Strangers in love’s kingdom

February 19, 2023

We live in a world full of temptations; the last temptation of a creative individual is a lit-fest

Strangers in love’s kingdom


pring brings along a series of literary festivals. Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad have been holding these events for several years now; the popularity, participation and relevance of these ventures has some cities to have more than one lit-fest, back to back. Pakistan, in that sense is not singular, since, a number of places around the world are known for their literary festivals. These include Jaipur, Kolkata, Sydney, Hay-on-Wye, Dublin and Berlin.

In these highly attended sessions, authors are invited, along with politicians, policy makers, economists, lawyers, activists, musicians, actors, film directors, singers and visual artists, to speak at various panels; basically addressing an enthusiastic audience eager to hear its favourite icons. In Pakistan, activities of this sort have created a serious interest in literature, arts and other intellectual and creative pursuits among a public that does not have sufficient venues to satiate its passion.

Another feature of these literary festivals is that they resurrect the names buried in books into living beings and transform writers into talkers. A real metamorphosis, because writing is a solitary task; an author sits in his/ her studio, stares at the blank paper or empty screen and forms words in his/ her head before pushing the pen or pressing the button – in complete silence. While on the stage, the author has to discuss not only on his/ her books, but also the literature produced by others; even the political conflicts, human rights, environmental issues, and problems of identity.

Becca Rothfeld, a contributing editor at the Boston Review, observes that writers “are drafters and amenders, if not by vocation then by profession. In conversation, their strongest pronouncements tend to be timid, as if they were editing in real time.” However, some writers reveal such command, clarity, precision, perfection and charm that they mesmerise a hall packed with fans of all ages and backgrounds. Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid are a few among an extensive line of such writers. They successfully transport the hermit-writer at desk surrounded by papers and books – to a chair on the stage, with all lights and eyes turned towards him/ her, articulating with the same eloquence as writing.

This should not be surprising since the writers’ material is language, and language is what they handle at a literary festival. But then visual artists, too, are expected to be as smart with words as writers are. Some, but not all; solely because visual artists deal with forms, shapes, colours, paint, stone, wood etc. They express through images rather than text (even calligraphers are interested in the pictorial beauty of a sentence). At these public events, they are required to talk about their work, allure the audience, and respond to questions (usually comments, opinions, statement, suggestions and criticism).

Many artists, on such occasions, appear handicapped and mediocre, rather than the stars in their worlds.

Panel discussions are structured versions of informal discourse among people of similar profession. Not on stage, but in private meetings, exhibitions, work places, artists exchange notes on creative processes, professional problems, future plans/ ideas. Everyone in these circles is a talker and everyone is a listener.

But when it comes to addressing a crowd, some find it difficult. Others steal the show at a literary festival, mainly because of their facility with the spoken idiom – and due to their academic backdrop. Studio tutors and theory teachers talk a lot - to their students, their colleagues, in the class, during the critique – and thus develop a familiarity and flair with the verbal language. Their experience of formulating thoughts into concise and comprehensive order – in front of their students – equips them to confront the unfamiliar audience with confidence, ease and pleasure. Thus, one remembers intelligent discourse, important comments and incisive analysis made by some visual artists in panel discussions.

The valuable proceedings of literary festival sessions must have been recorded, but normally these are not inscribed or published. (In a sense the relationship between a literary festival and an academic conference/ seminar is the same an art fair and a biennale or triennial). A writer’s words are bought at bookstalls outside the hall, or bookstore in the town, but artists’ words disappear soon after the session is over. However, there is a possibility of hearing artists in print: interviews, quotes, lectures, addresses, letters; mainly collected and published in various volumes.

A major name in documenting these texts is of Dore Ashton, with her two publications, Artists on Art, and Twentieth Century Artists on Art. There are books on individual artists too; like The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, a great insight into the artist’s mind and a source of inspiration for the later generations. A number of texts, comments, statements by artists have been compiled like Joan Miro’s Selected Writings and Interviews, Mark Rothko’s Writings on Art, Picasso on Art, Marcel Duchamp: Afternoon Interviews, Matisse on Art, Henry Moore on Sculpture, On Art and Artists by Auguste Rodin, including volumes of artist’s words, of Bill Viola, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Louise Bourgeoise, David Hockney, etc.

In addition, one comes across artists’ autobiographies, memoirs and accounts of their art practice, such as Larry Rivers’ What Did I Do?, RB Kitaj’s Confessions of an Old Jewish Painter, Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy, Ai Weiwei’s 1,000 Years of Sorrow and Joys, Infinity Net by Yayoi Kusama and A Walk Through Walls by Marina Abramovich. Two more books of interviews of artists and creative individuals are also part of this compendium, Sarah Thornton’s 33 Artists in 3 Acts and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Lives of the Artists, and Lives of the Architects. In memoirs, quotes and interviews, the expression of an artist is modified, edited and presented in the best possible version for the reader. It varies from what he/ she had to utter in the presence of an audience at a literary/ art event.

This is hazardous because even a momentary slip of tongue can haunt a visual artist for long and mis-represent his/ her work to public. One can’t imagine artists like Iqbal Geoffrey, AR Nagori, Shahid Sajjad or Ahmed Zoay on stage and not getting into a controversy. Anticipating this, the South African Noble Laureate JM Coetzee, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2011 “took no questions from the audience and did no media interactions. He told the audience that like most people he had opinions but didn’t find his opinions particularly interesting”. Keeping the same position, Milan Kundera has long decided against public appearance and popular interviews, because what he wanted to say was there in his novels.

We live in a world of temptations, and the last temptation of a creative individual is a lit-fest. It is marketing. Because as soon as you are you in a panel, if you are a writer, your books are piled on the bookstalls inside/ outside the hall; and if you are a visual artist, your Insta following booms, viewing of your work increases, your rates may rise.

In essence, making artists a part of literary festival is a commendable effort, a way to reconnect to an era when painters and writers were closely connected. Some dwelled in both the worlds. AJ Shemza and Raheel Akbar Javed published novels, Shakir Ali, Tassadaq Sohail penned short stories; in India, Ram Kumar is recognised as a painter and respected as a fiction writer. However, in the present times, the frontiers – like national borders – are clearly and cruelly drawn, so a visual artist participates in literature festivals like (borrowing from a title of Czeslaw Milosz’s poem) a Stranger in the Kingdom of Love.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Strangers in love’s kingdom