student and an artist? I am compelled to make art. Whenever something happens, I make art about it. I don’t even know what to call it anymore. It has become a default process. A reflex action. I document my life through my work. I tell my story through my work. It is my language – a language I’m still learning how to speak.

It is the honest truth, but what rot! It sounds like emotional bullshit.

Can I claim this makes me distinct? I’m just trying to understand who I am. Perhaps my work can help others understand something. I question the functionality of art-making. I question what it can do. I value teaching, which has helped me as I have helped my students. I want to continue teaching for the rest of my career.

And then the justification:

There is a question others ask me, and I ask myself: What good is any of this? What is the point of it all? I cannot know everything all at once but I do know it’s important in the greater scheme of things. Artists represent the time and space of now.

It all sounds so thought out and complete and utter bullshit at the same time. The truth is, I don’t know what good it is anymore. I don’t know if what I do makes any sense. I have no clue.

Yesterday, a friend told me quite truthfully that he didn’t get my work. And he sounded apologetic. And that made me very sad indeed. Why should he feel the need to apologize? You either like something or you don’t. You either care or you don’t. This insane pressure to understand and appreciate art also frightens me. All I did was make a few drawings because I was pining away for somebody who doesn’t give a shit. And then I put it up on the wall to satisfy my exhibitionist urge to display my tragic broken heart. And my friend was apologizing for not getting it and for not liking it as much as he assumed I wanted. So this is what it comes to?

I am sick of the myth. I am sick to death of the pressure this myth puts on other people. Good people who are kind and generous. Also, I hate what the myth does to us – to the artists who live it. To young students who believe in it because you (as their teacher/mentor) look so cool spreading it like it was the absolute. You make them think it is all OK and then they face the world as handicapped as you are. With no weapons but the myth itself.

War is Beautiful

True drama can be conceived only as resulting from the collective impulse of all the arts to communicate in the most immediate way with a collective public. – Richard Wagner

Air Raid Precautions

On April 13th 2012, students from 4th Year Fine Arts (with their friends from other years and the Department of Architecture) declared and performed a “beautiful war” at NCA Rawalpindi Campus. This was their response to the following (given to them by the brilliant Fatima Hussain as part of their minor project):

“War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flamethrowers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metallization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages, and many others … Poets and artists of Futurism! … Remember these principles of an aesthetics of war so that your struggle for a new literature and a new graphic art … may be illumined by them!”

– Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1912

It is interesting that Marinetti was able to ‘abstract mass destruction into the “world’s only hygeine” and he was able to view war as an aesthetic gesture.’ The objective of this assignment, however, was not to just find beauty in carnage, but to somehow transform ideas and notions about war and beauty. I couldn’t help thinking of Bertolt Brecht and his War Primer scrapbook project from the 1940s:

Popular war imagery is always beautiful. Popular war notions are also beautiful and moving. A friend recently said to me that “war is man at his best.”  Considering all of this, one has to contextualize war within the standards of beauty and attempt to understand how it can be transformed into process and product (another aspect of the assignment).

Meanwhile, the following illustrate the process and product of the response:

More pictures here.

The Living Newspaper

On April 4 2012, a group of final year students from the NCA Rawalpindi Fine Art Department, performed the “Living Newspaper” at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. This is on a day when Murree Road was blocked for a strike protesting the rising petrol and gas prices. In a way, it made sense for them to perform the agony (and ecstacy) of the news in public. Unfortunately, not many people were lying about at the Liaquat Bagh. I have often stared vacantly into Liaquat Bagh, to and from work since late 2007. Usually I see many people sprawling or sleeping on the grass as if the park was their personal space. In my head, I see it as a public bedroom. It has many romantic connotations – a bed of grass and a ceiling of sky. Considering the history of the park, one has to stop and wonder at how this space becomes a bedroom for so many people.

The Public Bedroom

From Wikipedia:

Liaquat National Bagh (Park), usually just referred to as Liaquat Bagh (Urdu: لیاقت باغ), is a famous park on Murree Road in the city of Rawalpindi, Punjab, Pakistan.

Two Prime Minsters of Pakistan have been assassinated in this park.

The park was formerly known as Municipal Park, but was renamed “Liaquat National Bagh (Park)” after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951. It is known as a place for political gatherings and for speeches. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on 27 December 2007 while leaving an election rally at the park.

