As art students, we were often told that the purpose of our training is to turn us into artists, and not craftsmen, perhaps implying that what distinguishes the two is the abstract from the tangible. One would further question why the two were mostly presented in opposition to each other and whether there could be a way to harmonize both as one. The fine art versus craft debate is by no means a new one, but it does lead one to question whether such unspoken rules are still applied in contemporary art practices.
The solo show by Meryam Asim Journey to Neverland opened at VM art gallery in Karachi, July 12th 2018. The show is described as aiming to ‘motivate masses’ and ‘provide relief for art lovers’ to highlight social responsibilities of nature conservation. Asim’s work focuses primarily on visuals of nature, specifically trees, in the form of wire sculptures, as well as clay sculptures reminiscent to visuals of classic fairytales. One can argue that the work might not be seen entirely as ‘modern’, but perhaps that was never the purpose in the first place. Asim remarks how her work aims to ‘revive’ the medium of wire sculpture resembling the ancient heritage of ‘folk art’.
What cannot be denied here is the emphasis on specifically the craftsmanship of the work, while also trying to present a thought process behind it which is beyond just aesthetic. In the fine art versus craft debate, Asim’s work leads us to further question: Can one truly ever be separated from the other?
Asim’s tree sculptures are presented as miniature versions of the real thing, adding a hint of childlike quirkiness. The sculptures are made to resemble trees of different shapes and form in colour or silver and gold, either standing still or frozen in wind-like movement. She describes the clay sculptures as ‘Fairy Mansions’, taking inspiration from her childhood fantasies. The clay sculptures also infuse materials of wood and light, also bearing resemblance to visuals of mushroom houses from children-oriented franchises like the Smurfs.
In an urbanized metropolis like Karachi, there is not much opportunity to witness or experience nature. Living in such a city, one can never possibly see actual versions of Asim’s sculptures in real life. With several artists in film, illustration and gaming imagining images of post-apocalyptic worlds without trees and dwindling nature (which does not seem like an improbability at this point with climate change), Asim’s work aims to conserve the image of nature in a fairytale-like manner, creating a frozen version before seeing it possibly become obsolete. Her work may possibly be overlooked by some in terms of art versus craft, but perhaps in a dystopian future, it would be the remnant of a lost natural past.
The premise of the show indeed relies on being relatable and accessible to the masses, not only because of the comparatively affordable price range but also because of its aesthetic sensibilities. Similar tree and clay sculptures are often also presented at Karachi’s annual Flower Show, where they are met with praise and appreciation. Reimagining nature with a child-like sensibility and creating accessibility to a wider range of people also possibly helps in emphasizing the urgency of conserving natural living things instead of simply just using as decoration.
Asim’s work therefore tries to break that binary of what classifies as art or craft, infusing both in a way that becomes appreciated by a wider public rather than a niche, while retaining a youthful sentiment that incorporates not only a variety of manual skill but also an artistic thought process to elevate it.