“Superman” as we know today follows the conceptual premise conceived by Friedrich Nietzsche in his philosophical centerpiece, Thus Spake Zarathustra, where he presents the concept of Ubermensch. As introduced in the popular culture by DC Comics, Superman is an idea of a physically superior being, possessing super natural powers such as speed, strength and heightened functionality.
On the Pakistani artscape, Rana Rashid rocketed like nothing less than a superman. I listen to Rana’s impassioned ideas about art-making and art education, and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, who inverted the traditional on its head, crop up in my mind. Nietzsche’s metaphysical character of Ubermensch, (beyond-man/over-man), focuses on the psychological qualities of the man of the future as he draws distinction between the types of men – the average and the exceptional. In his attempt to define an ideal human being, the 19th century philosopher explains that Ubermensch make their own value systems, are independently-minded, not impressionable, carve their own path, are gentle towards the weak, and a little wicked by conventional standards. They are interested in raising the mentality of the society and they accept that they may hurt people in the name of great things; greatness for them lies in the reform of humanity.i
People who know Rashid Rana – this Superman of common parlance – his art, curatorial and teaching practice would agree to equate the above-mentioned attributes of Ubermensch’s with Rana’s insatiable quests for breaking the boundaries. The acknowledgement of Rana’s dramatic subversion of the established, by the international art élite has created an exclusive, yet popular, aura around his art practice. The thumping international and regional recognition has made Rana’s approach to art-making an object of curiosity and fascination for both the select and the mainstream art circles, globally. Including art students in Pakistan, who perceive Rana as a source pride and hope, who, working in Pakistan, has made his name in the most competitive domain of international art. Having produced over a 100 distinguished works, being one of the highest auctioned artists in South Asia, with numerous group shows and solo exhibits globally, and the recipient of many national and international prestigious awards, Rana’s zeal and energy towards making a mark keeps growing exponentially. As someone who has witnessed this progression and closely observed him shuffle roles between an artist, educator, curator and now the Dean of the Mariam Dawood School Of Visual Arts and Design, at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore – a dean who is often the only man sitting on campus working after hours–, I have always been intrigued to find out about Rana. What this man is made of and how he surpasses the average to be exceptional? This interview seeks to zoom into the professional life of Rashid Rana, to find out what makes him so special. Here are the highlights:
Rohma: You play multiple roles in your professional sphere-visual artist, curator, educator, Dean. How do these roles inform each other? And at the core, what values do you hold as Rashid Rana, the person?
RR: In my head I don’t separate these roles, they are all linked. You could say I am an existentialist with perpetually realigning and changing objectives, with emphasis on materialistic inquiry. As far as values are concerned, one way to look at it could be that we have come into this world to work – we should do our part (of the work) and leave, but another interesting vantage point, closer to my belief system is that we are a part of a larger creative process. Digging deeper into creative process and expression, the highest form of expression is the Universe itself and you are inherently made to fit into it as a viable part of the whole. I find it very natural and exciting to innovate and create in such a way that it falls under the larger discussion of expression.
Rohma: What is the relationship between art, expression and life in your practice?
RR: Art in its present state is a social construct spanning only the last two centuries or so. The wide scope of objects and activity that we lump together as art now was not necessarily seen as such in the past. In fact, the breadth of chronologically scattered activity such as cave painting, pyramids, courtroom miniature painting, Christian imagery and others was not identified as ‘art’ (as understood today) at the time in which it was created. It is a fairly recent idea to imagine visual expression as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. In the past, other overarching purposes such as religion, mythology, court duties etc. governed the status of visual objects and determined their social role. From here on, it is possible to hypothesize that art in its present state is similarly a historic condition, which may eventually come to pass.
Whether it’s ART (in the last 200 years or so) or ‘the arts’ (all acts of creative expression that came before ART and now see through this new lens) have two things in common; mimicking of life (be it a story, drawing, drama and singing) and the poetics of it – all falling into the larger discussion of expression.
However, I am currently trying to make sense of the ‘expression’ and ‘poetics’, taking place in life itself, when one is not trying to mimic life by indulging in ART/arts. So, I have worked on a manifesto along with a few other thinkers. Although a manifesto sounds very pompous, but my idea is of a manifesto in a subversive way and not in its conventional sense as it would be ever-changing as a result of a possible discourse – it’s called “Eart – a manifesto of possibilities 01” which I conceived and wrote in collaboration with Madyha Leghari. This happened over a series of in discussiosn with Ijlal Muzaffar, Natasha Jozi, Adnan Madani, Risham Syed, Aroosa Rana, Quddus Mirza and Pablo Baler.
