Published in Slogan (Feb 2010)
Niilofur Farrukh wears many hats – art critic, educator, art historian, art activist, author, curator and editor NuktaArt. She talks to Ayesha Hoda about her multifaceted work.
It has been a long and eventful journey into the complex world of art for Niilofur. Delving into the subject has given her a philosophical outlook on life. As an art critic, curator, activist and historian, she believes in real work (quality work) and has a wealth of experience – 35 years – to draw inspiration from.
Her biannual publication, NuktaArt, explores core issues of the visual arts, such as the commercialisation of art, censorship, emerging fields like new media and digital arts and more. She likes to move beyond the stereotypical perceptions of art and the general art event reviews that are normally printed by local publications.
Nukta looks at contemporary art themes and invites writers from around the globe to contribute their views and share experiences. It recently collaborated with Visiting Arts, UK to organise their international project, ‘One Square Mile’, in Pakistan, which links art and environmental issues. Choosing Mai Kolachi as the subject, Pakistani artists researched and exhibited works based on how the environment and the people of this area had suffered with the construction of an expressway and removal of mangroves.
Niilofur firmly believes that visual arts can and should be used to initiate a dialogue with the public, in order to address human problems and bring about social change. Another remarkable project, which she conceptualised and curated, was ‘No Honour in Killing – Making Visible Buried Truth’. This was dedicated to the five women who were victims of the brutal Nasirabad honour killings in 2008. The exhibition travelled to Hyderabad, Khairpur, Islamabad and Lahore.
“I was very disturbed by the incident and wanted to do something about it,” relates Niilofur. “As my main concern is how art can be used to directly engage with issues, I came up with a curatorial project in which 20 renowned artists and other artists/art students from the community participated. NGOs dealing with women rights were also part of the show. We received an outstanding response in Khairpur as well as in Hyderabad.
“Contrary to popular belief, people (both men and women) in these places are ready to openly discuss issues such as honour crimes. Given the platform, they produced some very illustrative works, which communicated their views on the subject.”
Niilofur feels that to develop art in a society, the social pillars – the creative thinkers – should be given the space to experiment and display their works at public art forums like the Arts Council. She is of the view that new artists should be allowed to exhibit free of cost at such platforms, without the pressure to sell their artworks.
“The corporate sector can play an important role in establishing such forums or supporting existing ones financially, in order to promote art in the country,” says Niilofur.
Apart from writing pieces on art for Nukta, Niilofer also contributes a regular column called ‘The Critical Space’ in the Dawn weekly magazine Images (previously known as Gallery). Her op-ed columns on social issues are also published in Dawn.
Niilofur has founded another organisation, Asna, along with two of her friends, that promotes works in clay.
“Asna basically has a mandate to explore common grounds between arts and crafts,” she explains. “We are trying to create awareness amongst artists and audiences that we have our own wealth of artistic practices.
“Crafts are often ignored and so are potters and ceramic artists. In reality they create masterpieces and we have held international exhibitions to promote their work.”
Pakistan has always had a lot of artists and very good ones, she says. She mentions Sadequain, Zahoor-ul-Akhlaque, Shahid Sajjad, Zubeidaa Agha and Meher Afroze as artists who have contributed some remarkable works and helped Pakistani art evolve.
Niilofur generally admires artists who can reflect the concerns of their time effectively. Amongst the new artists, she thinks that some of them are addressing issues while others are part of the rat race – of commercialisation. But she feels that there is a general preoccupation with where the country is going – concerns on violence; the nuclearization of Pakistan and the war against terrorists.
“We are moving towards more conceptual works and new media/techniques. Times are changing and you don’t necessarily need to have great painting skills to create an artwork.”
There are still limited opportunities, however. This is also because of the way art is taught at school level, opines Niilofur. She has developed the curriculum for Habib School, incorporating three vital elements: art skills, critical analysis skills and art history.
“Teaching art at college level has been a valuable experience as it has helped me understand how art should be taught at school level,” says Niilofur. “People need to realise that you don’t only study art when you want to be an artist. At a young age, visual intelligence and creativity should be integrated with all other subjects as this is going to be the century of ideas. People now need to think independently and come up with creative solutions. Art sparks your imagination and teaches you to be an observant person. Children should be taught to use both sides of the brain.”