Pondering the Problems and Potentials of Educating the Artist(-Teacher) in Pakistan

HomeIn Focus

Pondering the Problems and Potentials of Educating the Artist(-Teacher) in Pakistan

Pakistan has a powerful tradition of fine arts education that began more than a hundred years ago with the establishment of art schools in Colonial In

Is It Art?
Transformative art for the proletariat
Dialogues Through Lyricism

Pakistan has a powerful tradition of fine arts education that began more than a hundred years ago with the establishment of art schools in Colonial India. However this tradition has to date had little impact on her everyday life and values. For various reasons, the arts are under-represented in her schools and her overall social fabric. Yet Pakistan also has a burgeoning contemporary art scene that is closely tied to her art schools, both old and new – which are potentially powerful places of learning in, through, with and beyond the arts. These art schools, while being the main institutions for formal post-secondary education in the visual arts, are also where many of Pakistan’s art teachers emerge from. Yet these institutions remain relatively disengaged from the fabric of society, focused within their own comfort zones of art production towards different agendas informed by their curricular ideologies.


Historically, there has always been an emphasis on skill development in the education of artists and by extension, artist-teachers in Pakistan, and indirectly an emphasis on the importance of some form or other of a market. The majority of the art schools in the Indian subcontinent were started off in the nineteenth century to fulfill the need for the provision of skills to artisans and craftspersons who would be placed into different commercial fields where their expertise would be applied. The hangover of art schools’ emphasis on skill development is something that has carried over into the contemporary pedagogy of art as well – whether the influences were external, such as those of the South Kensington school and the Bauhaus on the curriculum of the NCA, or from the more widespread local and persistently traditional attitude of kasb-i-kamal-kun-ke-aziz-e-jahan-shavi[i], an idea which today is both an empty signifier and a deeply ingrained habit with some. It is an idea ripe with both virtues and problems worth a curricular discussion which is, however, beyond the scope of this essay. Another type of skill perhaps under emphasis at some of the newer art schools and programs is that of developing an art practice for a particular audience or an exhibited context, which in some cases is known to have sidelined the earlier more physical skill development in favor of conceptual skills approached through a post-studio art practice, in which the execution of concepts and ideas might possibly be outsourced to someone else.


The problem is that both these pedagogical attitudes, which can be found in Pakistan’s institutions of artist education today, indicate two ends of a continuum that unfortunately subordinate, compromise or altogether neglect some of the core values that being educated as an artist potentially offers. While not all practices fall on each edge of the continuum, the tendency noted is generally to be on the ends. If there is a skills-based propensity in what ought, by now, to be a mature and evolved tradition of educating artists, then the question arises that what are “skills” assumed to be? Are skills restricted to material and medium usage and understandings, proficiency, or perfection of a particular technique, or something beyond these? In what ways might these physical skills be seen to overlap and facilitate more higher-order thinking and understanding related skills (or vice versa), such as those addressing critical thinking and learning, human development and knowledge construction as art practitioners and citizens of an increasingly g/local world? In what ways might the privilege that being educated as an artist presents be more fully realized to its rich potential of facilitating the becoming of individuals as more thoughtful and engaged with the everyday realities of their lives in their places of being?


An important influencing factor to consider is that being an artist in Pakistan today, more than ever before, is socially connected to and embedded within the power structures present at institutions of formal higher education in the arts. Far from being new, this phenomenon is in fact a tradition that has evolved since the 1950s when Pakistan’s first artist-teachers returned home following their own post-secondary education in art schools in Europe and became established as pioneers in artist education and curriculum development at institutions such as the National College of Arts and the Punjab University in Lahore. These artist-teachers became tremendously influential on the ensuing course of art schools as hubs of cultural activity that eventually became a key determinant for the endorsement of pursuing art as a profession for future generations.


