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New Voices in Art

[N.B. The following essay contains some assumptions, and many generalizations; it is based on my experiences and perceptions as a member of the Pakistani art world for the last seventeen years, and does not propose to present any objective, absolute or infallible truths.]
Talking about the West, generally, and about the United States of America, specifically, Sarah Thornton notes in her book Seven Days in the Art World:
Since the 1960s, MFA degrees have become the first legitimator in an artist’s career, followed by awards and residencies, representation by a primary dealer, reviews and features in art magazines, inclusion in prestigious private collections, museum validation in the form of solo or group shows, international exposure at well-attended biennials, and the appreciation signaled by strong resale interest at auction. More specifically, MFA degrees from name art schools have become passports of sorts. (2008, pp. 45-46)
This phenomenon arrived in Pakistan a decade or so ago, but instead of the MFA, it has been the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree that assumed this responsibility for emerging artists. Most art schools in Pakistan did not, or had only just begun to, offer an MFA degree at the time[1]. Most professional artists did not consider the MFA necessary for their practice; some of those interested in continuing their studies after the BFA joined these newly established Masters programs in the country while some others preferred international institutions and universities. These attitudes have been slowly changing over the last ten years, and now more and more students graduating from different BFA programs in the country do go on to complete their Masters degrees. This has been encouraged both by the establishment of challenging Masters programs at art schools in Pakistan, and the scholarship opportunities provided by national and international funding and aid agencies for students to study in the West[2].
Nevertheless, the BFA degree and the BFA degree show have endured as the first and foremost source of acclaim for newly anointed artists in Pakistan. The BFA degree show has not only set the tone for the subsequent careers of many new artists, but has also determined their artistic ideology, imagery and content. There is a natural tendency to be preoccupied with and repeat materials, forms and meanings that have brought them their first acknowledgement and critical praise, and a hesitance to deviate from what has already been tested in the various critiques and discussions preceding their theses/degree shows. The commercial exchange that has become an integral part of these degree shows further encourages the new artists to continue deriving from their own undergraduate ideas and work.
The new artists graduating with BFA degrees in Pakistan now appear to be more attuned to and cognizant of the mechanics of the Art World and the Art Market and start to ‘emerge’ very soon after these degree shows. Many art programs still do not require any extended research or piece of writing as part of the undergraduate degree, nor emphasize or focus on trans-national critical and theoretical discourse on contemporary art – the students gain exposure to the international Art World and Market through the first-hand accounts and lived experiences of their nationally and internationally celebrated teachers/professors. Such and other environmental factors permeating the art schools in Pakistan today educate the graduating BFA students and guide them to ‘become’ artists. As
Howard Singerman, the author of a compelling history of art education in America called Art Subjects, argues that the most important thing that students learn at art school is “how to be an artist, how to occupy that name, how to embody that occupation.” Even though many students don’t feel 100 percent comfortable calling themselves “an artist” upon graduation they often need the further endorsement of a dealer, museum show, or teaching job – in many countries the roots of that social identity lie in the semipublic ground of the crit.[3]
… and, in the case of Pakistan, in the very public ground of the degree exposition.
The rise in the popularity of BFA programs here has ben parallel to the growth of the art world/market (based in neighboring countries in South-Asia, the UAE, and the West) s’ interest in Pakistani art and its mélange of anarchic historical, cultural, political, and socio-religious paradoxes and conundrums. Thus, at many art schools, there has developed an emphasis on the traditional and indigenous, the vernacular and the popular, that which would distinguish Pakistani art from art produced in other regions of the world even if expressed in similar contemporary mediums, forms and terms. In spite of this uniform mien, each art school in Pakistan is based in ideologies and histories distinctly its own, both past and present, which characterizes it and distinguishes it from the others.[4]
In Lahore, at the National College of Arts[5], for instance, the success of explorations in the traditional genre of “Miniature Painting” has of late become the hallmark of the institution. Many miniature painters graduating from NCA have gone on to practice illustrious and commercially successful careers as artists as well as teaching in other art schools in the country, thus proselytizing the idea and related mediums. However, there have also been other significant, parallel and alternate modes of approaching creative expression in the arts at NCA, that have led to varying streams in artistic practice as well as approaches to arts education within the country. Being the oldest art school in Pakistan, NCA has been alma mater of most artists in the country, many of whom have not only been teaching in the arts, but have also been instrumental in developing and establishing other art schools, including the National College of Arts in Rawalpindi.

