‘Combine design thinking with digital technology’: Muqeem Khan

Published in Slogan (January ’11)

Muqeem Khan has worked as a visual effects artist for Walt Disney and Final Fantasy. Currently he is Visiting Associate Professor at Northwestern University in Qatar and also makes animated films. In an interview with Ayesha Hoda, Muqeem discusses his projects, interactive technologies and the future of animation/design.

Why did you choose to study design?
Since childhood I used to draw a lot and play with different mediums, from acrylic to water colours to oil paints. In ninth grade, I had the opportunity to participate in a world poster competition and my painting was one of the ten selected in Geneva. In tenth grade, I secured the first position in Karachi’s inter-school painting competition.
My father and my mother’s brothers were calligraphers. So I studied Nastaliq. It was wonderful to be able to observe the rigorous ethics required to create something. I explored different materials as well such as copper, plastic, brass, etc.
However, I had to switch back and forth because I was really into technology too. I would go to different electronic shops in Saddar or Lasbela and to anybody who could teach me about circuit analysis or new electronic kits. Every 14th August I used to have something to display – like an installation.
I had one set of friends who were completely into electronics and another group which was into creative media. So fortunately I had very good company, doing productive work, which taught me a lot about different aspects of life. The dominant part of my life is and was creativity.
Then somebody told me there was a competition in one of the technical schools, somewhere in Nazimabad, selecting only 7 students for National College of Arts. I gave the test and then the interview. I applied for architecture although they told me that I was more of a designer. But because of peer pressure, lack of awareness and other variables, I decided to study architecture. Once in Lahore, however, I realised I was more towards colours and mediums. And that design is the field for me.
So why did you focus on visual effects in motion pictures?
It was 1988 and there was a lot of turmoil in the country. I realised that I couldn’t make art in this beautiful city (Lahore) due to the situation and I had to move on. So I came back to Karachi and then later went to Ohio State University where I studied Interior Design under the umbrella of Industrial Design. Our focus was on retail design, hospitals, clinics to inmate facilities, that is, commercial environments. Then I also worked on graphics related to the design of cockpits, dashboards of cars, etc.
During my first year there, I realised that I wanted to be a designer with muscles; combine design thinking with digital technology. I was part of a team of students who worked with a software development company. I used to sneak into their labs, keep a sleeping bag with me and spend days and nights there as this kind of work involves great commitment.
In second year I decided that computer graphics with the creative industry, probably animation, was my goal. I had already touched upon these things while still school so it wasn’t something completely new.
In third or fourth year I applied for my graduate programme. There were only nine students who were selected from all over the world to study at ACCAD (Advanced Computing Center for Arts & Design) at Ohio State University. It was an open competition and highly competitive. The faculty and staff was highly motivated and associated with Hollywood. Luckily, I was selected and it had an amazing educational setup. Individualism was nurtured within an environment of collaboration of highly technical and creative people.
How did you get a break in Hollywood?
A week before my graduation (MA in Industrial Design, with specialistion in computer graphics and animation), I was hired by Walt Disney. I was in New Orleans and took my show reel to the interview but the panel at Walt Disney did not want to see it. They said they would rather like to see my thought processes. So I went back to my room, grabbed everything and lay down all my work before them to show how I solved different problems. They spent loads of time looking and discussing those.
I had several interviews in Los Angeles and then I was hired. My first project was George of the Jungle, where we had to create an elephant which behaved like a dog. The movie combined live action with digital effects.
Then I worked on Flubber, Deep Rising and Armageddon. After that I went to Hawaii to work on Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
You are also a Visiting Associate Professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Tell us about this role and the courses you teach.
It’s been nearly ten years since I started teaching. Right after Final Fantasy, I had the option of going back to LA to work on Stuart Little or to start sharing my knowledge at American University of Sharjah. I took the second option, which was closer to Karachi, as my parents are based here. I also thought that after 9 years of working in production, I would like to work do individual projects – in big production houses you work as a team to achieve a single goal; sometimes tasks become repetitive and you don’t get as much freedom to explore your own ideas.
So I began teaching and working on freelance/personal projects. I have been teaching third and fourth year Graphic Design Studio, Portfolio Design to 4th year, 2D and 3D animation, foundation for Interior Design, related to creating narrative, etc. Currently, I am a Visiting Associate Professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. It is my honour to interact with an amazing group of researchers and scholars, hailing from motion pictures to broadcast industries, media and technologies.
Most of my students are Arabs and they have this tendency to tell stories in an amazing manner. My experience with them has been very positive. I have seen them produce highly creative ideas. Northwestern University’s environment is highly conducive to research and personal development.
You are exploring Intangible Cultural Heritage, Animation, Interaction Design and Mixed Reality Environments through your PhD studies. Elaborate.
My PhD research related to interactive technology was part of Doha Film Festival 2010. Now I am more towards interactive narrative, emerging technologies and processes. I firmly believe that in the future motion pictures will have a start and an end based on the audience.
My research is also based on preservation of heritage and culture. I am studying different cultures and their representations in museums. I want to investigate what we have learnt from our past and what we have skipped.
Which recent projects have you been worked on?
I work on many Individual projects like animated films. Last year I finished a broadcast piece for Stars of Science, which is funded by Arab television. It was aired on 21 channels all over the Arabian Peninsula. Other works are for my personal satisfaction and are screened at different film festivals.
What is your perspective on animation in Pakistan?
We are highly motivated, intelligent and inexpensive individuals. Each and every young mind I have met here, during my seminars and workshops, has been creating amazing things. Animations are being done in different pockets, which are really fun to watch. With leadership and direction, I think they will continue to create amazing work. We should also work on developing our own language of dynamics in motion graphics, like the Japanese have done.
What does design mean to you?
Design for me is a purposeful, systematic and creative activity. The design I have been studying/teaching solves problems of our physical world. Aesthetics is only a part of design. I firmly believe that design refers to organised thoughts. Like when you organise sound, it depicts music. When you organise your idea, it becomes design.
In your opinion, what is the future of this field?
I have come up with my own definitions of future design and future designers, which I presented in a paper in Italy. These are:
•        Design will be a knowledge based acquisition that along with its associated interventions can be used in multiple activities, which will search for possible solutions from one paradigm to another.
•        Designers will be searching, isolating, managing and manipulating the methodologies of multiple knowledges.
Any advice for aspiring designers/animators?
A good design/animation combines many disciplines. You should not just move one object or create a character. You have to create a story and a language of dynamics. Do your research before entering this field, what it is about and talk to individuals already working in this field.
You have to work with your heart. Plus animation is not just one area of expertise; it combines many skills and talents. You can be good in lighting or in motion or you can be good in creating models. You have to explore your talents; who you are and where you would like to be. But above all, passion is the key.

