The imprisoned self

April 21, 2024

Unfortunately, many creative individuals are being taught to produce only clichés

Rashid Rana
Rashid Rana


 common concern for parents and teachers these days is to stop young adults from self-harm. At any institution of higher education (art schools included), one can spot a few youngsters with scars on their wrists and arms. Usually hidden, these are sometimes displayed as a sign of sensitivity. The causes that compel growing persons to inflict pain on themselves can be multifarious.

Around 25 years ago, a student with this type of wounds or scars was a rare sight, although the practice of body-harm is quite old. In some contexts, it is desired, appreciated and encouraged. The piercing body parts has been considered a normal practice in various regions, tribes and cultures. Adding some sacred, significant or decorative items to the human body was a common custom in many primitive societies. It has continued till this day. African sculptures document how scratching permanent lines on cheeks and inserting needles across lips were regular acts. Likewise, girls in South Asia have been inclined to get their nostrils and ears pierced so that they can wear beautiful and expensive jewellery. One also notices some boys with rings in their ear lobes – a mark of fulfilling a vow.

Many Muharram processions include a display of self-harm, with throngs of devotees beating themselves, attacking their chests with blades or injuring their bare backs with small knife-blades chained together, while mourning for the martyrs of Karbala. The passionate multitude seems not to feel pain, exhaustion or weakness from the wounds and blood loss. Being a part of this collective rite seems to diminish each person’s individual pain.

On the other hand, the contemporary fashion of body piercing is a statement conveying one’s endurance for physical pain (eventually turning into pleasure and pride) in place of a grand and public ritual. All imaginable parts of the face and the body are incised to receive tiny pins, miniature arrows and small rings, sometimes concealed under one’s clothes. Destroying one’s own skin, whether in obedience of a convention or following a trend, is an individual’s personal choice, but this entails another subtext. Probably, flaunting signs of suffering to friends, colleagues and onlookers is a satisfying gesture, if not joyous.

Thus, a person’s misery is superior, important and to be shown. One is often surprised to see posts of people with broken limbs, lying on hospital beds, receiving injections, with blood-drenched bandages from some recent injury, on social media networks – seeking likes. There can be diverse reasons for this behaviour – ranging from sociological to psychological and emotional to rational, but somebody associated with the teaching of art may see a parallel in the pedagogical environment.

During the past few years, a change has been observed in the strategies of tutors in their interaction with art students, alone or in groups. If a student presents a photograph as a reference to forge/ create a complex composition; the questions follow a specific (and familiar) pattern: Was the picture taken by him/ her? Does it contain a personal link, i.e., his/ her house, immediate family, private belongings, things that he/ she purchased or grew up with? If the material is based on old photographs, some defunct documents, a few odd items, then the interrogations takes another path: is there any relationship with people who were photographed, wrote letters or used these objects?

In the case of rendering a landscape, a still life or a portrait, the queries extend to the young artist’s experience of being at that place, or purchasing those fruits and utensils, or a connection with the model. Some students, though reluctantly, pick themes from other cultures. These might include an Ethiopian folk tale, an Aztec myth or a Norwegian saga. Investigators then demand proof of an attachment to these far-off sources –absent in most instances.

Shireen Kamran.
Shireen Kamran.

The contemporary fashion of body piercing is a statement conveying one’s endurance for physical pain (eventually turning into pleasure and pride) in place of a grand and public ritual.

This tendency has encouraged the young minds to stick to the framework of their body, group of friends, circle of family and their servants. They are also required to obtain permission from others if planning to represent them in a work of art. The issue of consent becomes more serious when it comes to documenting a community outside of one’s own sphere of existence: strangers at the roadside, pedestrians in a busy neighbourhood, transgender persons asking for alms on traffic signals or street vendors, and so forth.

Such attempts in correcting students’ actions and choices have reduced many to self-centred creatures. Explaining their subjects and concerns, their discourse revolves around me, my fears, my turbulent past, my broken family, my traumatic experience in love, my failure in friendship, my medical problems, my mental issues, my childhood memories – and my pets, not realising that an 18-year-old’s private account is merely a drop in the huge ocean of human encounters, expressions, knowledge, etc.

Admittedly all personal matters, either from the past or the present, are important for a growing human, especially a creative individual. But the emphasis is producing cliches – hence predictable work. Year after year, one comes across similar pictorial solutions: rehashed versions of worn out photographs, family settings and intimate demons. Hardly a student attempts dealing with a topic/ imagery beyond his/ her life and (physical/ emotional) surroundings. A graduate of miniature painting hardly experiments with Tantric imagery; a Muslim rarely chooses Hindu iconography; and one has not seen a Pakistani art student learning from the technique, tradition and aesthetics of Chinese painting.

These restrictions, often self-imposed, are not limited to young individuals pursuing their degrees, but are found at the level of professionals, too. Writers are often criticised for describing characters outside of their gender, race and region. A recurring objection is: how can a male narrate the story of a female, or a white person talk about blacks, or a South Asian about the American-Indian culture? Such criticism is unjustified and false. It ignores the fact that fiction is a genre of constructing lies in such a convincing manner that they replace reality or become a meta-reality. A number of authors have produced work beyond themselves. For instance, Nadine Gordimer, the South African Nobel laureate, a white female, composed stories and novels about black men. Mohsin Hamid’s latest book, The Last White Man, does not have the background, characters and incidents relating to his home country. The American Jewish novelist Paul Auster even inscribed a novel, Timbuktu, in the voice of a dog.

A number of visual artists struggle with similar pressures, especially while working outside of the land of their origin. Many post-graduate students in the US, the UK and Europe struggle with their tutor’s expectations of representing their exotic cultures. Some of them yield to the temptation (trap). This is evident in the practice of many expatriate artists. But a few decide not to add the ‘cultural touch’ (once advised by a Pakistani professor visiting his former student in the US). Instead, they consciously choose to rise above the confines of vernacular identity. Rashid Rana, during his MFA at the Massachusetts College of Art, constructed abstract/ hard-edge canvases. Another Pakistani painter, Shireen Kamran from Canada, keeps exploring the language of abstract expressionism.

There must be many examples from other societies that re-affirm that creating a work of art can be a flight from one’s self, not necessarily a path to self-indulgence, self-infliction or self-harm.

The writer is an art critic, curator and a professor at the School of Visual Arts and Design at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

The imprisoned self