One would think that this park was relevant to the Living Newspaper performance. However, it was used because it was most convenient on the day of the strike. Responding to convenience is usually the next best thing.

Following are some pictures from the performance in the public bedroom:

What I observed was a general apathy – a sleeping nation. I have no right to make sweeping statements, really. Some people roused themselves when the students seemed to be making a commotion (one performance involved loud shouting which gained some attention). I read the entire experience like an experiment of sorts. I have been accused of apathy time and again. It was interesting to see that everyone was apathetic. They didn’t really give a shit. These are the masses (well, a small fraction of the masses) that are referenced in everything – conversation, as expected (or unexpected) audience and in the news. It was hot and they were tired. They wanted some entertainment. Humor was gladly accepted. They were also confused about what we were doing there. One individual thought we were silly “not involving the media” in our cause. Did we have a cause? Did it seem like we did? I had a marvelous time.

He wanted to get his picture taken.

I’m A Slave (4 U)


I won’t deny it; I’m not trying to hide it.

Sure Britney. We understand.

I was watching Secretary (one of my absolute favorite films) and I started making some connections (as usual) that I thought would be relevant to my commentaries on life, art, and my own practice. Afterall, if I enjoyed it so much, it must have meant something to me or it would have changed my perception of the world in some way etc.

Lee Holloway is a smart, quirky woman in her twenties who returns to her hometown in Florida after a brief stay in a mental hospital. In search of relief from herself and her oppressive childhood environment, she starts to date a nerdy friend from high school and takes a job as a secretary in a local law firm, soon developing an obsessive crush on her older boss, Mr. Grey. Through their increasingly bizarre relationship, Lee follows her deepest longings to the heights of masochism and finally to a place of self-affirmation.

-The Storyline of Secretary (2002) from IMDB (The Internet Movie Database)

Since I have had sex and religion thrown into my face for some time now, I figured this would be a good time to find new ways to approach my interests. Sadism and Masochism are very interesting ideas:

Sadomasochism broadly refers to the receiving of pleasure— often sexual— from acts involving the infliction or receiving of pain or humiliation. The name originates from two authors on the subject, the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. A subset of BDSM, practitioners of sadomasochism usually seek out sexual gratification from these acts, but often seek out other forms of pleasure as well. While the terms sadist and masochist specifically refer to one who either enjoys giving pain(sadist), or one who enjoys receiving pain(masochist), many practitioners of sadomasochism describe themselves as at least somewhat of a switch, or someone who can receive pleasure from either inflicting or receiving pain.


…sexual sadism within the context of mutual consent should not be mistaken for acts of sexual violence or aggression.

From Wikipedia (my good friend)

Dr. Twardon: You know, Lee. There’s a long history of this in Catholicism.

Burt Holloway: You are the child of god’s holy gift of life. You come from me. But you are not me. Your soul and your body are your own, and yours to do with as you wish.

-Secretary, 2002

Very, very interesting. Especially within the context that I have been tethered to in the last five weeks. Every classroom discussion. Every conviction. Every single sweeping statement. I just had to watch this film again to find new meaning within the context. I just couldn’t help myself (Britney Spears would agree – ah, that great sage of our world today).

There has been some talk of objectifying the woman. There has been talk of ethics and morality. I’m a big fan of morality. I don’t think I’m unethical. I work for a living and I try my best. I have my own view of the world that I am comfortable in. I question all preconceived notions and try to find my own way. And yet, they come to preach to me what being a human being SHOULD be. I have commented on abuse and I have commented on questioning reality. And here I am, talking about romance.

Perhaps I should return to the classroom discussion today and stress on the importance of altering perception. I live to please myself and I think so do most self-respecting people. We all draw lines around ourselves but sometimes we like to question our own limitations (another boring word which needs dissection). So where does sadomasochism enter the “bigger picture”? Is it the indie (or alternative) value of this construct that interests me? Or am I just a freak on the edge of reality?

I was talking to a friend today about the value of pleasure. We make art to please ourselves and others. We take great pains (interesting word within the context) to express ourselves. We even hurt ourselves in the process (again within context). And all for the pleasure of it. To please ourselves. To please others. Pain is real. Maybe, these ideas led me back to this film I saw many years ago and adored. I am not a sadomasochist in my practice – or am I?

