Born in 1979 and raised in Shahdadpur, Sindh, Irfan Gul Dahri is one artist who has made it to the art world with his fortitude and passion to become an artist. Leaving his house with a few bucks lent from his brother for an admission at NCA and a roll of drawing paper as his portfolio, risking his fate to become an artist, Dahri is making waves in the art scene as an acclaimed artist today. Having a profound experience as an artist, gallery curator, teacher and an insight to the art world, this week You! has a candid conversation with the dynamic Irfan Gul Dahri…
You! Where do you seek inspiration from?
Irfan Gul Dahri: The one thing consistent in my work is ‘change’. An artist can halt for some time but they can’t get stuck. After I practiced traditional art in London, it highly influenced me and shifted my work. I started looking at things through a socio-cultural lens. In 2014, I displayed my work at a gallery in Karachi which discussed religion, culture and what gives birth to human paradigm. My canvases evoked debate on larger issues such as karo-kari and also touching private subjects such as family.
However, the APS attack in Peshawar brought a shift in my work which was very personal because I am also a father to four children. I tried to push it away but it seeped into my work where I expressed my feeling through paints; the feelings of how our children are at risk to wars anywhere; in schools, houses, markets.
You! Tell us about the ‘Hybrid series’?
IGD: I have been painting dark, gloomy and serious subjects since 2003 or 2004. I felt I couldn’t get out of this darkness despite the calm and peaceful person I look from outside. I had so much noise within myself, there was a time when I had to impel myself because I was tired of the constant mental chaos. Not everyone knows, but I have been a victim of child abuse and this fear grew with me. As an artist I realised that I have to pull myself out of it and then I had a shift in my work which was based on childhood stories of demons, angels, witches and fairies. I strongly believe that we have a parallel world where people like us don’t exist, but are different from us. I had a direct conversation with the creator that lies within me thus I created the ‘Hybrid’ series. The darkness in my work was always personal. One can’t fake an art narrative.
You! You have had major shifts in subject. Why are artists scared of change?
IGD: There is a fear of market, fear of getting out of the comfort zone and face criticism. After a certain period, an artist has an idea that what sells, so he produces what is conventional and will earn him a livelihood. Most of us have endured tough times initially and after experiencing a lot of difficulties, an artist establishes and people begin to know us. There are so many artists who keep producing identical work and during the process, he/she forgets they’re an artist and convert into a craftsman. Because that’s what a craftsman does, they produce a design once and keep reproducing it because it sells.
You! Why don’t we teach art business as a subject?
IGD: Art is not a business until it’s in a studio but once you display it in a gallery then it’s a business. Artists are hypocrites and deny it, but art has always been a business. And for business, you have to teach curation, museum studies and how art will make to the market. The fact is Business of Art is not being taught in Pakistan but everywhere in the world.
We must realise, given our history, there are landlords as bosses in every field and it still exists, even in arts. They may be modern but they are from those same landlord roots. If you look with a microscopic lens you will immediately identify this group of people in the arts who don’t want the artists to learn how this business works. Majority of the artists are under their grip but there are a few who still know to turn the tables and they are doing it.
You! Being a gallery curator, what flaws do you deliberate when a budding artist proposes his/her work and you don’t provide them a show?
IGD: There isn’t one aspect. An artist whose work is good approaches the gallery and bags a show but later-on, these artists are not seen holding exhibitions elsewhere because they don’t realise the importance of displaying their work. They start making mistakes which pull away the buyers as well as the galleries. The ones who do understand these things, progressively make their way into the art world and come out as emerging artists.
You! Have you had interactions with amateur artists/students?
IGD: Yes, dozens of times. I receive emails from unprofessional ids with no text, body or subject and work images taken from a phone, later they complain that the gallery isn’t responding. Another category of art students is authoritative and directly command the gallery that ‘we want a solo in your show’. There is no requestor consent or the etiquettes of how to write an email. These emails sound like a threat more than a proposal.
I can’t blame them because institutes don’t educate them on how to approach a gallery for a show. Occupying 4 years as a gallery curator, I invite students to chat with them but there are only a handful who come and the rest have already assumed themselves an artist. If I am honest, the younger artists feel discomfited asking their seniors for help, later on complain that teachers, mentors, seniors and galleries don’t support or guide them. Being born poor is not in your control but dying poor is your fault. I was a textile graduate so people didn’t accept me in the art industry and still don’t accept me as an artist and if I had ever cared about them, I wouldn’t have become the Irfan Gul Dahri that I am today.
You! Do you think having a humble background becomes a hindrance in an artist’s career to reach where an NCA or IVS student could reach?
IGD: Artists from interior need to come out of self-pity and inferiority. I belonged to an area where there was deep-rooted mechanism of bribe and getting things done by influence. I don’t believe when some says ‘I can’t afford it’. If you want the best for your life with 100% commitment, no power on this earth can stop you from getting the best. I wanted to study textile at NCA but my eldest brother clearly told me he won’t be facilitating me. There were two seats for textile from Sindh at NCA and I committed to myself to get one seat at any cost. I asked my brother only to arrange the admission fee and there forth I will be responsible for what happens. I secured first position and got a hold of one of the two seats. 21 years ago, I had one piece of drawing role in my hand as my portfolio and I never looked back.
You! Did you face any lobbying when entering the art world?
IGD: You can call it lobbying or different school of thoughts. Galleries have their own vision and selection of art which they cater to. We know that institutions don’t polish or train art students to approach galleries and market which either results in losing these brilliant artists or they end up leaving arts. With my experience as a gallery curator, I think we can have many talented minds and if we start investing a little, we can produce better artists. We have to come up with collaborations, think of mutual beneficial opportunities but instead galleries behave like rivals.
You! What should be artists’ strategy after pandemic?
IGD: The artists who just graduated and faced the pandemic became severely depressed. Art is not a luxury but a source to provide you mental peace. People couldn’t make international trips and were saving money so we started hosting online shows and unbelievably, people bought more art than usual. I took it positively. Since everything went online, people started interacting with the art scene more.
You! What’s the most interesting feedback received on your work?
IGD: Once a client bought this 5-feet painting and four days later he called the gallery and said ‘This painting is haunting me. How can I live with this painting for the rest of my life?’ (haha).
You! What would you advise to the upcoming artists?
IGD: Dig into yourself and know what you lack. We waste time, don’t work on our flaws, work when we don’t have money and party when we have it. The ones who are working earnestly and regularly don’t have such issues. When an artist sells work from a show and later runs out of money then they go looking for teaching and other jobs. This will not be a problem if we work consistently.