ArtNow: How and when did you decide to become an artist?
Durriya Qazi: There was no actual decision. Just a drifting towards art. It was just something I always did. I drew obsessively since childhood, encouraged by my aunt, Khaula Qureshi who was a designer/artist. She critiqued my work even when I was a child. She made us bookmarks and paper dolls. Drawing was my refuge. I took extra painting classes at school. While at college I took art classes one summer at CIAC with an amazing young artist called Mansoor. Later with a friend I took drawing classes with Bashir Mirza. I had wanted to join NCA after school, but Shakir Ali who was principal at the time, advised my mother that I should graduate first. I was disappointed, but being only 15 at the time I did not question the decision. I eventually ended up at University of Karachi where I joined the English Literature department which I thought was the closest to a creative subject, and I was a great reader of literature by then anyway.
After my Masters, NCA was no longer an option as the college was going through a difficult patch. I convinced my father to send me to London, where I joined casual art classes and then enrolled on a degree programme, specializing in sculpture.
AN: What have been the common links and concerns in your work?
DQ: My work is primarily a diary…some of it is personal and some of it is a response to what is happening around me.
Its difficult to say, because I see the links more with hindsight then at the time of making the work.
Shortly after I joined art school in London, Afghanistan was invaded by USSR and that was a shock to me and the impact of a 20th century war on an unprepared and poor country. The images of that war and the resistance, an awareness of comparative worlds rather than my naive notion of one world, reinforced by my studies of art history, visits to museums and galleries, and travelling across Europe, allowed what can only be termed politics to enter my work. Possibly this may be a connecting link? However rather than political actions, it has been the impact of political attitudes, and the politics of culture and society.
Art became more than self expression in the conventional sense. Making art in the context of an art community I become conscious of a viewer of my work or aware of an inner conversation. The remembered self, or an externalized self represented by cultural metaphors. Self thus remains intrinsically expressed through what is observed regardless of how far from the self it lies. This was the most surprising discovery and continues to be so. It is in this sense that art remains essentially a diary for me.
AN: What inspired you, and some of your contemporaries, to incorporate visuals of popular art/culture in your art?
DQ: I can’t speak for others. I do not ‘incorporate’ visuals of popular art/culture in my own work. There are two distinct bodies of work: work made and generated by myself which has no inclusions of ‘popular’ art. And the collaborations with the urban crafts/culture industry, which I may direct and participate in but do not take creative credit for.
Studying art away from one’s country makes one look at the metaphors of one’s own culture. The first hurdle in uncovering the visual aesthetics, the canon, the ‘viewing’ of art in Pakistan was the impact of the colonial era, which redirected art making to European contexts. This has always been the case with ruling elites in any society. In South Asia the Mughals and later the British Raj introduced art forms . In time a symbiosis takes place, more so with the Mughals who made India their home than the British Raj who remained centred in Europe.
However, the further away from the centre one goes, vertically as in class or spatially as in area of influence, the less imposition one finds. Rather there is an evolution of language that continues to resonate with place and culture. I have assumed that the study of this culture and its aesthetic expressions will uncover the truth about art and expression of the people of this land. It is found in architecture, music, poetry, idiomatic language, and the decorative arts.
AN: How do you define the popular art in the context of Pakistani culture?
DQ: Popular art is not the right term. Popular art by definition is a term that refers to mass culture in the context of consumer capitalism. It is considered a challenge to high art, a degraded expression of culture. This is not the case in Pakistan. Firstly, we are not an industrialized capitalist economy in entirety. Matka and miswak are used alongside refrigerators and Colgate. In many countries the alternative is tribal art or aboriginal art. However in South Asia, colonialism intruded upon a very sophisticated culture developed by civilizations that span centuries of ‘high’ art, literature music which themselves made a distinction between ‘marg’ or high art and ‘desi’ or rural art.
I am still struggling to find the right term.
However, in the sense I think you mean to ask, what has struck me is how integral aesthetics is in our traditional culture. The cities may have squeezed out culture partly from the urge to homogenize, partly because of not having enough time or too many other distractions that a city offers. Rural Pakistan still has vestiges of traditional architecture and artifacts, however the city is rapidly making inroads. But the interesting thing is how the aesthetics evolve and make the transitions and integrate even in urban culture.
