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Degrees of success: The rise of the young artist

Updated 09 Apr, 2016 10:31pm

It is an undeniable fact that the last few years have seen an unprecedented focus on the work being produced by young artists. As a global trend, its manifestations are obvious in the growing numbers of students enrolling in art programmes everywhere in the world, in the statistics emanating from auction houses and gallery sales, and in the number of exhibitions and events that focus specifically on the work of young artists. In 2009, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York launched its Generational Triennial with the exhibition Younger Than Jesus, featuring works by 50 artists from 25 countries, all under the age of 33 (that being the supposed age of Jesus Christ at the time of the Crucifixion). The next edition of the triennial – titled The Ungovernables and published in 2012 – highlighted artists whose works investigated worldwide acts of civil disobedience. The featured artists were all aged between 28 and 38. Around and since then, numerous other forms of this attention have cropped up — from art fairs (Liste at Art Basel) and biennales dedicated to the work of young artists (Moscow International Biennale for Young Art) to the popularity of the works of young artists at galleries and auctions.

It is not just in the international art world that the hype around young artists has been building; indeed, its impact is being felt in Pakistan as well with the growing number of younger artists from the country gaining increasingly more exposure and attention each year, both locally and internationally. While the V M Art Gallery (part of the Rangoonwala Trust in Karachi) has always deemed support for young artists and recent art graduates as one of its primary goals – evident in its annual scholarship for art students as well as in its annual Emerging Talent exhibition that began in 2003 and features the work of fresh art graduates – in more recent years newer galleries have started devoting increasingly more space to the work of young artists. Together these developments have offered additional exposure to young artists and generated a new kind of interest in their works among the mainstream art viewers and collectors.

Within this scenario, annual thesis shows at art schools help viewers and collectors bypass the galleries and approach young artists and their works directly even before they have officially entered the art market. These shows also facilitate investors to acquire at low prices the work of those artists whose creations are likely to fetch higher prices in the future. Being a graduate of the department of fine art at Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture (IVS), I have witnessed the manifestation of an increasing interest in thesis displays. The number of people attending these events seems to be increasing with time (as do the sales of the work on display).

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In Security by Samiullah Sehto | Courtesy NCA Rawalpindi
In Security by Samiullah Sehto | Courtesy NCA Rawalpindi
The interest in contemporary Pakistani art (increasingly being created by young practitioners) is not just local — it is also global. Or perhaps local interest has been fuelled by the turn of the international lens towards South Asian art over the last decade or so. The interest of the art world shifts every few years, strongly impacting the work emerging from the region that becomes the centre of that shifting interest at a given time. The stronger focus on work from South Asia has resulted in an expanding international discourse about the works by artists from Pakistan, India, Iran and Afghanistan. Exhibitions, biennales, museums and, of course, art fairs are consequently taking more interest in their work than ever before.

Shahzia Sikander, born in Lahore but based in New York, is the first artist of Pakistani origin to make a serious mark on the international art scene in the recent decades. She is largely credited with the rise in global interest in neo-miniature paintings in the latter half of the 1990s and is seen as a pioneer of this genre. She received far more international exposure than other contemporary artists from Pakistan at the time. More recently, however, a number of other artists have attracted a similar amount of international attention. From Imran Qureshi who won the prestigious Artist of the Year award from Deutsche Bank in 2013 and went on to exhibit his work at the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to Aisha Khalid, Rashid Rana, Bani Abidi and Naiza Khan to name a (very) few, many Pakistani artists have rapidly risen on the global art scene over the last five years or so.

Additionally (and simultaneously), alternative gallery spaces such as Green Cardamom (based in London) and Grey Noise (based in Dubai) started providing international platforms to young Pakistani artists, offering them a secondary tier of exposure and generating discourse around their work. Along with the shift in Western critical and academic attention towards South Asia, an increasing number of (young) art practitioners and students from Pakistan have started pursuing degrees in art colleges and universities abroad. Most of them later become part of the faculties at art institutions in Pakistan thus strengthening links between the local art scene and the Western and global audiences.

