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December 13, 2010 / the s.a. project

GUEST RANT: ‘Who’s Afraid of Theory’

So the email rants have started coming in already and I’m very excited about this undercover writing going on. Spread the word. (and spread your seed, it’s a lot of fun).

The first post is an opinion piece by anonymous neurotic brain on the recently held show at the Poppy Seed Gallery in Karachi on November 13, 2010. The Show was titled Who’s Afraid of Theory: A critics’-artists’ collaborative and according to the gallery write-up, it was a…project curated to allow for interchange between critics and artists on the role and importance of theoretical approaches to Art making.You can read about it at their blog post on the show, and also see show photographs in their fb album

Additionally: “The participating critics were asked to work with an artist of their choice who either had an interest in theory or could become interested in it through discussion. The critic and artist were to then agree on a theoretical model which would be the basis of the work produced for the show. The critic was to further facilitate the understanding of the model and its interpretation and help push the resulting work beyond an illustration of the model.

The participating critic-artist duos are Aasim Akhtar and Anwar Saeed, Atteqa Ali and Hasnat Mehmood, Nafisa Rizvi and Mahreen Zuberi, and Niilofur Farrukh and Meher Afroz.”



Written by: anonymous neurotic brain

I recently got a chance to attend a talk at this art gallery on opening show of a collaborative project in which critics and artists were supposed to work through discussion and come up with something new. Artists produced a visual comment on different aspects of our society according to their exacting subjects. In essence each critic was to take on the mantle of curator for her/his own artist. The critic and artist were to agree on a theoretical model that was supposed to be the basis of the work produced for the show.

When I looked at the artwork first, most of it actually seemed visually appetizing. But then I felt that the language used by the critics in the talk to make comment on artworks was entirely different to the language used to conceive on the artist’s comment and also different to the language used to put forward on the different aspects of our social and cultural norms, which completely changed my pre-conceived idea on the artworks.

In my viewpoint, Art critics were attempting to interpret the visual language but they completely lost the visual significance in translation. I believe, sometimes images are created in the interpretation, sometimes the interpretation is more interesting than the original comment, and indeed, sometimes the visual language is more appealing than the actual comment. and that I believe happened in this discussion’s case.

But again the question is that how empty was theory in the presence of those art works? We can’t blame on these critics only because on a whole, we are in a very strange situation where some artists have derived a lot from their theoretical reading but on the other hand, a lot of artists have not even tipped their hands and proved that how selective and shallow their understanding is/was. It for sure is very hard to maintain a theory in the face of life that comes crashing about our artwork and us. I am not sure that art and theory in Pakistan was ever that close to begin with. I believe there are few of artists who read theory critically but not all that many. And most of the hypothetical text that is written by our critics usually is cliché. But we need to note is that what people now call theory is an enormous pitch and a comparatively little amount of it bears directly on Pakistani art, or at least on our art making.

In this particular case, where the critics took quite a while to talk about the process that artist acquired to achieve those art works, there was no discussion in reference to the theory of what numerous authors and critics have already written or talked regarding those exacting intakes. The conversation was quite drowning and uninteresting. It was more like a one way broadcast where no dialogue took place between artist/critics and listeners. After a stretched speak when one of the viewer actually asked a comprehensive question, it was said that they should just look at the work and digest on their own which I found really clichéd. I was wondering if the artists were afraid to argument on their works with the viewers? Most of the people that I talked to after the so-called discussion, they didn’t get anything out of it. It seems to me that in our Pakistani lalalala art world, it is more to do with the art of the sell, rather than the artist depicting the theory of art. A lot of critics who do theory full time don’t really want to acknowledge that the process of making art is fundamentally different from the process of writing about art. And, therefore even though they may share a phrase but they don’t share at all the same kind of expression or objective.

Strangely enough, the administrative structure of Pakistani art institutions have mostly been separated out production from theory /history/criticism compare to the art institutions abroad, because of that I feel that the benefits of this marriage of text and visuals are rarely seen. Mostly students are not even able to develop a style with their subjects because of not giving them alternatives. They are usually forced to work in a specific pattern without any conversational reproductive practice.  The need is to know that a simple image on the canvas is not good enough; we need to cut the appearance of that image. Whether we think that it represents ‘traditional technique’, whether we think that it represents ‘reality’ or a ‘window to reality’ and should BRING THEORY IN.



Leave a Comment
  1. the s.a. project / Dec 13 2010 4:30 pm

    I’ll be the first and comment because I had some questions and feedback but didn’t want to edit your post too much.

    I was excited about the concept a lot when I first found out about it through Mahreen Zuberi’s Jahan Ara project. What fun…. a gallery putting together a combination that could potentially lead to very exciting and adventurous results. The resulting show, and the talk, I hear from many (since I didn’t attend) did not quite come up to people’s expectations. Thats ok. It was a first. and maybe more initiatives like this could help artists, especially younger ones, to broaden their horizons a lot more. It would be interesting to see such collaborations on non-commercial artwork too. Mahreen’s project can be classified as non-commercial but I hear that people weren’t really excited about the display as much as they were in the process (tagging strangers in our fb pictures). Maybe Mehreen could comment on that. I’ll ask her.

