Search and thou shalt find

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times

BNU’s School of Visual Design provides vocational training to artists; it also offers a liberal arts education and the promise of an educated, cultivated citizenry

Lahore is touted as Pakistan’s cultural capital and if you’ve visited danka.com.pk, you’ll see why. Information about the where and when of art exhibitions, lectures, music recitals, theatre and dance performances reveal that seldom is there an evening without a cultural event in our midst.

One such event that I took a visiting college friend to was the end of semester show at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) and School of Architecture and Design (ScAD) at Beaconhouse National University.

Contrasting portraits of Salvador Dali by third year Sri Lankan student Pradeep Thalawatte and a child’s portrait by a second year student from the Maldives, Ahmed Azmi, showed the level of skill the School’s international students have fine tuned; manipulating the movement of facial muscles and the proportions of the face to depict contrasting emotions and age.

As well as the requisite skills, the students had strong voices with valid stories to tell. Mariam Ibraaz’s keen eye for capturing moments on camera was impressive, more so because of the symbolic messages they carried with them. In the first of four photographs, a woman is sitting in contemplation alone in a corner – looking outward over her right shoulder towards an influx of light, in contrast to the darkness of the mosque on her left. Light, darkness, right, left – these terms of reference have been conceptualised, by the Quran itself, to carry political meaning. Given that the setting is the Badshahi Masjid, the photograph is a statement on the ugliness of institutionalised religion in our society – where better to do this than Lahore’s biggest mosque – situated at the centre of the ancient walled city and cheek by jowl with the red light district.

Ibraaz’s second photograph further expounds on this theme. The young son is holding his father’s hand, looking up at his father guiding him out of the darkness, out of the Badshahi Masjid, the symbol of institutionalised hypocrisy, and into the light. The son is centred in the path of light, while the father is yet to tread fully onto it – a part of him remains in the dark. Tellingly, mother in a burqa walks a step behind both son and husband. She too is following her son, but is not yet on the path of light. This is reflective of a patriarchal society, where the cerebral expectations of and rate of literacy for women is significantly lower than that of men.

A strong collection of sculptures, animated videos and installations were also on display. I was eager to talk to the visual arts faculty of the now three year old liberal arts university, claimed to be Pakistan’s first. Starting at the very beginning: what do the SVA faculty think art is?

“I think our answers show that we refuse to be definitive. If we were, we wouldn’t be contemporary artists,” says Sophie Ernst.

“Every time I explain something to my students, I have to think, ‘Is this still valid?’ It gives back to my art work. That’s something different about BNU: all the teachers here are practicing artists.”

How does one contribute to art making? “We question this with our students all the time,” contributed Huma Mulji. “The learning curve is so high because students open our eyes to things we’ve taken for granted. We take into consideration, ‘Who are we making this for?’, ‘What do artists do?’ ‘How do they change thinking?’ It isn’t any different from literature.”

In fact, in the course of each of my conversations with the faculty, I learn that this questioning ethos, which involves a lack of hierarchy and lack of bureaucracy, was one of BNU’s main attractions. “It’s always exciting to be part of a new project because you have enormous output,” explains Sophie Ernst. “In a state college there are all the hierarchies – something we don’t yet have. We have meetings where our TAs have as much input as professors like Salima.”

So with the question of art settled, or not, as the case is, how about culture?

Dean of the SVA, Salima Hashmi, volunteers an answer: “Culture is the way we live, we speak, what we believe, what we laugh at. It’s a moving thing and not a static thing – it’s not a collection of what yesterday produced.” Daughter of renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was the first chairperson of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, Mrs Hashmi insists that culture is at the vanguard of development: “Building bridges and dams and roads is not effective if people do not have a sense of themselves, and it is culture that gives them this.”

And to help students get a better sense of themselves, SVA’s studio curriculum emphasises striking a balance between developing a student’s technique and facilitating them in finding their ‘voice.’ “I don’t think it’s useful to teach only students technical skills and then in their last year have them make an art piece that means something to them or someone else. It should be a balance they can get.”

Complementing the studio curricula “to give students a better sense of themselves” are art history courses. Art history in the West, according to Rashid Rana, focuses on the Italian Renaissance as the rebirth of art. In traditional Pakistani curricula, he says, there is an over emphasis on Mughal art. SVA’s courses “Comparative study of sixteenth century world art” and “Cross cultural currents” are taught by three experts in their fields and look at the Italian Renaissance and Mughal art simultaneously with 16th century art from China, Japan and Africa.

One thing that the SVA glaringly lacks, however – and to the disadvantage of its students – is the socioeconomic diversity that state institutions like the National College of Arts enjoy. Ms Hashmi, herself a former principle of the NCA and part of its faculty for 32 years, asserts that a growing number of scholarships from private individuals are becoming available to students with merit who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the private university’s fees, and that only about 60% of SVA’s students are now paying full fees. She also stresses the importance for having a private liberal arts university in Pakistan: “Of course the public sector should offer a liberal arts education, which instills humanist values that prepares citizens for the future: that lays claim to a rational, progressive society, propagates principles of fair mindedness, tolerance, and a mind not readily satisfied with laid out answers. But they don’t. They provide a backward, narrow-minded retrogressive ethos. So you have to fall back on the private sector.”

A better citizenry is one outcome of a liberal arts education, but the School of Visual Arts is also a vocational institution. Sophie Ernst believes that the fusion will help the SVA gain an edge over India’s conservative art institutions. At a time when the world is taking an interest in Pakistan due to prevalent political circumstances, Ernst argues that the world market for graduating artists in Pakistan augurs well.

Moreover, the Indian middle class will be a sizeable and reliable market since they can relate to Pakistani culture easily. “I heard from Indian artists that they feel like what is happening in Pakistan is more genuine and exciting. Indian art is more market driven, Pakistani art is more political,” says Ernst.

Of course one would predict that if the Indian market substitutes Indian art for Pakistani, then it too will suffer the same fate. Huma Mulji doesn’t agree: “Commercialisation can work both ways. The artist becomes more aware and less likely to fall into the trap of the market.”

What is art, according to BNU’s School of Visual Art faculty?

“A pursuit of dreams”
– Dean and Professor Salima Hashmi, MA Art Education, Rhode Island School of Design

“Were offering this programme to answer that question” – Associate Professor Rashid Rana, MA Fine Art, Massachusetts College of Art

“We’re still trying to find out”
– Assistant Professor Farida Batool, MA Art History and Theory, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales

“Art is like science. It is always developing. What is art today might not be art tomorrow; what is not art today may be art tomorrow”
– Assistant Professor Sophie Ernst, Post Graduate from Rijksakdemie Van Beeldende Kunste

“The question with art is not what is right or wrong, but how it is relevant to and in the time it’s made in and the ways in which its meaning changes with time”
– Assistant Professor Huma Mulji, BFA (Sculpture), Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture

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