It seems plausible that the foreign trained artists who are part of the faculties at art institutions gain more international attention and exposure than others, and not only critically but also in exhibition displays. This inspires their students to aspire for the same and has led to a shift in the understanding – conceptual, visual and curatorial – that students have started to bring to their work, which explains why visual presentation has become increasingly more ‘slick’ and ‘professional’.

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Long gone are the days when the word ‘artist’ conjured up visions of a starving bohemian whose art is only discovered near the end of his life or career — and that too if he is lucky. Today’s students see young artists – not just their teachers – enjoying global attention through opportunities such as residencies, workshops and symposiums, and the image of an artist changes in their mind. Their motivation and energy to pursue art as a career also changes along with it. The students, thus, develop an awareness and understanding of varied routes towards forming and expanding their practices in such a way that connects them to the global art market.

An artwork by Rukhsana Shoaib |Courtesy KU
An artwork by Rukhsana Shoaib |Courtesy KU

At the IVS thesis show this year (featuring 19 graduates), artistic concerns under investigation are diverse, ranging from the formal to the conceptual and the sociopolitical to the personal. Employing and amalgamating the mediums of video projections, three-dimensional objects and audio, the works on display attempt to cause a shift in the perceptions of time and space.

Poignant and haunting, Taha Ali’s minimal video projection speaks of the children’s disappearance in Karachi. Elsewhere an egg is being fried and a breakfast is in progress at a dastarkhan nearby, suggesting that life goes on without any regard for the disappeared. In her work, Mushahada, Shahana Afaq reconstitutes the lived and shared memories and experiences of an ancestral home across the border. Memory, as a construct related to the function of the brain, takes the form of large, fluid, abstract paintings in Rabia Ali’s work, Labyrinth of Memories, that speaks of the conscious and subconscious memory while at the same time tackling formal concerns of colour, composition and space.

Formal concerns are also present in Sarah Mir’s work that investigates the medium of drawing through a process of unlearning and immediate response, which then takes the form of large-scale, gestural, black-and-white works that evoke the frenzied urban landscape of Karachi. These concerns reappear in Affan Baghpati’s work titled Negotiational Aesthetics in which sculptural works that combine pieces of old furniture, taxidermy birds and animals and found twigs or metal objects form unexpected relationships that straddle the familiar and the unfamiliar.

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The show is spread across several spaces on the school’s ground floor and basement, including the gallery housed within the institution. The spaces are well-structured, well-lit, clean and effective as far as the displays are concerned. A fair (if not large) amount of the space is allocated to each student’s work. There is an obvious thoughtfulness in the entire arrangement.

It is this last feature that distinguishes the IVS thesis show from the thesis display at the Karachi University (KU). One of the country’s largest higher education institutions, KU is plagued with the lack of financial resources and that explains why the sophistication of display is not immediately visible at the thesis show here. The KU’s department of fine arts is also smaller than that at the IVS, with six students graduating this year. Neither of these two factors, however, hinders the large number of visitors making their way to the KU campus to see the show. And neither are the works presented bereft of poignant complexity. Instead, the show affords a unique kind of intimacy, transporting the viewers into a completely different space with its own set of rules and parameters.

Artwork by Ahsan Ali Memon |Courtesy NCA Lahore
Artwork by Ahsan Ali Memon |Courtesy NCA Lahore

The subject of memory is present here too — and this is not a surprise. Memory is a layered and complex construct that has engaged critical thinkers, artists and writers for centuries. In his 13-volume opus, À la Recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past), Marcel Proust speaks not of the life lived but rather the life remembered. Philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin tells us that À la Recherche du temps perdu is as much a project of remembering as it is a project of forgetting. “Is not the involuntary recollection … much closer to forgetting than what is usually called memory?” asks Benjamin. Images embedded by Sabahat Aqueem in translucent bars of soap function in much the same way at the KU thesis display. The images have been recalled through memory after they, in reality, were washed way though a deliberate and repeated erasure in the act of washing — slowly but continuously forgotten.