    Would you like to mention (in the comment box now) of how you felt certain collaborations didn’t work. taking names ofcourse. (thats the point of being anonymous). What you had told me earlier made sense to me also. On how you felt Asim Akhter had little influence on Anwar Saeeds work. I absolutely love Anwar Saeeds work personally but I had been greatly intrigued on how the colab would shape out….and well I didn’t quite see the intervention.

    I wish we could get Asim Akhter on this blog to explain…
    anyone know where to find him?

    Also, I think that the line between critics and curators was smudged too much. They could be both, professionally speaking, but not necessarily always successfully.

    baki later….

  2. anonymous neurotic brain / Dec 16 2010 10:02 pm

    I agree with you incase of mehreen zuberi’s “jahan aara”, which I thought potentially would lead to exciting outcome but I wasn’t fulfilled because of the final output.. I mean it was just a page from facebook which everyone could access from their pc from their home.. wat was the point of calling people to gallery space then?? I was expecting her to do something stirring with the collective imagery and data she got from these random people or friends she asked to start tagging.. tht may be she’ll combine that imagery all together and do something more to it.. but it didn’t work out beyond the concept..

    In the case of anwer saeed’s work, Asim Akhter for sure had influence because of the conception of the taboo of homosexuality in our culture, which brought some interesting debate about producing bold and vivacious imagery. Particularly in the early days of art culture here when anwar saeed started working in this direction that how people actually reacted towards his imagery and all.. It would have been more fascinating if asim would talk more in terms of giving references from history and international art background and theory.

    • the s.a. project / Dec 16 2010 11:18 pm

      But anwar saeed has been dealing with this issue for a while… what was new about the approach that the critic brought in?

  3. anonymous neurotic brain / Dec 17 2010 12:42 am

    that is what my point is.. i am a huge fan of anwar saeed’s work and i have been following it from last few years… the critic didnt bring any new viewpoint regarding work.. they have been talking about his past and that how difficult time he had producing such imagery in time of no acceptance…oh and they talked about the color palate being subtle which I think changed 3-4 years earlier (if I am not wrong).. and that is pretty much it 😛

  4. anonymous neurotic brain / Dec 19 2010 3:47 pm

    why is everyone afraid of writing back?

    • s.a. / Dec 19 2010 4:25 pm

      hahaha because people prefer to message me on less…. ‘public’ forums.
      we got to shake things upppp a bit!

  5. mz / Dec 19 2010 7:11 pm

    The approach of the theory show was really interesting..since the show was curated keeping in mind the art writing/writers and not the art/artist..considering..i felt the thing missing most in the gallery space was the writing. Apparently there was a plan to have the text up as well..but funds were a problem i think..
    The talk scheduled before the opening started late so alot of ppl who had safely timed their post-talk visit, got stuck..hence the hasty wrap up.
    As a project i enjoyed working with an existing framework..and fb became the perfect tool.
    I agree, it was unnecessary putting jehanara up in the gallery. Personally, the creation of jehanara was the the point of completion for me. Extending it further as something physical to present in the gallery..unnecessary.
    Writers working alongside artists..definitely good for the writing.
    Mahreen Zuberi.

    • the s.a. project / Dec 19 2010 7:34 pm

      Thank you so much for writing back Mahreen.

      For the first part, yes it would have been interesting if some of the funds had been actually directed towards the actual activity – the written word and the academic side. I think at the end of the day, when such a new and innovative thing is done here, the end result is always still packaged for a gallery going audience. Maybe if the display had just as much input as the process then it could have gone ahead another level.

      But as I said before Kudos to bringing the academics into the gallery anyway.

      Secondly, its interesting to hear your take on Jehanara. That is a vital point. especially for many younger artists, including me, it is important to know where the work is getting pushed towards unnecessary development. One more question: did you bring your display concerns to your critic/partner or the gallery? or was that left completely to your discretion?

      Also, since I have no way of getting in touch with Asim Akhter, I was wondering if you could ask him to pop over here and address certain points that concern his and Anwar Saeed’s colab.


  6. mz / Dec 22 2010 5:11 pm

    there was a small publication with the writings, but a visual presence of the text in the gallery was still missing..and there was also a dialogue between the gallery- curator- artist- critic about the display..guess some times the ‘unnecessary’ is realized after already committing to it 🙂

    i’ve emailed aasim the link to this thread..hope he has something to say.

    • the s.a. project / Dec 22 2010 10:55 pm

      where can I get my hands on that text? any pdf file that could be emailed to me perhaps?

  7. ps32 / Dec 24 2010 11:12 am

    Pinging back right here:

    • the s.a. project / Dec 24 2010 1:30 pm

      I’ve replied in detail on your blogpost. I appreciate your concerns and have tried to answer all that you have mentioned.

      I just wish you didn’t hate me. I might need to drown in a cup of tea now.

  8. ps32 / Dec 24 2010 2:51 pm

    Hate you? Oh dear! this is not going where it was supposed to. Have replied to you on my blog as well…cheer up, it’s all good.

    • the s.a. project / Dec 24 2010 6:19 pm

      I’m being melodramatic. a side effect of being a tea abuser.

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