AN: You have been involved in documentation, discussion and analysis of transport art; what are the distinct features of this form of expression, traits which attract and inspire you?
DQ: Truck art re-interprets the court aesthetic through the folk art of Western regions of the sub-continent. The use of folk art techniques: circles dots lines hooks spades etc. can, of course, also be seen in the miniatures of Rajastan and Gujarat which use dots to highlight, simple black lines for folds, swift brush marks and a sure style coupled with the classical sense of composition, borders and scale change. The strong sense of colour in truck art is more vigorous than classical traditions and is used symbolically.
In fact at one level the act of decorating the truck is perhaps a parallel to the activity when visiting a shrine of showering scented red rose petals or a cover woven with strung red roses or a gilt cloth on the grave of a shrine. The decoration of transport is especially fascinating, since it uses the language and tools of fine artists, as opposed to textile and other crafts.
At the level of meaning and metaphor, it is a very public expression of inner aspirations anxieties personal philosophy. This is mostly amongst those whom society considers invisible, who are known not as individual personalities but as professional groups with no names.
It is commissioned art work which maintains an older tradition no longer in use in the gallery art world; in which both the artist teams and the commissioner of the work engage with each other.
These days I am especially interested in the poetry on these public vehicles, especially rickshas. I admire the courage of sharing aspirations and anxieties philosophy so publically making the streets an organic art gallery.
“There are over 270,000 kms of roads in Pakistan, all of which have been traversed by the 250,000 commercial vehicles in Pakistan, mostly decorated, and have been viewed by most of Pakistan’s population of 175 million. Although the number of cinema theatres has declined dramatically, there are still over 400, and while, according to a Gallup Pakistan poll, 77% do not go to the cinema, the billboards are in full public view if not directly noticed, certainly in the peripheral vision of passengers on roads or shoppers.
Compare that to perhaps a maximum of 50 art galleries in Pakistan, visited by perhaps less than 1% of the population.” From my paper “Stepping over the Fence” for Rising Tide catalogue.
AN: Do you think that art can be shared with masses, or do you believe that it exists as an exclusive pursuit?
DQ: In Pakistan only Sadeqain really did that. But yes I think it can. The issue is simply to find commonality of language. There is room for both practices: as in every other intellectual pursuit, there are academic circles and there are public forums. A scientist addressing a gathering of scientists uses one kind of language and scientific detail based on the training of the audience to understand that terminology and another way of communication when those findings are presented in a newspaper or general readership magazine. In art both audiences can be addressed at the same time. Multiple readings of the work become possible.
In the Pakistani context with my public collaborative works I have tried to find that commonality of language by looking at existing visual and cultural practices and creating interventions that become visible and thought provoking. So it is less about idealizing truck art eg than about using the convention that exists to provoke new possibilities.
My most recent work Chayn ki Bansuri used the nostalgia and familiarity with the lone flute player in cities or rural hillsides.
AN: Is it possible to divide art practices in different categories, such as high and low, or popular and professional, or local and global?
DQ: Art critics and art theorists need to do that to establish connective threads with art history. As an individual, I, or anyone else, remain linked by my physical presence to all images, practices, conversations. As an individual one may make a conscious decision to engage with one and ignore another, or establish judgements of quality but nevertheless we are affected by it all. Eg We may want to think of death as an elegant event like David’s Death of Marat or Millais’s Ophelia floating in the river but every morning we open the newspapers or turn on the television to very different images of death.
AN: You were active in establishing the Department of Visual Studies at the Karachi University; can you please comment on the state of art education in Pakistan?
DQ: I think art education like education in general is very problematic in Pakistan. Two parallel systems run – the international curriculum based institutional education with multiple teachers and texts as well as the Ustad shagird relationship of the South Asian tradition. The second is rarely recognized in art while it remains respected in music and Sufism. Art institutions increasingly try to incorporate ustads. Miniature painting allowed this to happen more naturally, by not only its historical precedents becoming a part of the training process, but also by engaging master calligraphers etc. In other fields like textile design etc it is also incorporated, however the weaving ustad will only be given the official status of a technician.