Other works speak of human relationships, of the relationship between human beings and natural environment, and of what it is that makes us human. While Rukhsana Shoaib’s work explores familial bonds and ideas of correlation and interdependence, Shafaq Afzal explores the relationship with a life yet to come into the world. In Farhan Surani’s work, the notion of human uniqueness is investigated through an interactive installation. He encourages the audience to participate in it by connecting unnumbered/unmarked dots into patterns and formations that act as data indicators of the (lack of) probability of a repetition and, therefore, of sameness. Mujtaba Asif’s delicate and masterfully executed ceramic works, on the other hand, explore formalistic concerns, engaging with the medium in a manner that is not simply an investigation of its properties, capacities and possibilities, but also that of the artist’s self through a meditative and self-reflexive process of construction and formation.

Bird Hunt by Jahanzaib Akmal | Courtesy NCA Lahore
Bird Hunt by Jahanzaib Akmal | Courtesy NCA Lahore
No review of the thesis shows in Pakistan can be complete without critiquing the one at the country’s oldest art institution, the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore. Founded in 1857, and originally known as the Mayo School of Art, it opened a secondary campus in Rawalpindi, a decade ago. I had the opportunity to visit the thesis shows at both the NCA campuses this year. Given NCA Lahore’s long history and reputation, it is unsurprising that its body of students is much larger than that at other art institutions in Pakistan. The reasons for this include a sprawling campus, a fee structure that facilitates students from all kinds of financial backgrounds and the government support.

This year, 41 students graduate from NCA Lahore’s fine art department. Their work presents huge diversity, ranging from painting, sculpture, installation, performance, video and new media to miniature painting. It was, indeed, at NCA that a ‘rebirth’ of miniature took place in the early 1990s before it turned into an explosion of neo-miniature painting in recent years. It is not a surprise, therefore, that 23 graduating students belong to the discipline of miniature painting. Of the remaining, 15 have majored in painting. If these numbers are any indication, the disciplines of miniature and painting seem to have the strongest of the faculties here.

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A little aside: while critiquing art institutions and the work being produced by the students there, people often ask, “Why does the work of Institution X always feel the same?” Perhaps a better way to phrase this question is to ask about the reasons why the work done in, for example, NCA will commonly be referred to as traditional, or the one coming out of the visual studies department of the Beaconhouse National University (BNU) will be dubbed as conceptual. Or maybe one can explore why there are always institutional influences in the works of students everywhere in the world. The common answer to these questions is something called an institutional agenda which is a natural part of the evolution of an institution’s identity and the way it chooses to frame itself. An academic institution seeks to employ – and associate with – particular academics, professionals and individuals who fit (in a broad sense) within the domain of ideas that the institution aligns itself with. These people, in turn, become the cornerstone of the institution’s identity. The quality of the faculty and the identity of an institution are critical factors that applicants to an academic programme require. Both play a major role in the decision-making process about which institution to choose for studies. That explains why the number of students in the painting and miniature departments at NCA Lahore is higher than anywhere else in the country.

Given NCA Lahore’s long history and reputation, it is unsurprising that its body of students is much larger than that at other art institutions in Pakistan.

Back to the NCA thesis show. The viewer experiences several pleasant surprises in the form of experimentation which seeks to test and stretch the boundaries of a certain discipline. Such experimentation is apparent in the work of Faraz Aamer Khan who uses dark and looming seascapes occupying large canvases in his work, Into the Mirror, which also includes an installation of metal sheets, reflected infinitely in ceiling mirrors. The sheets are attached to some device that makes them vibrate, creating a sound akin to thunder or that of an approaching storm.

Similarly, Ifra Mehmood explores the idea of the original and the copy in her work, Dispatched, through painstakingly replicated old black-and-white photos. Sometimes these photos are cut and framed to increase the illusion of the ‘real’ and at other times they appear in the form of dispatches from faraway lands. A series of portraits by Noormah Jamal is a particularly striking experiment, reminiscent of the colourful pop/graphic style of contemporary painters such as Elizabeth Peyton. Titled I Dream of Poppies, it is refreshing and successful precisely because of its combination of traditional and contemporary artistic practices.

'Gulabo' (left) and 'Dream of Poppies' (right) by Noormah Jamal | Courtesy NCA Lahore
'Gulabo' (left) and 'Dream of Poppies' (right) by Noormah Jamal | Courtesy NCA Lahore

Muhammad Arsalan Farooqi’s animated miniature works shown on iPads set into gallery frames represent a similar experiment. These works bring together the latest communication technology and a traditional medium heavily informed by contemporary theories and debates. This can also be said of the painted works by Jahanzaib Akmal that appropriate subjects from historical miniatures and Western classical paintings and put them into scenarios taken from arcade-like video games. His Bird Hunt looks like some bizarre edition of the Super Mario Bros. framed through an Oriental lens. These two works, particularly the former, may face the criticism that they resemble popular animated videos of historical art subjects, easily found online.