These are interesting questions for me. I used to believe I was programmed to be a masochist – given ideas that self-sacrifice is what makes you a good human being, a better person, a good woman etc. These ideals are widely accepted and thrown at you without much consideration innocently by every second person (be it a parent, a friend or just about anyone). I am not playing the blame game but merely making an observation. And then within that context comes subservience and obedience within religion. So interesting.

So we are to deny our human-ness for a set of beliefs? But we are also to deny perversion of a perversion? Denial is what, exactly if not perversion? Or if denial is within the religious context, is it not perversion? Can the words religion and perversion not co-exist within the same context? Is that not allowed? I feel these are valid questions. Why isn’t anyone asking these questions in my classroom? Yes, I am impatient and I do live in my own world. I also know (sadly) that my questions will be viewed as perversion. Or maybe I am underestimating humanity. Whatever the case, it will be worthwhile to atleast find out. If we are to redefine the world, we need to redefine everything in existence. That gives me some hope. That also helps me stay awake.

Disclaimer (I LOVE disclaimers): This is in no way a conclusive survey – and I do not mean to offend anybody’s religious (or sexual) sentiment whatsoever.

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.

Just Shoot Me

Double your Fun/Shoot that Gun

 Happiness is a warm gun

– The Beatles

 “I think he showed me a cover of a magazine that said ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun.’ It was a gun magazine. I just thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you just shot something. Like heroin into your arm.” – John Lennon

What is it with guns? Heroin for John Lennon. But what is it with guns and women (or women with guns)?

Is this feminism?

Now you might be wondering: what is she on? I’m wondering about that myself. There has been a lot of discussion (with students, mostly – I have 5 young women in my final year Painting class) about feminism for the last year or so. Recently, somebody really got me thinking about it. What is feminism, really? A doctrine that advocates equal rights for women. Is that so? A movement aimed at equal rights for women. Equal rights, then. Female empowerment (the act of conferring legality, sanction or formal warrant/authority of the same etc.) and so on. Sure. I like that. Does that mean violence – physical or emotional? It’s something I have been thinking about a lot recently. Do I have a right on my body? I know I have a right on my mind – an intangible beast that warrants freedom. But my body exists in tangible form within this world of other tangible things. The physicality of it takes away many liberties. I fight all kinds of imprisonment but my body is never free. Do I have a right to have a body? That is a question I have been asking for years.

I don’t like being categorized as a feminist. I don’t like being categorized period. But I am inclined towards certain doctrines within this category. Infact, I lean a lot towards feminism. But sometimes, I don’t care (as usual) about anything at all and I crawl into my bed and hide.

It seems I only have questions these days. Recently, I was interviewed by a student at IVS for her dissertation. She had all kinds of questions that I barely had answers for. My responses are barely coherent in my opinion:

Could you briefly describe your practice?

In answer to this question, perhaps you could focus on my statement on my website. It has been consistent for many years (though, I did add to it):

Her work began as an exploration of the randomness of nature; at times, rendering our bodies dysfunctional and therefore vulnerable – and yet paradoxically evoking the brute strength of our essentially animalistic, almost obsessive need for survival. She had hoped that it would then perhaps be possible to demystify love, desire and other such abstractions as functional necessities.

At the same time, it reflected an attempt to understand issues of identity and femininity in this environment. She had hoped to discover some element of truth from experiences and from nature itself. However, with time, it focused more on the raw and sometimes humorous nature of emotions and narratives representing her experiences. The process is ongoing, and from needing to understand the nature of things, she started looking for narratives and had encountered a need to look beyond pretensions, creating characters, self-portraits and stories that best represent situations.

I’m afraid I cannot be brief in this matter. It is indeed, very difficult to define any practice which is mostly a pursuit. The best I can say is that even now, I am very curious about the body and how it can represent what is felt or internalized from the outside. 

What would you say the aim of your art practice is?

Again, my practice is a pursuit born out of curiosity. I am curious about the human soul. Mostly, I am curious about my own (human) soul. Perhaps also, about the female soul (coincidentally, I am female so I don’t have a choice in the matter of choosing the gender for my soul. Many would argue that the soul need not be of any gender but mine, I feel, is determinedly female). This pursuit is not sentimental but almost clinical. I have been looking for the soul in the body.

Your question is a hard one. What is the aim of my practice besides my own curiosity? I believe, I might be creating coded pictures of what my soul looks like which is a bizarre, but valid pursuit. If I needed to see my soul with my own eyes, I would make a picture of it.

How do you understand the term feminism? What does being feminist mean to you?