Chronologically much younger than the National College of Arts is the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi. Many of the artists who teach at IVS have also completed their BFA degrees here, while others have been trained at NCA, among other national and international art institutions. At IVS, an emphasis on the popular has led to a movement in Pakistani art that significantly employs and investigates vernacular cultural elements, themes and ideas[6].
The School of Visual Arts and Design[7], at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, has, over the ten years of its existence in the art-academic realm, also contributed to extending the horizons of Pakistani art. The faculty at SVAD comprises artists who have completed BFA degrees at NCA, IVS as well as at SVAD. One of the guiding principles at SVAD was to blur the boundaries that have traditionally been perpetuated between disciplines and mediums, and focus instead on inculcating critical and conceptual thought and inquiry, while retaining content that is personally and culturally relevant and significant.
These three art schools[8], though distinct – in their histories, cultural contexts, pedagogical approaches and artistic vision, as well as in their respective hallmarks – are also similar in certain ways; one of these being the phenomenon of the degree show and its significance in initiating the professional careers of graduating students. Many inter/national curators and collectors pass through these exhibits, picking up both artists and art works. Another common phenomenon is the presence and intellectual and creative influence of faculty that has acquired national and international acclaim, both critical and commercial. Students may imbibe their mentors’ model of success and accept it as the general path to follow, in their own singular ways. These schools are also similar in the way they resemble art schools in the West, though to varying degrees, and the following description (apart from some chronological delays in this part of the world) is as pertinent to art schools in Pakistan as to art schools elsewhere:
The topography of making has been flattened: no one discipline, style, genre, or artist dominates. But there has been one unstoppable influence, particularly after the 1960s: the juggernaut of Marcel Duchamp as the tutelary spirit hovering above the notion of art as the outward sign of an idea manifested through any sensorial means, using any object from any precinct of production as its instrument, with its concept claiming priority over the making or appropriation of the optical thing, of the sign itself.
From the 1980s on, the influence of conceptualism has affected art schools all over the world. Many schools have erased the boundaries between disciplines, as the supremacy of the expression of a concept in this post-Duchampian epoch rides across all material means […]. Somewhere between philosophy, research, manual training, technological training, and marketing, an evolved profile of contemporary artistic practice has pressed the art school as a pedagogical concept itself to address what an artist is now and what the critical criteria and physical requirements are for educating one— or should I say educating tens of thousands, as the complexities of capital markets worldwide have fostered an industry of producing artists for the primary purpose […] of circulating objects tied to the speculative exchange of money. The economy and ecology of images and thought-encrusted objects are only burgeoning, nurtured by technologies that are in fact eruptive, pervasive, and increasingly accessible.[9]
Whatever the varying nuances, and whether the pedagogy is didactic and dogmatic, or egalitarian and tentative or any combination thereof, what seems apparent is that the institution of study does influence an artist’s ideology, work and career. This intellectual influence and direction may stultify divergent thought and unique solutions, but any effort to efface the school’s capacity to influence learners’ intelligences would entail a thorough re-evaluating and re-structuring of the perceptions and reality of formal (and informal) education and educational spaces, and the needs they fulfill[10].
Such an examination of the phenomenon of education, and the heterotopia of the school, is not only relevant for art institutes of higher education in Pakistan, but for education at all levels[11]. Most education systems in Pakistan prompt conformity, in line with the social and cultural norms, and at times even the most “progressive” and avant-garde art school can fall prey to this tendency and become didactic, adapting the dominant discourse as a dogma, even if the discourse was of its own invention.
Education and educational institutions, when concerned with emancipation and equality, continuously examine, critique and re-evaluate themselves. The purpose is “to give, not the key to knowledge, but the consciousness of what an intelligence can do when it considers itself equal to any other and considers any other equal to itself… Emancipation is the consciousness of that equality, of that reciprocity that alone permits intelligence to be realized by verification”[12].

Saira Sheikh is a visual artist. She holds degrees from National College of Arts, Lahore, and Columbia University, and teaches post graduate courses at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore
Notes:
[1]NCA offered undergraduate degrees only, until about 10-15 years ago, when it started the MA in Visual Arts; IVS and SVAD offer a BFA. However, SVAD has started a MA in Art and Design Studies in recent years. And, although the provincial Universities do have regular Masters programs, they are not somehow usually considered ‘name art schools’…
[2]USAID/USEFP administered Fulbright awards; Higher Education Commission of Pakistan; Chevening, British Council.
[3]Sarah Thornton, 2008. Seven Days in the Art World. pp. 56.
[4]“No school is a school without an idea. Every school embodies an inheritance at least and at most is an invention rising out of its inheritance”. Ed. Steven Henry Madoff, 2009. Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), In Introduction.
[5]Where I was a student in the Department of Miniature Painting within the Department of Fine Arts, from 1996 till 1999.
[6]I have had no immediate personal experience of teaching or studying at IVS, these are only my very generalized perceptions about the School.
[7]I have taught at SVAD, BNU, from 2004 till 2007, and then again from 2009 till 2013.
[8]This is not to say that only these three art schools exist or are important in the landscape of Pakistani art; the discussion here is limited to mentioning these three due to the limitations of my knowledge and immediate experience, and the scope of this essay.
[9]Ed. Steven Henry Madoff, 2009. Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), In Introduction.
[10]“As Thierry de Duve observes, there’s no certainty about the efficacy of art education or whether art schools are a necessity at all and will remain a fixture of the world, just as they haven’t always been required in the past.” Ibid.
[11]Being a visual arts practitioner and art educator, I have found that a body of students, many of whom find it difficult to think imaginatively, creatively and independently, confronts me. It has been a constant challenge to help them to realize that the skills of independent problem-solving, thinking, learning and making meaning are as, if not more, important as the manipulative skills. I have found that for most of them, envisioning and articulating a personally negotiated response is more difficult than answering direct factual questions. I see this as being indicative and a consequence of the prevalent education system in Pakistan, from kindergarten to high school, that emphasizes the learning of the ‘right’ answers for examinations, where analysis and criticism is not encouraged, and arts education is rudimentary, if existing at all.
[12]Jacques Ranciere, 1991. The Ignorant Schoolmaster, p. 39.
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