They are also, in fact, an indicator of how heavyweight artists such as Sikander and Qureshi have pushed the boundaries and challenged the traditional practices in the realm of miniature painting so much that their successors now find it easy to mix and match miniatures with any other medium. At the same time, the success of the work by Sikander and Qureshi has set the bar high, raising expectations from such experimentation to result in works of high quality. This is certainly a difficult route than the somewhat safer – and almost standard and common – one that plays with the scale and the perspectives in miniatures.

The NCA thesis show offers several other strong works both in terms of ideas and execution. Anila Shakeel’s works that play with the illusory aspects of light and colour and with the creation and manipulation of space; Ahsan Ali Memon’s sculptural works that show everyday objects in hyper reality and question the ideas of the real and the copy as well as of the privileged art and high art in the contemporary world; Anam Liaqat’s large three-dimensional painted still life that also offers a critique of life and art; Sadqain’s installation work which recycles the paint in such a meticulous manner that the installation looks like a static object even while it is perpetually moving — all these works exhibit exceptional vitality and potential.

The art market is not necessarily very welcoming of experimentation. As with any other economic system, it works on supply and demand which can sometimes hamper artistic experimentation.

The Rawalpindi campus of the NCA, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this January, offers a smaller range of courses than the Lahore campus does. Its premises include the historic Liaquat Memorial Hall (inside Liaquat Bagh) which surprisingly is not the only large and well-equipped space dedicated to the thesis display here. Exhibiting the works of 24 students graduating in fine art this year, the show offers (perhaps unexpectedly) some of the most promising and exciting works observed across Pakistan in ongoing graduation exhibitions. With an extremely strong focus on content and display, these works range from painting and miniature to sculpture, installation and new media. Perhaps due to the newness of the campus, they have a fresh energy and an experimental vibe about them. French philosopher Gilles Deleuze would have called the campus a site of “pure potentiality”.

Goat on Table by Affan Baghpati | Courtesy IVS
Goat on Table by Affan Baghpati | Courtesy IVS
Consider these examples: Saad Anwar’s large canvases are filled with semi-apocalyptic landscapes and sci-fi figures; Maria Ali Shah’s room-sized installation, The Shah Theory, presents theories on the rise of the machine and technology at the expense of human beings; Sami Sehto’s eerie paintings depict dark secrets that unfold in the shadow of night; and Batool Fatima’s larger-than-life sculpture of a bull (along with related video and installation works) speaks of the loss of identity through the framework of Urdu mahavre (idioms).

Some of the most successful works here are also the most honest: Ammama Malik’s large-scale oil paintings of classically rendered drapery are both sensual and sincere. They are a manifestation of the artist’s need to engage with a material for the sake of its exploration, unburdened by the weight of complex, conceptual motivations — it is art for art’s sake. Similarly, Jibran Shahid’s sculptural figures, fashioned out of cold porcelain that explore the distortions and morphing of the human and horse forms when combined, are reminiscent both of beautiful figures from the Renaissance era and Dali’s surreal, often slender and elongated, human and animal forms.

There are notable differences in the work produced by different institutions, including the difference in the ability among students to articulate the discourses around their own work. There, however, is a common factor that is increasingly becoming apparent everywhere: the influence of the art market. Not only is it increasingly more common than in the past to see the gallerists scoping for fresh young talent at thesis shows, it is also quite usual to see a steady increase in the prices of the works on display.

It is understandable that young artists feel excited by the attention they are receiving from the art market. To be motivated by the idea of selling one’s artwork at a price that can help one maintain a decent lifestyle is great, but it is also often a slippery slope. Firstly, buyers and investors will have no guarantee whether the artist whose work they have acquired at a massive price will even continue to practice, what to say of the future price increase for his work. A greater risk, however, awaits the artists themselves: of a meteoric rise followed by a great fall.

