Adeel uz Zafar (b.1975, Pakistan) graduated from the National College of Arts in Lahore. An internationally acclaimed artist, Zafar has made himself known through his iconic imagery and meticulous craftsmanship. He has participated in numerous exhibitions in Pakistan and across the globe, including a solo exhibition titled ‘Monomania’ at Aicon Gallery and most recently ‘Shared Coordinates’ with Fost Gallery, Singapore. Late 2018, the artist attended a month long residency in Spain, organised by AAN Foundation and the C3A Museum at Cordoba, Spain. Alongside his artistic career, Zafar has also been a teacher for over a decade and taught in numerous art institutes. One of his most recent ventures is that of curation, where the artist has been working with several emerging artists by curating a number of shows in the last few years. This article focuses on Zafar’s decade long career as an academic, mentor and his recent work with younger artists, and the importance it has held for him.
JA: Before we speak about your latest residency, I would like to quickly ask about an interesting collaboration you had done with Seoul fashion label ‘Juun.J’ which resulted in your bandaged protagonists moving from wall-size paintings to being mass produced on clothing. How do you think that affected your work and its audience?
AZ: The imagery and figures that I have been producing through my signature style are quite widely understood and accepted, some even are iconic and therefore, global phenomena. This label usually works with one artist a year and in 2018 chose my work as they believed it fit their brand, which has been highly influenced by youth and street culture. This process became a kind of multiplication of the works. Someone who may not have seen the original, can now own a version of it at a more affordable price. The imagery does change with the scale and medium completely differing but in my opinion, these fields of fine art, fashion, textile etc. are all linked so when they come together they create something new and it’s nice to see people interacting with it on a different platform. The imagery also becomes a commodity, sold in huge numbers but this not a new phenomenon. You can see it happening all throughout pop culture with collaborations between multiple fields and artists.
JA: You were recently in Spain for an artist residency which lasted from October to November. Please tell us how it came to be?
AZ: Yes, this was the first international residency initiated by the AAN Foundation which I was selected for. It was a collaboration between AAN and C3A Museum at Cordoba, Spain. The artistic director there is Alvaro Rodriguez Fominaya and there were a total of 4 resident artists from which, I was the only one not from Spain. The idea for this residency was to go into this new and different culture and allow it to inspire my practice whilst I explore ideas for a new body of work. While I was there, I travelled to different cities within Spain. I was situated in Cordoba and while travelling around I was most interested in researching the overlapping of histories and multiple reigns that the land has experienced. For example, there was the Ottoman Empire where the Muslims were ruling and before that the Romans had come to power and then later on came the Christians. Interestingly you can find traces of these amalgamated cultures particularly through the architecture left behind. So my query was to look at all these aspects and then work further. The outcome of this residency will eventually culminate into an exhibition of a new body of work at the AAN art space in the near future.
JA: There was also a mask-making workshop that looked quite successful…
AZ: Yes, well normally whenever I have participated in an international residency, I have engaged with the communities through different projects. Previously during a residency in Ohio, I showed the locals my work and did a workshop that engaged the younger community. It’s a wonderful experience as they are interested in our culture and always like to know more. So for this residency, the museum has a program for their younger audience and asked me if I could conduct a workshop with the youth. Since I have had experience as a puppeteer by doing three international puppet festivals when I was in college, I wanted to revive that for them. That’s how this workshop for mask making came into fruition. We used different found materials that were easily accessible and the kids were very excited with the outcome. I too, was happy with it.
JA: Speaking of holding workshops, you have also been an art teacher for several years…
AZ: I have been teaching for about 15 years. I have taught at several institutes including the Karachi School of Art. Right now I teach at the Karachi Grammar School and in the coming year, I will also be a part of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture as full time faculty.
JA: How do think teaching these students, of varying ages, affected your practice?
AZ: I think it’s not only how they’ve affected me but also how my guidance over the years has affected them. Considering how long it’s been as well as looking at the age bracket I teach, I have always found it fascinating to look at their works and approaches develop. Looking back at someone I taught years ago, looking at how they’ve evolved is so intriguing. But also, the approach of previous students also seem to differ from present day students which can of course be credited to the change in current affairs as well as the evolutions of artistic medium over the years. Another wonderful thing to witness is these students who ultimately go to an art college and then join the art fraternity where they eventually exhibit alongside you. The process and their commitment is something I am interested in seeing. Also, because of interacting with the younger generation, I usually feel like I’m learning more about the current situation through their perspective which also help with ideas for my own work.
JA: What is something you keep in mind when teaching your students?
AZ: Sadly, as I’ve noticed, there has been a formula set for art students during their formative years before college that is said to ensure them a good grade. However, this grade is short term and sometimes doesn’t help the student’s future as the formula only caters to polishing only certain skills. So if a student excels in a skill that may not fit in the formula, they are often forced to abandon it. However, for me, the most important thing is to look at their ability. Everyone has their own unique skill which is what a teacher should look at first. Be it figurative, abstract, or even a particular medium, it is important to allow the student to flourish in their own comfort zone so that there is a clearer understanding for possibilities of their professional future.
Jovita Alvares (JA): As of late, several curated shows have been credited to your name, particularly those showcasing emerging talent. How did this concern come about and how did you begin?
Adeel uz Zafar (AZ): Firstly I would like to point out that I do not yet consider myself a curator because this is still something very new to me. Having said that, I believe that this is my own way of trying to help these newer artists. This idea initiated some three years back. I was thinking about the limited art spaces in Pakistan but yet there has been a steady increase in the number of students graduating from art colleges, making it next to impossible for many to exhibit their work professionally. It is true that the acceptance of fresh talent has increased exponentially; especially since my own graduation, several galleries hold shows for fresh graduates but I still felt that something more could be done. So I drew up a proposal for an exhibition of maybe 13 artists, all fitting within a certain age group and most important, all unique in their own way. Be it through medium, imagery or display, I filtered the list of artists meticulously until I reached a decision. Titled ‘Microcosm’, I curated my first show at the AAN Art Space.
However, it is important to mention that this was not just a show for first-timers. Yes, there were a few that hadn’t exhibited before but there were also other that had. There were even some artists who weren’t regular exhibitors but held potential and a uniqueness which was important for the premise of this exhibition.
JA: You mentioned that after graduation it took you a few years to begin exhibiting, what would you say to those artists today who are still struggling?
AZ: The most important thing is how passionate you are. You don’t always have to be working, sometimes you could just write things down, take notes but always make sure you’re doing something. However, if you don’t have that passion, then it’s just a loss. There should be a drive and there shouldn’t be that creeping feeling that once you stop you won’t be able to work again. If you try, it will eventually happen; persistence is key.
JA: Thank you for your time.