Rohma: What brought about the conception of Eart?
RR: Working on the curatorial premise for the Lahore Biennale 01 (before withdrawing from the position of artistic director) enabled me to imagine ART/arts in relationship to its ‘function’; how art can overlap with ‘function’ in previously undermined ways, and seek new potentials within the broader realm of visual expressions (art) at present. After I was not able to realize my vision for the LB01, I continued to discuss the curatorial premise with other thinkers and hence the curatorial premise evolved into this conclusion that “there is Art and there is Eart”.
Eart is a label that I am proposing for the phenomenon of identification of real life actions or some major earthen functions, performed through employing poetics that transcend the original function and fall under the domain of creative expression. I gave this concept a working title “Eart.”
Eart is the expression or application of human skill, intellect and other faculties through real-life action/s. In other words, activities, events, interactions, interventions, mediations, transactions that either simultaneously or over time transcend their (primary/immediate) function, evolve, but retain relevance through a meaningful position within, or through an extension of the discourse on expression.
Rohma: What challenges are you preempting for Eart to face and what direction do you see it taking?
RR. Some may draw similarities between Eart and socially engaged practices such as Relational Aesthetics, but I think that is a misdiagnosis, attributing a false origin; with socially engaged practices (Relational Aesthetics) one is working from within the premise of being an artist even as they challenge the notion of white cube space, find alternate spaces and other ways of engaging with the idea of creative expression. However , validation is somehow still linked to the institution of ART. There is no exit. Eart, on the other hand refers to a notion outside the institution of ART.
Every transgression is eventually bound to become assimilated as an institution or a discipline, and yet, one still has to risk transgression. I want to look beyond ART. I am not yet leaving my practice as an artist, but this thought and the subversive idea of writing a manifesto with the help other minds is an initial spark. In fact, there are a set of open-ended questions at the end of the manifesto, so like-minded people can join together and challenge the existing proposal and maybe we can come up with a 02 version of the manifesto. The current working (Eart – A manifesto of possibilities 01) is admittedly self-contradictory. A manifesto, is typically very convinced of itself. By speaking of manifesto as only possibilities, I seek to undercut conviction in service of exploration.
Rohma: Tell a bit about your journey, how did you get here?
RR: My initial interest in the duality of space (Untitled Series /Grid Paintings, from early 1990s) later on expounded into a wider interest in duality, paradoxes, contradictions, polarities and parallel realities (works from 2002-2009), a way of dealing with the burden of representing reality. I believe that these dualities are very effective as a tool for lessening the drama of presumed absolutes and negating them because they often draw attention to their own absurdity and hence the use of doubles, mirrors etc. In 2004 I wrote: ‘Now every image, idea, and truth (may it be ancient or modern) encompasses its opposite within itself. Thus, we can say we live in a state of duality. This internal conflict translates into my work at a formal level, as well as having geographical, historical, and political connotations’.
Today I believe that the binaries of East and West are often overplayed. The binaries of ‘actual’ and ‘remote’ are more plausible in this regard; one’s expression is a result of a negotiation between the ‘actual’ and the ‘remote’. The actual is close at hand – something one can experience directly with the body as the site of knowing. The remote is knowledge amassed indirectly, from diverse sources scattered across time and space. The result is a meditation on location, both in a physical as well as temporal sense. This has led to works such as Transliterations Series 2010-present; The Viewing, the Viewer, and the Viewed, 2015; Present Elsewhere, 2016-17, which are an attempt to subvert linear ideas of time and space progressions to offer fractured views of chronology and geography.
In short, unburdening from self-imposed pressure of prescriptive and dogmatic ideas of affiliating one’s identity to political and cultural boundaries has been one of the core ideas in my practice throughout my career, be it my art-making, teaching or curatorial works.”
Prescriptive ideas of identity, is a burden we carry having been born in a region that was colonized in the past. It is very common for you to mistakenly find refuge in the stylistic conventions of the past. I think it’s a trap, especially for the third world. I proposed the same idea in the Prime Minister’s heritage commission; the way to move forward is something I would like to share with the people dreaming of Naya Pakistan – it does not reside in the past neither does it reside in following the footsteps of some other country/people in the developed world lest. It especially does not lie in making substandard, modern/contemporary versions of the rich cultural heritage in the garb of “revival.” In my opinion, to move forward one must be aware of the past, present, and future: Look carefully at the present and allow speculative futures to intersect this thought from other trajectories. This is based on a non-linear conception of time that doesn’t subscribe to derivative ideas of progress but rather thinks about how we can construe commons and exchange thought without overarching hierarchies. This is the path I have taken in my practice and also envisioned for SVAD.