The Last Tango by Jibran Shahid | Courtesy NCA Rawalpindi
The Last Tango by Jibran Shahid | Courtesy NCA Rawalpindi
That explains why the meteoric rise phenomenon (gauged by the prices fetched by the artwork) is globally seen as both exciting and concerning. When artists set high prices for their work at an early stage in their career, it is not long before they hit the ceiling which can be fatal to the longevity of their careers. Ralph Taylor, director of Bonhams in England, put it aptly when he said, “High prices for young artists generally make me uneasy. A creative career should last until an artist is seventy years old … so how does an artist sustain multiple six-figure results for that length of time?”

The problem, however, becomes additionally worrying when it starts having an impact on the aspiring artists even while they are still studying. The art institutions must, of course, prepare their students about all the multiple facets of their upcoming careers, the art market being one of them. At the same time, the institutions should also inform the students about the dangers of falling into the trap of what artist and academic Olafur Eliasson refers to as an increasing “commodification in the world today”. In his 2015 essay, Art Schools and the Art Market, he writes: “…critical thinking is set aside for the sake of faster careers…There’s more focus on how these young art students are seen, rather than how they see the world, and that changes their lives. They reorganize everything to satisfy a certain commodification of lives. It becomes the ideal artistic success.” He sees this as a direct reason why art students today fear to experiment. The art market is not necessarily very welcoming of experimentation. As with any other economic system, it works on supply and demand which can sometimes hamper artistic experimentation, resulting in the ‘sameness’ that many complain of when viewing much of the contemporary art.

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This ‘sameness’ would be antithetical to the original purpose of a thesis show which is the cumulative measure of a student’s education and training. Thesis shows should also help art institutions showcase what kind of education they are imparting.

These shows also provide the students their first platform for an exposure to a public that will become their audience as and when they start showing their works in galleries, museums and other such spaces in the future. There is much to be learned from the response of the audience (for both the artist and the institution), much to be understood about the various ways, other than the market demand, in which a work succeeds in doing what it attempts to do, in communicating what it wants to communicate. In the world of contemporary art – as also, indeed, has been the case throughout the art history – it is the ability of an artwork to communicate with its audience that makes it withstand the test of time. Much more than focussing on a work’s market potential, art students – and art institutions – must treat the audience response as a measure of a work’s artistic qualities rather than as an indicator of the price it may fetch.

An artwork by Shafaq Afzal | Courtesy KU
An artwork by Shafaq Afzal | Courtesy KU

In the last few years, there has also been what is called an “educational turn” in art, particularly in the critical and curatorial realms. This can essentially be defined as a focus on the intersection between art and education. The rise in artist-run schools is its major manifestation as are workshops, symposiums and talks around art. This suggests that the world of contemporary art is paying unprecedented attention to the academic institutions and their processes and methods. Such attention essentially makes these institutions, for the lack of a better word, ‘happening’ spaces. When students are thrown into the mix, what it often results in is young artists who have very limited understanding of the complex subjects but who are well versed in art-speak and who know the key words that make them sound informed in a way that the market demands of them. This, in turn, both supplements and complements what Anton Vidokle refers to as an “emphasis on professionalization” and the disappearance of “bohemia” which he describes, in his 2013 essay, Art without Market, Art without Education: Political Economy of Art, as a “shared creative space that allowed for fluid communication between poets, artists, dancers, writers, musicians, and so forth.”

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What, then, is the responsibility of art schools? What models must they create to be able to provide a space that fosters artistic practices even when they have to deal with the tempestuous contemporary art world and its powerful market forces? The answer comes down to a demand from the art institutions that they should be able to deal with the inevitable impact of the art market on their own terms, by introducing practices and processes which produce thoughtful young artists with responsible artistic ethics, who at the same time are aware of the forces of supply and demand.

Whether art institutions can fulfil this demand is still to be seen. What is certain for now is that these are exciting times and signal a new level of awareness, appreciation and enthusiasm towards artistic practices. And that the star of the young artists is on the rise and the audiences and collectors are both excited about their work regardless of the concerns over how these artists negotiate their artistic careers.

Opening image: 'A memory', video art by Shahana Afaq | Courtesy IVS

This essay was originally published in the Herald's March 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.