One witnessed a spectacle of hungry collectors ferociously bidding, sizing down students for art works for their grand minimalistic mansions, these were the usual suspects at the BFA degree show. What they don’t know is that they really missed out on the Master in Visual Arts’ thesis Display at the National College of Arts, three weeks prior to the BFA Degree Show. There was raw talent and real gems. Without the pressure of being hunted down by sales and haunted by money, it seemed the work was effortlessly executed, how the art world of Pakistan was, before all its glory and glam. A thesis shows should be about guts, audacity and mistakes.
My favorite would have to be tongue in cheek works of Raj Kumar, from Tando Mohammad Khan. Politically charged and poetically rendered, using ordinary, benign objects to state the issues of business of religion. As it mixes with money, it becomes more lucrative. (Other than the Faisal mosque and housing-scheme mosques, not one post-partition mosque is built by an architect or designed with innovation, since most are illegal encroachments that are on curbs and roads). Raj Kumar himself coming from a Hindu minority can be sympathized with. Just down the road to NCA is the Jain Mandir which was senselessly broken down to avenge the Gujrat killings and the Babri mosque in recent past. His prayer mat constructed with dice, a game of chance, lays rigidly on the gallery floor to look like an innocuous object. The pun is intended and yet very subtle; a string of ghalas sinuously forms into a gigantic tasbeeh. The making of the objects is seamless and simple.
Another work that impressed viewers was the mixed media installation of Mir Jabal from Balochistan. A human shadow is cast on from the inside, on one side of the ordinary shipping crates. The body of a tawny male does not give off any sense of claustrophobia or a state of panic, it seems he voluntarily packed himself to be transported off to some better shores/place. Devastating stories of migration make the news, a young boy found in the plane’s landing gear, and of the Aylan Kurdi; these resonate desperate times. In a relatively politically stable Pakistan, we still have migrants risking lives to cross over. Often during international flights, you find tail-end full of deportees, some chanting loud naats to soothe themselves from the phobia of flying.
Another distinct work from the thesis display was a cage written as freedom by Arshia Sohail. Having done her bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from Faisalabad, her work revolved around text and its oxymoron’s presented through its execution. A large installation with hanging cages constructed in the form of ‘FREEDOM’. Each letter was a cage with an opening for birds, with their feeding bowls and resting bars. The paradox of freedom and imprisonment in the art work – can be connected to political and psychological situations in a society like Pakistan. Her second piece consists of quotes looking exactly like few dots surrounded by two quotation marks – all made in stainless steel sitting quietly on the old mantle in the NCA’s former Library.
Last among this group of favorite pieces, were the extremely skillful large drawings on paper created by Sajjad Nawaz from Bhawalpur. Simple task of depicting a scenic sky on a cloudy day with just smudged and smeared charcoal appeared basic and banal, but was a complex feat due to sensitive rendering of details. Dulled, foggy spaces with no horizon in sight. Although they seem like familiar works, however their huge scale makes them unique from other artists.
MA program, like its Bachelor’s programs, attract a vast variety of individuals from rural, urban and even conflict zones of Pakistan. This diversity transcends class, status, ethnic and gender biases, creating its own sub-culture. This blend of people is sought in the most prestigious universities abroad, and essential for creativity and the makers of art. Around Pakistan, no other university that brings together a unique vibrancy. This group with its diverse student body created remarkably exciting works.
Even before entering the thesis show, one is conscious of how MA Visual Art is generally neglected by collector/gallerists. As I entered the main galleries with the honorable chief guest, IG Punjab Mr. Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera (and his platoon), we were the only spectators present. It was interesting to see the reactions of a police officer in a gallery, an ironic combination that can be read in multiple ways and interpreted on various levels.
One realization that leaves an aftertaste is that while newly created foundations of art are focusing on promoting the recurring, urban-centric names, they should concentrate on head-hunting new, raw, unknown personalities from smaller cities who would otherwise not have opportunities to attend slick residencies and prestigious biennials. The MA Visual Arts Thesis exhibition in many ways can serve the first step towards a long and lasting journey.
The National College of Arts MA (Hons) Visual Arts 2015 Thesis Display was on view from 10-22 January 2016. Images courtesy NCA.
Saba Khan is a Lahore-based artist and founder of the Murree Museum Artists’ Residency.