I am still unclear on how to really understand feminism. Looking beyond the female archetypes (Maiden, Mother, Crone, Queen etc.) and accepting the fact of woman would be feminism to me. What if every stereotype all rolled up in one woman is truly a fact? What if that many-woman is the norm? What if she is completely acceptable with every aspect of her revealed without shame or guilt? These are important questions to me.

Would you call yourself feminist?

I would call myself female. Does that make me a feminist?

Is your work, in any way, a reaction to the society you live in? How?

Yes I believe it is. After all, I do exist in the society I live in. I also like to believe I am an active member of the society I live in. I perform my social duty by teaching what I know. However, I have often felt unwanted or unacceptable on many occasions in my life within this society. It could have been from something as silly as being told that ladies cannot smoke in the park outside Quaid-e-Azam’s Mausoleum or something as serious as being fondled on the street.

I wouldn’t say my work is a direct reaction to the society I live in. But it is a reaction or based on situations within the social structure – masked and blatant sexuality and gender politics. Wearing my soul on my sleeve, I live and love in this world. How could I deny that the society has no effect on my work? Essentially, every situation that has pushed me to make pictures has come from reactions to situations – many of them directly linked to the social structure.

Have you ever come across “anti-woman” sentiment throughout your practice?

Personally, I come across “anti-woman” sentiment almost every single day. A rude stare from a taxi driver is about as “anti-woman” as somebody telling me women cannot smoke (though they have lips, a mouth and lungs they want to destroy as much as any man). I feel people drive me to want to prove it’s alright to be a woman with all her woman-ness.

How important do you think it is to address issues via your work? If yes, then how do you do that?

It must be important if it’s in my work. Any issue that cannot be resolved by words, shows up in pictures, I believe. I suppose the issues that concern me show up naturally in my work.

In 1983, a group of fifteen women artists signed a Feminist Manifesto in Lahore in order to protect and elevate the role of women in society. Do you think there is a need for this kind of activist element in the society of today?

I feel the artist community is too scattered for anything like that to ever happen again. Also, there is a greater sense of female empowerment – in those days, things were different. But yes, if such activism does occur, it would make life more interesting and meaningful. Women artists do what they can in their work. I’m not sure if anyone would want to lean too far into activism. The capitalist structure of everything has changed the way people look at art – it’s for sale. Ideas are for sale. I think feminist art is also for sale. That changes the dynamics of everything. But perhaps, I’m just being cynical here. In all honesty, I’m not sure.

Do you think artists can actually make a difference to the status of women in Pakistan? If so, how?

I think women can make a difference to the status of women in Pakistan. They need not be artists at all. As artists, we try to bring out the issues that concern us because we can’t help it mostly. Some people are more focused on intentionally addressing certain issues. I feel that artists do not have the kind of power needed to actually make a difference with just their art-work because it is not as accessible as perhaps television. But artists can be involved in other activities like education and outreach projects and actually bring the important issues into the light.

Do you think contemporary female artists are different in their approach toward feminism? In your opinion, is it a successful approach?

I believe they are. I can’t say for sure if it’s successful or not. I think it will take a while to actually see what results they achieve from their work. If contemporary art work is a critique on society (which I believe it is mostly) then at least we have a record of how things are right now. In the future, when people look back, they will have something to look at. Sometimes, that is all you need to bring a change (if a change is indeed what we are looking for).

The female form and the female nude occur frequently in your work. What intent is behind that?

If I speak entirely from my own experience, then I must speak in my own voice. Since I am a woman, the female body best represents what I’m doing/thinking/feeling. This is my premise. As for my intent – well, everything isn’t intentional. Sometimes, I believe I use the female form and the female nude from habit. But mostly, it is intentional.

I do not expose the body (male or female) because of its aesthetic value. That is something I am quite certain of. I barely ever make any hair on human bodies either. I think it is the best way I can say what I really mean.

I don’t know what I’m on these days. I find myself isolated in my introspection. It’s time to get back to aunties, maybe.

Diatribe: Join the Tribe

After a reading this, I looked back (as usual) at my previous life and I found this:

Sunday, September 18, 2005

what’s gonna happen now?
something’s bound to happen. i hope its good. i’m making work like a machine. that cannot be a bad thing. i’m worried it will be recieved badly. thats a valid thing i suppose. its not something i imagined out of nowhere. my goal is clear in my head after years it seems. even if this goes badly, i should not give up. i should keep the faith.
i cannot sleep. its not from worrying though. i sleep at the wrong times and my caffiene intake doesnt allow me to sleep even when i’m tired. then i have to take a pill. i have to change that somehow.
NOTE TO SELF: quit all that coke and coffee.
somehow i don’t know if i will. but i need to sleep normally. and too many pills will just lead to more pills.


