Tag Archives: art

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.


Inbetween Days

The summer is always a dangerous time. I hide in the summer. It is an old habit. And so, I find myself sleepless and introspective, with too many images floating in my head. I have no choice but to make sense of them. If nothing, I might produce tangible images even if they are only castles made of sand.

What is incoherence? When does meaning collapse? What is responsibility? My body in space is moving and I make a space, a shape in the world. My language rides on my back. My culture rides on my back. I cannot shake them off.

These are inbetween days. And I suffer them. Suffering reveals what is otherwise hidden. But sentimentality can be cloying. Orlan calls her art carnal. Is that like pinning butterflies on walls?

Once upon a time, a woman called Sumaiyya said intellect is irrelevant. She flipped her dark hair and turned her insane gaze on me and said find your instincts. Intellect is illusion.

The instinct to flee and hide takes over. But what about movement and line? One cannot ignore the flesh of the line. Requiems. Subtle grays of memories. Distracted by anticipation of passion. See, connect and do. Connect the dots. Connections are liberties taken in whimsical moments. Yellow piss in a bar. Objects of desire. All flesh and not flesh. So looking for flesh becomes a purpose. Even in lines moving downside up and sideways.

derivations and real behaviors
filling and emptying shells
flickering between violations
inspite and despite visceral visions
deleting instances of discomfort
making clear and unclear remote and indistinct
traitorous, perfidious scum rising to the surface
inbetween days

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.

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.

Seat 48D

The following is what I wrote in a shaking aircraft where there was no internet. I got to where I was supposed to be in one piece. Some art did occur.

The Barf Bag

October 8, 2011


I’ve spent my entire life in airplanes but now they frighten me. Suddenly it isn’t so cool to be suspended in mid-air inside a frail metal body. It isn’t cool at all. Turbulence and no smoking; blocked sinuses and impaired hearing. No, I don’t like it anymore. They have a strange monitor display up that shows a garishly colored map that is supposed to tell me where I’m going. Like it’s a consolation – like it’s supposed to give me a sense of purpose while I sweat in growing terror. Also, the sudden turns this plane seems to be making seem unfamiliar. Am I imagining things?

There isn’t much to amuse me around here. Maybe I should pay more attention. Meanwhile, the craving for a cigarette (a nice fulfilling deep drag) is driving me a little crazy. Maybe this has everything to do with my stupid addiction. I’ve noticed smoking is the most boring addiction. It doesn’t even make you look good anymore. It just smells bad and hurts something awful. Oh well, so much for that.

Atleast there is eye-candy. For some reason, there are only male flight-attendants on this flight. And most of them are a sight for sore eyes. Maybe you are required to be decidedly pretty before they hire you now. The older ones looked like anybody’s uncle. I wonder if they’re straight or gay. I’m tempted to ask just to have something else to do besides get paranoid about the turbulence and crave cigarettes. I wonder how they’d react though.

This brings me to something I have been noticing recently. It suddenly seems to be that the majority of the Pakistani male population is unattractive. When did that happen? Was it always like this? How did I not notice before? Has something changed? Every day on the road, I make it a point to look for at least one attractive man. I look into cars and stare at the pedestrians. I know that is mostly rude but if the men can do it, so can I. Besides, I feel like if I could spot one good looking man on the streets, then there might be hope for Pakistan after all. And everyday, I am disappointed. Maybe you have to be on a plane to spot nice looking men. These days, even clean-looking men give me hope.

I have been periodically reading the instructions on the Nicotine Replacement Treatment gum I bought before I left. I still haven’t popped it. It’s for when the craving gets so bad, I start groaning with pain. If I can still type, it isn’t too bad. I wish they had internet on the plane so I could tweet about everything. Also, has anyone else noticed how suggestive my seat number is?

Smack My Bitch Up

the woods

by Nadia Batool Hussain on Saturday, April 7, 2007 at 2:26am

it started with the eclipse, with how kissing a man and marrying a man are very different things, with neruda, with tears on the early train, legs brushing on strange legs, gloved hands and sitting on the floor. but then the keys were misplaced. and we got lost. and then we found it. the finger bridge. the hot chocolate. navigating the slippery rocks in trusty boots. gurgling stream – or was it the river? i am not a nature girl. we were looking for something in the woods. a story? then began the telling and the listening. the diner. the cemetary. sprinkles and jimmies. more words for my brain. if only i didn’t feel so sick.

The internet is a funny place. It documents life in a way. All those years ago, I was looking for something. In those faraway lands, right here at home – I was looking for something. We’re all looking for something.

In my quest, I found a lot of pain. No, this is not a sentimental journey into the past. This is a frank self-evaluation. If you’re not interested, nobody is forcing you to read on. Why so glum, chum? I ask myself a lot these days. Everyone makes mistakes but some of us make more than their fair share. We make the mistakes you can overlook on a good day. Our hearts and our minds are carried away by kindness. And then, when kindness is replaced with what lies under it, we are disappointed. And then we are marked with yet another scar. All of this is almost self-inflicted. We allow and so, we deserve.

And here I am, so many years later wondering if indeed I am masochistic. Nothing new here, people. I’ve talked and written about this too many times. But am I masochistic? Are we all masochists? Do we enjoy this miserable game? I look around me and all I see is suffering and insecurity. As somebody told me recently, these are difficult times for us all.

On another note, there has to be more to life than just this crap. That’s what I tell myself every day. My art practice is almost at a standstill. My health has deteriorated. Work is weird. Everything seems to be falling apart. Even the aunties have quit their aunty-ness. This is all so depressing.

But there is something…perhaps a new obsession which is difficult to define at the moment. It is absolutely illogical in the context of “real life” and makes no sense if I think about it too much. However, it has given me more inspiration than anything else for a long time. That got me thinking about the practice of art-making. Maybe the whole idea of muses was closer to the truth than I thought. Who knows? In constructing my own reality, I can do anything. And isn’t that what I do? I construct reality and then show it to other people. For some reason, they’re interested in looking. That part of art-making has always pleased me a great deal. People like to look. As long as its worth looking at, I suppose.

Sometimes when people tell me that they “don’t get art” I want to smack them. What’s there to get? Why do they expect profundity? Why can’t they just look and let it tell them about a new world somebody else constructed just for their viewing pleasure (or their own viewing pleasure). In this brave new world, where we “share” everything – our thoughts, ideas, pictures and emotions, what’s the harm at looking at some artwork and just – looking? Why do people expect some profound statement in a picture? I have to admit it frustrates me.

hand touching hand

Many years ago, in another world, I was manning the coffee station at a wedding at the Racquet Club, Philadelphia (wearing my sweet black bowtie) and the wedding singer did a cover of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” – the following lines got stuck in my head:

Hands, touching hands, reaching out
Touching me, touching you

Those were good times indeed. I had been on my feet for 10 hours but I felt alright. That’s where this drawing came from. Those were good times, yearning for that feeling – but it was a good yearning. That’s where my artwork comes from. Life and those moments when songs or people get stuck in my head. Is that so profound? It is something we all know.