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Naiza Khan: Alternative Art Spaces and the Empowerment of the Artist

 

Naiza Khan is a visual artist investigating corporeal and coastal geographies through sensory and visual materialities that comprise the human experience through the ages, portraying the continuous hold of history on to the present. Khan is the founding member and former coordinator of Vasl Artists’ Collective. She is currently the Professional Advisor at the Department of Visual Studies, University of Karachi and member of the Board of Governors at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.  She lives and works between Karachi and London.

 

In the mid 1990’s a small group of artists in Karachi, invested in urban visual culture, vernacular aesthetics and local craftsmanship constituted the contemporary art scene of the city. This group known as Karachi Pop included Samina Mansuri, Durriya Kazi, Naiza Khan, David Alesworth, Elizabeth and Iftikhar Dadi, most of whom were part of the Fine Art faculty at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. [1]In the face of the limited art infrastructure; a predominant gallery framework, influenced by the art market and voice of the art critic and the long standing hierarchical tradition of ‘ustad shagird relationship’ in art schools, a crucial space for experimentation and exchange of ideas existing outside and beyond these structures was sorely lacking. Karachi Pop realized the need of activating a critical discourse within the art circle as well as across disciplines. [2] The necessity of an alternative independent platform directed and shaped by the needs of the artists with the potential of initiating opportunities of connection and exchange within the international art discourse was vital for the growth of the art community of Pakistan.

 

This idea gained momentum in 1997, when Iftikhar Dadi shared his experience of participating in the Khoj workshop at Modi nagar with Naiza Khan. Engaging, sharing ideas and having a dialogue with artists from different countries had been an enriching and important experience for him. Dadi felt that a similar model could be exercised in Pakistan, a prospect that excited everyone involved, leading to the inception of Vasl. There was a strong sense of developing workshops in the region, starting with Khoj, which had been set up recently. It was during this time that Khan was introduced to Robert Luder, director of Triangle Arts Network. This was ensued by meetings and conversations with artist in Karachi and Lahore resulting in search for a space for an international workshop. [3]

 

After a year of site visits and six months of social outreach by Khan, in 2001 a rural urban setting in Gadani was selected and prepared for a workshop of 22 local and international artists. The selection of site was integral as it enabled the sociability of interaction, almost forcing the artists to engage with each other in the absence of urban distractions, in addition to a tranquil space which allowed the artist to absorb and explore the locality and provided room for reflection.  Daily evening slide presentations by the artists surpassed the limitations of language through visual modes of communication, establishing respect, recognition and insight into foreign art scenes.  The key elements crucial to the outcome of the workshop besides location were ensuring an equal participation of Pakistani artists, gender balance and instilling a sense of space and materiality. Without any pressure of production, creativity was spurred through conversations and sharing of ideas about location, people and process. The workshop concluded with an Open day, the informal setting initiating a dialogue between artist, critic, art student and the local community, drawing a crowd of hundreds from diverse backgrounds challenging the status quo of the establishment. On a collective level it was the beginning of community building. [4]

 

The name of the collective personifies the ideology behind this platform. Vasl means union or meeting. The impetus of the collective has been to “empower the artist to be an active stakeholder”. [5] Creating a non-competitive collective space for interaction, experimentation and learning by exchange, where place and materiality could be explored outside the confines of a commercial framework, with the chance to engage with diverse audiences in new ways.

 

By enabling artists’ talks, studio critiques and workshops, Vasl has ensured close engagement of local and international artists within educational institutions, playing an integral part in the development and improvement of formal educational systems. This interaction has introduced new socially engaged models and international art practices to the students as well as providing them with a chance to work alongside practicing artists. Taaza Tareen is an annual residency program which supports six graduates in the formative years of their profession, offering the rare space to experiment and cultivate new ideas without the pressure of production and removed from commercial constraints. The workshops and residency have known to anchor artists, creating a deeper understanding of one’s own cultural context, giving the space to reflect about their own practice. “Vasl’s residency platform has been especially conducive to experimental, participatory and site specific practices, and has allowed to freely experiment with new modalities beyond the commercial studio-gallery circuit.”[6]

 

This trajectory has not been an easy one in the face of political instability, lack of government support and funding, and limited mobility within South Asia. Despite these hardships Vasl has managed to harness and sustain long lasting collaborations and working relationship with the other South Asian subsidiaries of the Triangle network in the region; Khoj (India), Sutra (Nepal), Britto (Bangladesh), and Theerta (Srilanka). Each region has devised its own model in light of the needs and requirements of the local art community and varies from each other. The establishment of these subsidiaries has enabled and promoted artist mobility across the region where bonds are further strengthened by a shared post-colonial context.

“Triangle workshops strongly engaged with place and with locality at the expense of identity-based curatorial frameworks. In fact one can say that the decade saw very intricate and often implicit rejections of the idea of identity by South Asian artists. Triangle’s focus on practice over exhibition allowed it to foster work that engaged with locality and avoided questions of representation. What this means is that the questions of locality that pre-dated the establishment of workshops, were typically answered in formally different ways by artists engaged with Triangle.”[7]

 

These short intense spurts of creative activity do not end at the conclusion of the residency in fact they often serves as the beginning of long term collaborations or the initiation of a new direction for the artist. The ripple effect of these residencies has often transformed artistic practices. Cross pollination of arts and artists, visible in the collaborative projects that arise from these exchanges fall in an intellectual and reflective space of a discourse which pans and crosses borders. Aar Paar is an example of a successful cross border exchange of works between Huma Mulji and Shilpa Gupta over a 5 year period- 2000, 2002 and 2004 standing true to the spirit of these workshops by focusing on public engagement and experimentation, destabilizing existing hierarchies in the process. [8] The Museum of Non Participation by Brad butler and Karen Mirza is another example of an ongoing project, which started at the Vasl residency in Karachi in 2008.

The Vasl quarterly online newsletter is another source of mobility and connection, a free resource of local and international news and opportunities. With over 4000 subscribers across the region, it has facilitated accessibility of workshops and residency opportunities around the world creating professional openings for artists in this region and long lasting relationships.

 

“As more independent spaces are set up in Pakistan’s artistic landscape, I realize that a greater understanding has been reached regarding the critical role of such a space as a cultural platform. The practice‐led exchanges during the Vasl Residencies and development of new audiences via the internet have led to a ripple effect and a greater understanding of international art dialogues; and they have equally, importantly, brought meaningful reflections to our social and political realities. The effectiveness of such platforms depends on the support and volun­tary input of the artists themselves, and the courage, dedication and determination that this involves indicates the value that artists attach to this experience. It is tremendously empowering to work as a collective, to build a sense of shared ownership, and together, to chart the path ahead.” [9]

 

[1] Aziz Sohail , “In conversation with Iftikhar Dadi”. ArtNow Pakistan.

[2] Naiza Khan and Karin Zitzewitz, “Nodal Connections: Triangle Networks, Gasworks and South Asian Artists in the UK”. (Paper presented at the conference Showing, Telling, Seeing: Exhibiting South Asian in Britain 1900 to Now, Paul Mellon Centre, London, UK, 30 June – 1 July, 2016.)

[3] Studio visit with the artist.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Khan and Zitzewitz,  “Nodal Connections.”

[6] Ifitkhar Dadi, “Significance of the Art Residency”.Vasl Artists’ Collective 2007- 2014.

[7] Khan and Zitzewitz,  “Nodal Connections.”

[8] Naiza Khan, “Mobility and Change: Creative discourse across borders”. Art Spaces Directory, co published by New Museum, New York and Art Asia Pacific, Hong Kong. 2012

[9] Ibid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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