Right. Some things never change.

In 2005, I was two years out of my BFA and I was scared. I was scared shitless. I was also happily ignorant of many things. I just knew that life was difficult being a young artist. I didn’t even realize the struggle yet to come. I was just a machine – producing art-work without much thought of what was to become of it. Sometimes I miss that time. I was younger and sillier (I’m still young and silly) and I had no clue – really. And I had no idea I’d end up – well, here (wherever here is).

Art-school is hard enough. I’m at the other end now but I haven’t forgotten what it was like. Afterall, it wasn’t decades ago. I doubt I’ll ever forget. I remember the ritalin-induced frenzy towards the end – right before my degree show. My heart never slowed down and my hands never stopped. But my brain was fried for sure. Everything I felt was so important and the world was waiting for me. But right after, coming down from all that it was absolutely awful. Instead of the world, disappointment was waiting for me in every corner. I remember crying and feeling hopeless.

But with time, everything changed. Grad-school was so much better. It changed everything. However, I’m not claiming that I don’t feel that way even now. I do. And I am not ashamed. I feel angry mostly. I see things and I understand how things work. And that just makes me angry. I guess I’m just not as helpless as I used to be. Besides, I have something to look forward to. I’m corrupting young minds afterall. That’s something.

It could all lead to nothing at all. I guess I’ve accepted that too. I know I’m doing something as opposed to nothing. Another interesting approach is this. Now that is something I still have to think about some more but it all connects. We’re all doing something. I wonder if it’s worth anything (does it matter?) and if we’ll change the current structure of the way things are.

Education is a serious matter. We’re overrun with incompetent fools and aunties but we will survive. We will think and not let our brains rot. We will educate ourselves. We will educate others. But is that just a ruse for control? What do we really want? These are important questions but I don’t really have any answers. I’m just trying too hard.

Disclaimer: This has nothing to do with wi-tribe.

Young Buns

As thesis time approaches (yet again), I can’t help thinking of when I was about to put up my BFA degree show all those years ago. It is an insane time, when the world is always on the brink of destruction and students are very sensitive (and on the brink of explosion) but you never really forget it and everyone I know tends to sigh a lot and get nostalgic when asked about their thesis. I just realized that most of the people I do know were either in art-school or are still in art-school. Our roles have changed but it’s the same thing over and over again.

So, while I was sighing and getting nostalgic, I started to look through my older work. Super-me was something I dug out from my old files. I found something else too – something unfinished and untitled. I remember working on it, struggling with a large canvas and not knowing what to do. This eventually led to better pictures but I just had to show it here:

Completely Crap

I remember this being a particularly large canvas, with a larger than life figure on it. I couldn’t paint the model as he was (this was some strange compulsion I had in those years) so I painted him blue and bald and – well, strange. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing and I never completed it. This painting is lost now. I don’t know what became of it.

Detail of the Completely Crap Painting

I also remember thinking the face wasn’t too bad. I still think it’s alright.

Looking back, I frighten myself. But I remember the incredibly good feeling of struggling all the time. I struggled with working, with the materials, with myself…all the time. In the end, I turned out ok. My work turned out not so bad either. My life just got better and better. I think I am suddenly feeling very good about myself and I should have a cup of tea.

Another Brick in the Wall

You! Stand still laddie!

 (Thank you, Roger Waters)

Meg wrote to me again, mirroring my thoughts in some uncanny way. Meg is the student from Tyler I am collaborating with through e-mail – I give her all the credit for this since she pointed out that our dialogue was a collaboration. I have decided it is collaborative dialogue. Yes, that’s what I will call it.

This time she showed me her work and talked about the machine:

To give you an idea of what I’ve been working on lately I’ve attached some images. There are mainly two bodies of work that I like to focus on at one time, mostly because I have so many ideas its hard to keep them all together. The one image is from a collaboration I had with a composer I knew where she made a musical composition from my painting and I made my painting from her composition. The other body is a continuing series where I collaborate with graffiti artists. My first solo exhibition will be taking place at the school next week, not my first choice but the space is huge so I’m grateful for it.

