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February 11, 2024

Many artists, including some from Pakistan, have led double lives

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ow that the elections are over, one remembers the political atmosphere and fervour from a week ago. Some of the erstwhile allies denounced one another, passionate party workers confronted opponents. Many voters were reluctant about their choices and uncertain about the outcome. There was a hype always on news channels about one thing or the other; and hysteria on social media. The campaigns highlighted the qualities, character and suitability of the candidates.

A few candidates in the recent or past elections were not mere politicians. Some of them were lawyers, engineers and professors. Some had a remote connection to arts being concessioners, collectors or artists. Hanif Ramay served as chief minister of the Punjab during the ZA Bhutto period. Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali was the foreign minister and education minister in the Pakistan Peoples Party governments; Mian Ijazul Hassan ran for National Assembly and was once secretary general of the Punjab PPP. A former minister in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government had earlier applied for admission to the National College of Arts. Some of the former NCA students were cabinet members in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government. There may have been a number of amateur (or aspiring) artists among the candidates for the National and Provincial Assemblies.

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Besides producing art, many artists are engaged in other activities, mostly connected to the arts, such as teaching, curating and criticism. This is not dissimilar to other epochs and other disciplines. Some of the most celebrated authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julian Barnes and Intezar Hussain were associated with newspapers; TS Eliot was a clerk in London’s Lloyd Bank before he became a literary editor at a publishing house in the UK. Some of the greatest writers of Urdu prose had non-literary occupations. These include: Ikram Ullah, who was employed by the State Life Insurance and Mohammad Khalid Akhtar, who worked for the WAPDA.

The situation has not changed much. A number of artists have jobs connected to their studio production. The list includes Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Kaleem Khan, Risham Syed, Mohammad Ali Talpur, Ali Kazim, Ayaz Jokhio, Nausheen Saeed, Farida Batool, RM Naeem, Jamil Baloch, Mahbub Shah, Mohammad Zeeshan, Ghulam Mohammad, Rabeya Jalil, Asma Mundrawala, Seema Nusrat and Seher Naveed.

Earlier examples include Shakir Ali, Anna Molka Ahmed, Zeinul Abeiden, Ali Imam, Khalid Iqbal, Zahoor-ul Akhlaq, Colin David, Zubeida Javed, Rasheed Arshed, AR Nagori, Saeed Akhtar, Salima Hashmi, Meher Afroze, Mussarat Mirza, Iqbal Hussain, Bashir Ahmed, Anwar Saeed, Durriya Kazi, Akram Dost, David Alesworth, Afshar Malik, Naiza Khan and Adeela Suleman. These artists had regular teaching positions at the University of The Punjab, National College of Arts, Dacca Institute of Art, Sindh University, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Quetta University, Karachi University, the Institute of Arts and Crafts at the Karachi Arts Council.

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Their day jobs kept the earlier masters, like their followers, busy during the work week. They produced art on off days and after their teaching hours. Others had less arty occupations: advertisement (S Safdar, Bashir Mirza), law practice (Iqbal Geoffrey) accountancy (Shahid Jalal). The pattern of Pakistani artists making a living through some other employment/ profession, and creating art on the side was a norm that nobody ever questioned or critiqued. Direct contact with the contemporary Indian art world, through museum exhibitions of Pakistani art (Beyond Borders in Mumbai, 2005); participation in the India Art Fair Delhi; and frequent inclusion in shows at various Indian private galleries must have made Pakistani artists reflect on their situation in relation to their Indian counterparts. People like Atul Dodiya, Sudarshan Shetty, Shilpa Gupta, Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat engage in no other job. They only make art.

The pattern of Pakistani artists earning through one or other employment/ profession, and creating art on the side was a norm that nobody ever questioned or critiqued.

This raises various points. There are other motives apparently to being tied to an art school, even though you might not need the meagre monthly salary (like Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Muhammad Ali Talpur, Ali Kazim) perhaps related to the world of commerce and artistic discourse/ development. Several Pakistani artists who had other jobs – most of them in art teaching - were not dependent on the sale of their work. They did not have to make any compromises, follow the market demand or worry about collectors’ instructions/ tastes. While dealing with all sorts of bosses at their workplaces, they sought to enjoy their freedom in their studios. This decision to keep their voices independent of market forces is significant. One has seen a few artists, who had promising early careers, succumb to commercialisation and lose reputation, originality and admirers.

Another reason for many to stick to art teaching in the past was rooted in the fact that art was not sold as widely, frequently and highly as today. The safest means to sustain oneself was therefore the monthly pay received from an art institute. Sale of their artwork was a rare and unexpected occurrence, always welcome but not relied upon. When their art came to be valued and drew high prices, they continued their art teaching duties. This preference cannot be explained entirely in terms of monetary rewards or maintaining some cliques.

It is related mostly to the deeper desire in a creative person to be in contact with his/ her contemporaries, which in our surroundings, is not possible outside of art institutions. Artists often do not meet one another, and when they do at gallery openings, they typically exchange only polite remarks and stifled greetings. When they meet socially, they never discuss art. They, like “authors” – in the words of John Wall – “talk all about sex and money.”

On the other hand, the environment of an art school is conducive to interacting with fellow tutors and students to keep in touch with contemporary currents. One might believe that visiting an art gallery or museum could provide similar exposure. However, the nature of the latter experience is different; it is something of an outsider’s voyeuristic pleasure. On the other hand, when a student is struggling with his/ her ideas in the studio, the tutor, who is a renowned artist too, relates to that pursuit/ endeavour and may get some notes for his/ her own art practice. Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay Kafka and His Percussors, observes that we are not only inspired and influenced by our professors, but also those who follow us.

The recent years have witnessed a marked change in this pattern. Now a number of artists - graduates of various art institutes – make a conscious decision not to work at an art institution,a grammar school or some other art organisation and to survive on their art practice alone. Some of them are making the choice to avoid a compromise on the nature, originality and uncanniness of their work.

I come across men and women - fresh as well as some not-recent graduates of art schools –originating from small towns in Sindh, far off cities in southern Punjab, unheard of places in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and vulnerable communities from Quetta and around – who have taken the leap found studio spaces and living places in Lahore. The stories of how they sustain themselves are not cosy and comfy. The life that awaits them once they leave the protected environs of an art school is hard and harsh. Yet they manage to affirm the great revelation that art can stand on its own, without the protection of academia.

I recall a conversation with Ali Kazim, after his graduation from the NCA in 2002, trying to persuade him to join his alma mater. He refused, saying he wanted to have more time as a maker. He reminded me of the Spanish writer Javier Marias’s interview with the BBC’s Hard Talk in which the host asked, “Why are you still writing in long-hand and don’t use a typewriter, word processor or computer?” Marias replied that he preferred a pen because he wanted to spend more time with writing.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore

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