‘…this is going to be the century of ideas’ – Niilofur Farrukh, Editor NuktaArt

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.”

Painting Identity

Published in Gallery (Dawn Group of Newspapers)  – Sepptember 8, 2007

By Ayesha Hoda
“I am obsessive about my painting career because I consider art to be a universal language. It may talk to different people in different ways but it does talk to everyone,” says artist Alvia A. Rahman, after two decades of her tryst with the paint brush.

Alvia is based in West Palm Beach, Florida. She took up painting in the late 1980s, after migrating to the US in 1985, to overcome boredom in an alien land. She not only fulfilled a lifelong desire and overcame feelings of loneliness but also discovered an excellent means to communicate with her American friends, colleagues and fellow artists, who were unable to appreciate her love for and written works in her mother tongue, Urdu.

In the annual, summer art festival, held at the Art & Cultural Centre of Royal Palm Beach last month, Alvia exhibited more than twenty of her paintings (some old ones and other recent ones). She received an overwhelming response, amidst numerous other local artists.

The exhibition did not follow a common theme or have a specific agenda other than providing a general platform. Each participating artist presented his or her own choice of subject-matter and style, from surreal and modern art to abstract artworks based on literary works (such as those of Ernest Hemingway) to portraiture of women; making way for an extremely diverse art show, though the emphasis was on painting rather than other art forms.

Alvia used watercolours as well as oil paints and acrylics. A lot of her work was based on the popular Islamic art form of calligraphy. Her style is sometimes delicate and precise and at other times, she forms the Arabic words in a free style. Her American (non-Muslim) audience’s admiration was candid; a number of these artworks were sold and some people even insisted on the inclusion of the meaning of the beautiful Arabic script (such as Allah Shaafi — Allah cures). They commented that it added to this resplendent art style.

Alvia’s fascination with nature was clearly reflected in a number of paintings dedicated to orchids and other flowers as well as those with birds and fruits.

Using colours extensively but intelligently, Alvia builds on what she sees in the environment or from pictures or photographs. Some of her other paintings are imaginative, developed from what was initially just careless scribbling. In some of the pieces, she has used her favourite styles — Mughal and Eastern Miniature.

Stressing on making art available to as many people as possible, her low prices were pronounced by some of her admirers as ‘insulting’ considering the amount of fascination that some of her works had generated.

Commenting on the wider picture of being a Pakistani artist in the US who promotes eastern and Islamic art, Alvia feels that her participation in this field, even without emphasis on social/political issues, provides an opportunity for the local people to see Pakistanis as people with varied interests and immense potential instead of the stereotypical religious fanatics.