However, the infrastructure of universities, and the work space establish value judgements where an artist/designer with a degree is given more value. The curricula is also generally international and with the lack of interest of local galleries, critics and audiences, and the lack of funding means that the work produced tends to be for international and less for local audiences. This is also reflected in many other economic and policy strategies: we develop in order to validate ourselves to the world to get out of the label of an underdeveloped country rather than look inwards to our own communities. Pakistani art currently has so many artists who themselves come from communities rooted in rural communities, and importantly, it is reflected in their subject matter which amplifies those experiences creating an understanding and awareness of the issues and responses of communities usually invisible to the higher echelons of society. However they do not, as far as I am aware, take their art back to those communities. An example from the past may be the publications of Comrade and Hamdard by Maulana Mohammed Ali Jauhar: Comrade was in English and communicated the views of Indians to the British, while Hamdard was in Urdu and informed local populations about what was going on in Raj politics. In art there is only a one way journey from village to global art communities.
VASL is a modest way of bring the world to Pakistan. Its impact is limited to a margin of the art community but does spill over onto people in the markets etc they visit and work with.
AN: How is the experience of teaching and learning art different in our circumstances, compared to other places, for instance Europe and North America?
DQ: I do not think the experience of learning/ teaching art varies much but the content varies greatly and more importantly the motivation of artists. Countries that have come to see art as personal expression, or as critique at a much later stage in their histories of art, seem to have more socio-political narrative, as opposed to those countries where art making is referential to a continuous art history. Another important factor is the infrastructure of the arts: in Europe and North America funding and support, exhibiting, art criticism, collectors are well established. In Pakistan these are negligible and have to be negotiated. An artist in Pakistan has a fragile support structure.
AN: Do you believe in art being a universal language, or is it specific/dependant upon its geographical context?
DQ: A bit of both. However as cultures cross, the specific cultural contexts of geography have become universally familiar.
AN: In our fractured world, does art have a role to play, or has it been reduced to a self-indulgent activity?
Art ( and culture) have a greater role to play because they provide insights that are real to a culture, are primarily ‘innocent’ in that they are about sharing rather than predatory as so much of commerce and politics has become. The arts in the widest sense are the true healers of our world today.
AN: How can an art teacher contribute to society?
DQ: An art teacher is linked to art institutions – small or large, and these provide sites for self discovery, contemplation, dialogue, community and group or collective associations. They establish the significance of nuances as changing meaning. They develop a more thoughtful interpretive approach, personal control, individual choices. These are important in the context of the mass marketing of ideas and attitudes where the individual is enlisted into group identities determined by market forces or political agendas. Despite the small numbers of artists and designers, potentially their influence is far reaching. It is said that today, only 7% of information is transmitted through the written word. If artists engage with the whole range of communication possibilities instead of restricting themselves to the art gallery, their contribution to change would be greater.
AN: In your opinion can an individual be trained into art, or is an artist born with the talent, which can not be acquired at an art institution?
I believe all people are artists. Some make art just as all people are poets or musicians but only some write poetry or compose music. To appreciate art is also to be an artist. New media has expanded the space where people who may not be able to ‘draw’ or have those traditional skills associated with art making, can also produce art. An art institute never makes artists. It simply allows a hiatus, site and community where artists can focus on their self realization and expect technical and intellectual guidance.
AN: In what way has our colonial past affected the system of our thinking and the structure of our art education?
DQ: Very radically. It has created cultural divisions, a confusion of aspirations. However it has also created pathways of communication and connections with the world. In art education it has all but replaced the ustad shagird relationship, but that has also freed the aspiring artist.
More subtly but significantly the stage of colonialism that emerged with the industrial revolution where commerce and culture were split apart wrenched art away from the centre. In the past ( both European and non European) kings personally supported the arts, were poets, artists or at the very least the arts were an integral part of their courts. A gentleman ( or woman) was expected to be familiar with the arts. Today this would be considered a weakness in a hard headed world of commerce.
AN: Now in the age of globalization, what are its impacts on the present art education?
DQ: There is significant cross cultural exchange as communication through travel, migration, the internet has become widely possible. Training in home countries as well an international art institutions are both possible, international art workshops, virtual galleries and art sales are a growing reality. In fact one is less likely to be ‘influenced’ and lose one’s identity but ‘going international’ because a travelling artist is more conscious of representing or being seen as representing a specific culture. Whereas practicing art in the insularity of one’s own culture allows influence to enter and take hold without our conscious knowledge.
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In Conversation with Durriya Kazi
ArtNow: How and when did you decide to become an artist?