Rohma: You played a pivotal role in the conception of SVAD in 2002 and now 16 years down with roughly a 1000 graduates from the school, you can easily be “blamed” (held responsible) for steering art pedagogy in a new direction. From conception to realization, what objectives did you have in mind when you laid the conceptual foundations of SVAD? Was there a moment, an epiphany which got you thinking on your current trajectory?
RR: I grew up (as an artist) at a time where the overarching question was whether your work looks Pakistani or not. This was on especially on my mind during my studies at the National College of Arts (NCA. I made a work titled “What is so Pakistani about this Painting?” with an intention of burying the question once and for all. However, it continues to rear its head. The more one fights, the more these lines harden. Resistance, after all, is a form of acknowledgement.This laid the foundations of my vision for SVAD, when the opportunity came. I wanted to win those freedoms for the next generation that somebody from a developed country has. My desire was to formulate a curriculum where students are unburdened from traditions and conventions of the past – where they could think afresh for themselves.
I don’t believe in the monolithic idea of identity. Since 2000, I have been very clear in my head. After coming back from MassArt, Boston, the first solo show I created, “Nonsense” was the first time I dealt with the idea of multiple identities and realized that’s what I need to embrace. I believe two people having identical set of qualifiers (in terms of religion, citizenship, gender, race and ethnicity etc.) will still be extremely different, because of the way things have unfolded in their lives. While of course, these qualifiers do determine a lot of aspects of an individual’s life and potential, I think that an over-association with these abstractions risks a kind of determinism that only furthers stereotype.
A common practice of art education of this region has been to make students master a particular craft through slotted medium based demarcations, and then to express their thought within that singular language in their thesis. This structure pre-values craft or medium above thought. When I got the opportunity of building the curricular foundations for SVAD, I thought that the structure should be such that students don’t have to face this question. In a student led program, where students explore their ideas themselves early on; their own individual identity takes lead.
Rohma: My oldest memory of you in a class was coercing students to push their imagination, you were telling them to imagine a staircase made of ice reaching all the way up to the sun? What influences propelled you towards formulating such ideas?
I was always inclined towards the arts; making portraits of friends and relatives and making installations on jashan-e-eid-milad-u-nabi. I also became interested very early in galvanizing people to form teams for sports and other activities. The seed of thinking differently was probably planted at NCA and nurtured at MassArt. I learnt the most as a teacher and really enjoyed my teaching when I came back from Boston.
Teaching for me is as creative an enterprise as making (art) objects. I feel that often students and teachers are hesitant to exercise freedom. We talk about thinking out of the box, but the box is materialized as a boundary the moment it is evoked. I also began to distinguish that sometimes it’s not about how much freedom a teacher gives to a student but how much freedom the student is willing to insist on. One cannot inculcate freedom in a straitjacketed banking model of education but rather encourage an independent sense of inquiry which leads students to pave their own way.
From my own practice, I have learnt to remain flexible, reflective and adaptable. I studied painting at NCA, and while the discipline and its accompanying thought continued to influence my work in other media for a while, I was surprised by the turns it look later. My initial with my interest in binaries and dualism, transformed into one about ‘location and time’ Attempts to locating oneself outside of ART through Eart is another possibility on my mind that shapes the schools of the future.
Rohma: How do you envision the future of art, its pedagogy and site of production (studio) to evolve?
The notion of ‘studio’ is constantly redefining itself based on how we understand art (and applied arts), its purpose and function/s. This constant state of flux poses challenges especially in terms of the pedagogical context of studio. Art academia is by default an extension of white cube space. In its conceptual framework and its architectural translation, it is not geared towards encouraging/supporting/inviting practices with non-conventional and non-tangible outcomes. Therefore, art academia in ‘the near future’ (what I like to refer to as a post discipline era) must support an all-inclusive ‘notion of studio’ in both its conceptual, temporal and physical dimensions.
In terms of institution, we know schools did not exist as we know them today, and they will radically change in the future. Hence, I am extremely conscious of this fact while positioning myself in the present time. May be the post discipline era is my fantasy, or maybe it will pan out as I see it. Who knows?
i Nietzsche, Life As Literature, Alexander Nehamas, Havard University Press,1994. https://ccrma.stanford.edu/~pj97/Nietzsche.htm www.schooloflife.com https://study.com/academy/lesson/nietzsches-bermensch-concept-theory.html
Rohma Khan works as an educator and a business director for an advertising agency, Farigh Four. She is based in Lahore and currently affiliated with the School of Visual Arts and Design at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.