One of the rife discourses on art focalize on the question of art activism – that is, on the ability of art to operate as a terrain and medium for any sort of protest and social activism. A key motive for these artists is their aim to bring art away from the fringe – beyond the constricting gallery space – and out in the open sphere to a more central place in society primarily through collaboration and inclusion. For them to incite a dialogue with and within the public manifests as an essential ingredient. While many artists rightfully function in recluse and limit themselves to a white cube, there are others who opine that art is a great tool for community service. They account themselves responsible to spread the knowledge and not only give back to the society at large but also integrate the community itself through this creative process – be it through academia or through their artistic practice. This ongoing phenomena is gaining momentum in Pakistan in recent years; however, the country has been witnessing this activity since decades.
Unfamiliar to none, Durriya Kazi is a pioneering name which instantly surfaces when looking over this discussion. Kazi has held a longstanding record of incorporating means of collaboration and interaction in her established career. Moreover, she passionately propagates local craft and provides them with platforms to showcase their skill; consciously steering the process so the craftsmen remain the star attraction without any creative credit invited on herself.
Durriya Kazi is an iconic figure who has invested her entire career into nurturing and preserving the ever-evolving art culture in Pakistan. Instead of having a moment of realization, Kazi had an inherent inclination towards art since childhood. Born in a family of imaginative individuals, it is unsurprising that she gradually glided into this field to birth her career. After obtaining her degree in English Literature from Karachi University she chose to pursue her studies in London and formally enrolled herself in Kingston University where she specialized in sculpture.
Kazi equates her artistic practice to diary entries – noting her personal as well as collected reminiscences of the city. Her outlook on life and introspection of the self are manoeuvred by the socio-political arena around her. Soon after she joined the university in London, the strain between the two power blocs during the Cold war worsened as the Soviets waged war on Afghanistan. Kazi’s moral compass was heavily afflicted after contemplating the ongoing chaos and violence. She was driven to take interest in ideas of war, resistance, and the balance of power. However it was the varying political attitudes more than the political actions which she questioned the grave effects of. Several of her artworks can justifiably be defined as morbidly beautiful – emanating death, haunting, and longing. Her interest in comparative worlds – the so called developed countries adjacent to the third world – is apparent in her expansive oeuvre. She is drawn to scrutinize how the two or more entities viewed each other, viewed themselves, and how they viewed themselves through the other; and the process through which the dynamics within this convolution are forged by history.
The opportunity to study abroad allowed her to exit her personal self and to shed the identity she shouldered for years. Her extensive interest in art history, literature as well as her frequent visits to art galleries and museums corroborated these notions and compelled her to investigate the varying infrastructures in the subject of aesthetics; and examine the unlikeness between that in South Asia and in the Occident. Ideas of viewing and how those theories evolve overtime was a fascinating subject to delve into. After all, the self cannot be identified in the absence of an external entity. The very act of introspectively defining oneself requires stepping out of one’s own skin to become their own observer. Cultural evolution, political consequences and the anatomical metamorphosis of the city dictate how we view ourselves and shape the method of looking at visual aesthetics or appreciating art which our land is historically drenched in.
Despite the omnipresence of traditional aesthetics and iconography embedded for centuries in historical and geographical context, the institutionalized re-structuring of the city is wringing the essence out inchmeal. Kazi believes that art in Pakistan is a relatively self-indulgent and fractionated activity which only circulates within an iota of the country’s population. There is art which hangs in a confined gallery space and there is the visual culture which thrives in our Sufi shrines, on our public transports and even on our painted Lollywood billboards. Several artists adopt the same sensibility and yet have not matched the public reach those sources have.
However the gossamer veil between what is presented in galleries and what is mostly accessible to the masses is undergoing drastic transformation as most cities continue to mould themselves in every sense to seek international validation. Kazi attempts to pierce this friable barrier and bridge the metaphorical gap between the two genres. She wants her work to reach the masses. She picks on local imageries and creates subtle interventions while staying respectful and sympathetic to the visual vocabulary before releasing her work for the wider audience. She seeks to find that commonality of language where both the miniscule population of gallery visitors as well as the public beyond that space can absorb, engage with and extract individual interpretations from her pieces.
Kazi’s interest and appetency to savour our traditional aesthetics has led her to be actively involved in the preservation and promotion of our native truck art. She has thoroughly researched and written on this style of art and has presented numerous papers on local as well international forums. Having explored it for decades, Kazi traces its geneology back to older forms and rituals of other decorative art. She holds belief that the tradition of truck art reflects the Sufi custom of embellishing and maintaining shrines as a mode to earn religious distinction. Her documentation and analysis of this activity uncovers the similarity it has to the language of fine art – the use of symbols, colors, and even the manner of how these visuals are commissioned. In stark contrast to the limited audience in gallery expositions these mobile pieces of art assemble a viewership which cannot be contested by any other form of art. For these adorned vehicles the streets transfigure into a public gallery. However, unlike the spotlight thrown on fine artists the geniuses behind the riveting opuses are only treated as an anonymous group of painters. In recent years Pakistani truck art has gained an international profile, partially due to the philanthropic work of scholars like Kazi who is responsible for bringing exhibits to countries including Japan and Australia; in hopes that the swelling interest will help sustain this art form.
Kazi also continues to sow seeds of creativity in the minds of fledgling artists in the making by heading the Visual Arts department at Karachi University which she established in 1998. As a representative of academia, Kazi believes the state of art education is equally stifled as any other education in the country. Galleries and institutions display a lack of interest in encouraging the indigenous forms of art, resulting in a dearth of awareness of communities and practices usually obscured to those resting atop the social stratification. She claims the frameworks of institutions and other organizations are not rooted in our history and instead face the west for any references to appropriate. Added to the post colonial disorientation, this inevitably clashes with the inherent dispositions of this land. The centuries old South Asian tradition of ustaad and shaghird flows parallel to the acquired constitution of having multiple teachers. Kazi finds it a challenge to maintain a balance as she does not want to abandon what was quintessential to our origins – and condignly so.
With a severe lack of funding, fragile support system and dormant art criticism it is difficult for art in Pakistan to be promoted as a viable healing tool in our society. Globalization has led institutions to shift focus on western art history which ultimately affects our thinking and the set configuration within art education. Kazi further weaves the reasons for the current state to our shared history of colonization and to the borrowed outcomes of the Industrial revolution.
However, teaching has provided Kazi with a learning curve as it unlocks avenues for self-discovery as well as an exchange with communities and groups. This inevitably informs her studio practice as well. She is a firm believer that everyone is born an artist. Institutions do not manufacture creative individuals but provide venues where they guide artists to learn self-control, to develop the fulfilment of their potential and to make thoughtful individual choices.
Kazi does not want to merely censure the art system and the general socio-political conditions under which this flawed structure operates. Rather, she aims to change these conditions by means of art within. The study of culture and aesthetic experiences unravel the reality about us and the reasons behind our personal and shared experiences. She proceeds to discover this by generating ripples both inside the art system and outside it – in reality itself. And in doing so she transforms her work into sites of possibility and encounter for an unprecedented audience.