Today such an endorsement has been further solidified through the connections facilitated by institutional affiliations of art schools with curatorial networks through the personal-professional connections of prominent senior artist-teachers who teach at these institutions. Over the decades, and especially in the last one, seeking art as a profession has become somewhat socially elevated, relative to before. The internationally thriving practices of artists who teach at these schools have received increasing attention from the international art market and viewing circuits and have earned the patronage of art collectors, galleries and curators mainly from or via the Indian art world. These salient relationships with the art world serve them as well as others in furthering their careers as artists. This patronage has often been known to extend to younger artists-in-the making, such as students in and graduates of BFA programs in which they teach. It is not uncommon to have international curators and collectors visit BFA students while they are still at art school to ‘head hunt’ artists and artwork. Degree shows and often the final year of students doing well in fine arts programs assume an informal preparatory phase for launching some of these young practitioners into the global art world. BFA degree shows at prominent art schools like the NCA and the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University are technically more formal venues for this kind of sourcing of artists. Thus, contemporary art practice in Pakistan is institutionally embedded whereby the making, teaching and exhibiting of art overlap each other and generate an interesting but questionable educational culture.


This cultural system suggests that art schools are sites for a very particular type of professionalization of visual art production whereby art’s idea might sometimes risk being commodified to a certain extent, in which an artist’s or artwork’s success might be predominantly defined by ‘exhibit-ability’. Such a trajectory might also encourage young graduates to build up professional profiles as practicing artists in a fairly short time period which raises questions about the premise for art-making. On the other hand it can be argued that exhibiting also presents opportunities for growth to young artists and it provides exposure to the outside world to Pakistan’s allegedly more civilized side. But if this factor is a benchmark for defining success when an artist is undergoing formal education, what does it indicate about the motivations for making art that we as artist-teachers teach our students at these institutions? Are these students morally and developmentally ready for this? If they are not, what might we do to facilitate this readiness? Are we not neglecting some of the more important and powerful skills and possibilities potentiated by obtaining an education as an artist, amongst them giving time to nurture both art practice and personal development?


This conundrum is further problematized by the additional propensity of art schools to hire some of these young graduates as artist-teachers in the position of Teaching Assistants and Lecturers. Often the criteria for these hires include their more quantifiable achievements such as awards of academic excellence and high GPAs that endorse some of the most problematic elements of the Anglo-American education system that we have conveniently and lazily adopted into ours. They are problematic in this context, amongst other reasons, particularly because they are not necessarily indicators of suitability for being a teacher or for personal maturity necessary to be one. Situated in this role, the young artist-teachers might possibly fall into positions of mentoring young students close in age and aesthetic and intellectual repertoire to themselves. Having no or little experience in teaching, or how to generate pedagogical dialogue and little understanding of interpersonal communication ethics in education, these young artist-teachers seem often to follow the teaching practices of their mentoring artist-teachers in the courses that they teach, but without their experience and any clear guidance.


The proximity of the older artist-teachers with emerging artist-teachers in-the-making then is somehow suggestive of a systematic and cyclical production of not only art practitioners but also artist-teachers. And, it poses serious questions about their preparedness for teaching and mentoring yet newer artists and (artist-teachers). It also poses questions about institutional aspirations (or complacencies) to endorse shallow and superficial pedagogical systems based on ‘industrial’ success in the presence of fiscal and ideological unwillingness to invest in faculty development and other resources for providing a quality education. Yet these schools are the locus of the production and distribution of art made in Pakistan. They are in effect, the art world. They have a high generativity factor that is likely to affect artists of the future years and decades in this country, and therefore a responsibility to think about what they do more deeply and ethically. It therefore becomes pertinent to raise and address questions about the nuances of education as a critically reflective practice for experienced and novice artist-teachers, policy makers, art schools and their governing and funding bodies and administrations, as well as students of art practice and future artist-teachers.


