The Missing Slate sat with Indus Valley student and emerging artist Numair Abbasi to talk about the rapidly political world of Pakistani art, art lobbies, and the recurrent themes in his work. Look for Mr. Abbasi’s work including three special series, in our digital edition.
Did you always want to be an artist growing up?
Not at all actually. I’ve been a confused kid (career wise) throughout my life. I was never into art; my parents were the ones who sort of pushed me into drawing and coloring etc., [because] that’s what normal kids do, you know. It was only when I was seven or eight and began taking interest that I realized that this was something I was good at and something that I actually enjoyed.
And then for the longest time in high school and secondary school, I knew that I had to do something related to art; that that was the field I was going to flow into. It could be interior designing, fashion designing, or even plastic surgery. But the broad category of art had sort of umbrellad my future career choice.
I took Art in my O- and A-levels; for [the] A-level portfolio my chosen topic required me to go around the city taking photos of archaic buildings or something very unique to Karachi, like the Mohatta Palace and Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s Mazaar (shrine) etc.
Briefly put, my love for photography and such iconic buildings grew and compelled me to apply for architecture. By the end of my first year [at university], I realized architecture was not something I was going to gel with, and I decided to switch to Fine Arts — it felt [like it was] more “me”. Best decision ever. No regrets.
Do you remember the earliest drawing / painting you made? Tell us a little about it.
I actually don’t remember much, there must’ve been several works but I can’t recall which one would’ve been the earliest drawing or painting I made. I remember making the “Ding Dong Bubble Gum” [mascot] cat once when I was five or six (smiles). And a lot of stick figure narratives such as the time when I went swimming, or an Eid shopping spree with my family. Typical kid stuff. All this for my school magazine so it got printed in some little corner of some page in the school newsletter eons ago. I remember drawing the typical centrifugal lines around the sun to show its rays, or painting just the top bit of the paper blue because that’s how I perceived the sky. I remember drawing my first female nude at the back of a school notebook when I was six and that really fumed my mother (laughs).
Was it a struggle at home to be allowed to go to art school?
Yes! I mean, my brother wanted to go into art too. But he got brainwashed and applied for Medicine and Econ and what not. When [it was] my turn, I was already prepared to face a similar scenario. My dad took me to a lot of educationists and artists and art teachers who discouraged me from taking up th[e] subject. And this was when I was thinking of taking art for my O- / A-levels! So you can only imagine what they must’ve felt like when I told them I want to go to an art school for my Bachelors. They seemed fine with me applying for architecture, more so than they were with Fine Arts. But eventually they realized that I’m not my brother (laughs), I’m quite stubborn that way. It’s my way or the highway. Eventually my dad came to terms with it and said “I’m fine with whatever you do, as long as you excel in it and make us proud.” Interestingly, they were the ones who sent me to drawing teachers and what not in my infancy, only so I could be pushed into taking an interest in it and they were the ones who lost their shit when I actually wanted to pursue it further.
Why choose Indus Valley? Would you have preferred to go to NCA instead?
I actually would’ve preferred to go abroad instead. But that didn’t work out. Let’s not forget that I was initially applying for Architecture. And the feedback I got was Indus Valley (IVS) was a better option for Architecture. But I’m quite glad IVS happened, because that’s how the switch came about. I mean, what if I were stuck right now in some US school making plans on CAD and what not?
And honestly, I feel [like] it’s a wiser option for a Fine Arts student to study from here than from abroad. You can network with your future peers, your work will itself relate to the issues and culture of the society you are growing up in. You get a more hands-on experience with the local arts scene and are definitely more aware of what the practice in the industry is like, more so than someone who studied abroad and moved here. That’s just my opinion though.
Would I have preferred to go to NCA instead? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Both institutions visibly operate with [opposite] schools of thoughts. But I’m more than happy where I am — fortunate, in fact. I don’t like to delve into the past and think of what could’ve been. Had I been in NCA I would’ve been asked the same about IVS… I did get into NCA for Architecture though, (smiles). I just chose not to go.
As an arts student do you feel that you are restricted in the way you express yourself in your assignments? Are the guidelines too narrow for being adventurous with your work?
Restricted? Definitely. But is that a bad thing? Not at all. You need to be trained with the skills first, [in order] to expand your boundaries and go crazy conceptually, or even in your execution. The restriction makes total sense to me. And they loosen up as you progress [by semester]. Plus, the faculty is super understanding, so if you’ve got an idea or if you do feel you’re being restricted in some area, you can walk up to them and discuss it without hesitation. They’re all ears.
The guidelines are only there to challenge you; you can still be adventurous if you want. Your perseverance to be adventurous, plus the narrowed guidelines only pushes the work to another dimension.
Do you think that an ‘Art Lobby’ exists in Pakistan?
Lobbies exist everywhere in every bloody field. The art world is [not] special [in this]. Networking, contacts, and social build up is as crucial as the quality of your work. You need to be able to market yourself well. From what I’ve heard, yes an art lobby exists in Pakistan. But I can’t be sure of it as it’s all hearsay. Whether or not a lobby exists is something I [will] find out, once I step into the field professionally.
Who are the artists you admire in particular? Inspiration?
I won’t call it an inspiration as such but admiration definitely. Muhammad Ali’s work is something that I have strong appreciation for. Salman Toor is another name. I admire and get inspired by artworks a lot more than by the artist. So I might like a particular series by a local artist, abandoning the rest of his work, and then I might like some other collection of work by some European photographer. If you want to know some of the works which I admire in particular or feel inspired by, the list is endless.
If you had to describe your work in five words?
As much as I loathe describing and categorizing my work, after much contemplation, the words are: confrontational, gory, provocative, queer, and disputatious.
Are there any recurrent themes in your work? What are they and how do they play a part in your perception of the world?
I guess I’m sort of inexperienced to answer that question properly, but yeah I can sort of realize myself now where my niche is or what sort of ideas or concepts I like to work with.
I am definitely more [invested] in personal narratives than in discussing social issues in my work. My work is about me, how I am, and how I engage with the people and world around me. Often the work is documentative, and requires me to engage with individuals to create the concept and produce the work. The gaze, I feel, plays an important role as I love exploring how I see the people around me, how I see myself, how the world sees me, how the world sees itself through me, and how I see myself through the world, and so on. And then I like to explore and comment through the process, i.e. whether or not the perception stands true. [So] the work stays personal but relatable to a lot of individuals on a universal level.
Do you often find yourself restricted by the ideas of “acceptable” and “taboo” when displaying your work for an audience?
Not so much right now, no. But I’m sure that is something pertinent to the art world here in Pakistan. Self-censorship is something that a lot of artists are bound to undergo in their practice. With instances such as vandalism at the Shanaakth Festival over a political photograph or the banning of Sauhbat over some “blasphemous” content, it’s quite evident that artists cannot practice freely without being misread as offensive or blasphemous. So yeah in general, there’s a whole big valid debate over stuff that’s either acceptable or taboo, especially in context of Pakistani society, and its associated politics.