Meg Pursell's work 1

Meg Pursell's work 2

I have to tell you that I have been investigating many aspects of what it means to attend an American art college as of late. A few weeks ago I decided to present a series of drawings for a social experiment, where names of homegrown American terrorists were paired with small abstract paintings. All of the names had appeared in two second blurbs on news stations very recently, and thoroughly covered by the New York Times. Not one of my class mates recognized the names, not a single one. And they were very angry. I still have no inclination whether they were mad with me for seemingly accusing them of not knowing, or if they were mad at themselves out of guilt.

The school is a huge machine pumping out students like products on a conveyor belt, the learning structure is standardized, and they use their students for free labor at the end of the semesters. That’s right….at the end of every semester all of the Tyler students must attend a required studio clean up for 4+ hours to return the studios to their original state or grades are with-held. An economy where people desperately need jobs, Temple tries to save a buck in using their students who already pay tuition. I have no problem cleaning up my own mess but this doesn’t seem right.

I worry about continuing to practice art because of this machine. Luckily my other projects have taken me abroad to collaborate with other artists. So far I have worked with graffiti artists twice in Philadelphia, once in Rome Italy, and very recently in Shanghai China. The idea of collaboration interests me very much; I think this is because I have a strong idea about American artists being very selfish and the lack of one American community. This takes some explanation. A few of my friends are from Palestine, Lebanon, Greece, and the Dominican Republic. When they discuss their hometowns, they often talk about how neighbors are very supportive of each other (when families have babies in the Dominican the neighbors will take care of that family for a month, washing laundry, cooking, any kind of chore). In the United States the idea of the American Dream ruins any kind of a unified American community; individuals pursue a better life for themselves not for their neighbors. In fact, any time I’ve ever seen any kind of collaboration it’s been when a disaster has happened (9/11, blizzards..etc.). So any time I get the chance I try to collaborate with other artists; one voice can speak but many can get really loud. Which is exactly why I appreciate your collaboration so much. 


I worry about the machine itself. I am a part of this system – at the other end. This occurs to me often and sometimes I feel guilty when I go with the flow and standardize what is unique and cannot be put inside a generic brown paper bag and labelled with a number. I hate roll numbers. They are generic labels. I can never remember them and names are much better. Infact nicknames are even better. Curly, Shaggy, Toothbrush, Psycho etc. I love nicknames. They have personalities.

I do not want to facilitate a machine with a conveyor belt. I want to facilitate people. They are human beings who need to be guided to their own paths. We cannot tell them who to be or what to do. We cannot fill them with our own ideas and our own disappointments – they have their own to deal with as it is. I have noticed that sometimes we (meaning teachers) tend to project our needs, our failings and our ambitions on to our students. It frightens me. And the machine demands everyone to be the same, to be judged in standards and to fulfill requirements based on that standard. How can it possibly work without damaging somebody? Are we equal to the point of standardization? What about genuis and genuine disability? What about learning disabilities and physical disabilities? What about difference of opinion? What about a difference in culture and social backgrounds?

Awareness has a cost. But it doesn’t have to be standardization. It doesn’t have to be conveyor belts and products. In art-schools, the products (students) are brainwashed to make more products (art-work) which has commercial value (great and small) but that is another debate. They are products and investments. As for community – they turn into competitive market shares and all hopes for community are dashed. Some survive this standardization and they struggle on the edges of elite market shares. They live on the hope for more. Even artist collectives and communities are elite systems with closed doors. Only the special ones are let in. And who are these special people? The ones who do well – in other words, the ones who have enough PR and make enough sales and show enough work to galleries who expect good sales. It’s a vicious cycle.

Am I a part of this machine? I don’t know how much or how well I serve this machine god. I just grow weary whenever I think about it. Meg has been kind enough to open this dialogue and for that I am grateful. I have been a student in the US as well, but I was international and I didn’t get too involved in the system I suppose. Or maybe I just didn’t think about it because I was too busy having fun and absorbing what was new to me. I never felt unwanted or inferior or stared at. That was such a relief that I didn’t notice a lot of things. Or maybe it wasn’t important to me then. Whatever the case, now I cannot ignore the thought because I feel responsible.

As for voices – well, there’s always those. And they’re almost always heard but not always understood. I am not an activist but I am a human being. I feel things and I cannot be apathetic and ignorant. I can stay confused though – until I figure it out.