Moreover, particularly as those who provide the contact hours to students, we as artist-teachers need to examine the factors we are taking into consideration for our remit for the education of artists and which ones are being excluded, and why. As suggested above, the culture of facilitating art’s production in this way raises questions about the nature of mentoring. In such a situation, often the boundaries of mentor-mentee relationships are somewhat blurry, which might make mentoring difficult to negotiate. While the social organization of networks of power and influence does play a role in practically every phenomenon involving human beings operating in groups, and it is unrealistic to undermine its importance, as educational leaders in the field, prominent institutions as well as prominent individuals need to heed a more self-reflective, self-critical stance which allows for regard for the students’ learning and the potential of the field we are in for this above everything else. We are not in a time, neither in our history as a nation, nor in a global context, when the metanarrative of an ustaad-guru dynamic can sustain the pedagogy of art. As mentors we need to operate with more spine, be more vulnerable, less egotistical. We must understand mentoring as ‘letting go’ and releasing rather than holding on or binding our students to our aspirations for their development, instead making ourselves redundant when they begin to fall firmly on her feet. We must practice the ethics of care – which might mean being simultaneously tender-minded and tough-minded towards our mentees rather than only pampering or only being brutal to them because of some power we imagine we have to exercise over them. We must find more inclusive assessment criteria and studio critique forms that are useful and meaningful to our students rather than being geared towards establishing a hierarchy between us and them which perhaps is counterproductive to their learning.


While respect for elders, and in the case of institutions, seniors, may be an important cultural value to us, we must also think about mutual respect and potential to learn from those that we teach. We need to seek more democratic, holistic and self-sustaining curricula, assessment and teaching practices that are more inclusive and less introverted, self-absorbed and ego-boosting, whereby we contribute to the development of the success of our students not just against an industry standard of seeking approval of networks of exhibiting and selling, but far, far beyond that to facilitate the transformative, human dimension of practicing art. We need to educate our young aspiring artists as citizens and human beings who have empathy, as art making opens up possibilities for becoming aware of this fundamental human quality imperative to effective teaching and learning.


We need to become more autonomous and creative in our pedagogical ideologies and discard the worst parts of Anglo-American educational legacies that don’t work towards the education of artists – such as rigid curricular structures, competition led motivation strategies, counter-intuitive performance criteria, and worst of all the corporatization of education. Instead, we need to embrace the more humanistic values offered by them through the vast scholarship and practices in education, both current and past, they have produced, and contextualize these to our needs and situations. In light of these, we need to constantly review our curricula and teaching practices both individually as artist-teachers and collaboratively as programs and institutions. It might also be helpful to achieve this should opportunities be provided for artist-teachers of all levels of experience to have pedagogical training in a culture where discourse and development of ongoing pedagogy is currently absent.


As those who teach others about the visual we need to pay more attention and teach students to pay greater attention by asking good questions and by always generating dialogue and discourse through pushing curiosity, imagination and courage to take intelligent risks. But, we must emphasize the need to pay attention to detail together with paying attention to the larger picture. Particularly in discussions about visual culture in art schools, somehow we tend to pay attention in a cursory manner and students are often unable to articulate what they think clearly. If we are to make art practice and its pedagogy more meaningful, we should push the limits of practice as deep inquiry, investigation and research supported by clear organizing structures and intentions, which must also be supported by developing in our students proficiencies for speaking about them.


For some time now we have tended to see knowledge not as knowledge-making but as something to be ‘imparted’ (by the teacher) or ‘absorbed’ (by the student) whereby knowledge is relegated to information to be banked and transmitted to the student rather than knowledge facilitated as understanding to be constructed and applied to both expected and unexpected situations that students might encounter. We need therefore to teach for critical consciousness and reflection as practitioners of art, teaching and being human, and first and foremost to practice this ourselves. For this we perhaps might need to unlearn and re-imagine artist education or simply, what education might be. A good place to start might be to think reflectively of ourselves also as students who are in a perpetual state of becoming what we are ‘not yet’.

[i] Translated as “Achieve excellence in your vocation for that is the way to win the world.”