Interview with Sameera Raja, Founder & Curator, Canvas Gallery.
First published in November-December 2017
Sameera Raja, Founder and Curator, Canvas Gallery, speaks to Aurora about her Artists in Residence programme.
AURORA: What was the genesis of the Canvas Art Gallery’s Artists in Residence programme?
SAMEERA RAJA: I keep on thinking about how it started, and every time I am asked this question, I don’t have a cogent answer. It happened so spontaneously. Canvas have always been about trying to draw different people in; we are conscious of the importance of public art, especially in Pakistan, where we do not have public spaces that are dedicated to the arts. The kind of work that comes into public spaces is not what we would term as art – guns and fighter planes definitely do not come under the ambit of art. Yet, those are the works that are deputed by the government and public art is mostly according to what the government dictates. Therefore, the notion that we need to include people from different walks of life, rather than restrict it to a select few who are of a gallery-going culture, has always been on my mind. The problem is that you need government participation for a public art project, and that is not going to happen because you can’t or you don’t want to work with the government. I tell my clients that although it is fantastic that they buy art for private purposes which will be exhibited in their home and seen only by their family and friends, why not put some of this art in their public spaces – their offices or places where there is public visibility? Then one day, I received a calendar from a client which said ‘Pioneer Cement’. Coincidentally, a few days later, as I was driving home, I happened to see the Pioneer Cement building – and on the spur of the moment, I called my client and asked him what he did at Pioneer Cement. He replied he owned it. I asked where his factory was located; he said Khushab. I asked if people lived there and he said yes. As I was talking to him, the wheels in my mind starting whirring. I asked whether he would be open to the idea of artists doing a residency at his factory. When he asked what it would entail, I went straight back to work and started chalking things down. It was that spontaneous. I really can’t say where it came from. I’m sure it came from something.
A: So you did not have a set blueprint at the time?
SR: No, I just started chalking down things as they came to my mind. Six artists would live in residence for two weeks and the work they produced would be displayed on site. They would work in-situ and according to the requirements of the space. Pioneer would provide transportation, lodging, food, technical assistance and the material. I thought we should include three mentors to oversee the project and make sure the artists were on the right track. After the work was displayed, we would have an open day and invite students and faculty from different institutions to look at it. I sent this to him not knowing whether he would agree, but he did. I immediately shortlisted six young emerging artists; I chose sculpture, because it is the genre that is the least patronised. I see wonderful talent in sculpture but it never translates into a future because Pakistanis don’t buy sculptures. So, despite their immense potential and talent, sculptors start to do other work, which is sad, because their talent is not being utilised.
A: Was there a commercial aspect to this project?
SR: No – although residencies usually do have a commercial tag attached to them. They ask for donations and sponsorships and the work is sold, so the person who exhibits it gets something in return. I wanted this to be a pure retreat. The artists would not have to worry about anything. The idea was to disconnect them from the day-to-day routine of an artist’s life. They could work on their own or interact with the people around them. I think that getting away from the norm helps sharpen the mind. I called the artists and they agreed immediately. Literally, within a week, we had the blueprint – everything was approved, the logistics were in place and the residency started a month after this idea germinated out of nowhere.
"People have an aversion to the arts, not because they don’t like the arts, but because they are not aware of it."
A: Who were the mentors?
SR: Two sculptors – Hamra Abbas and Nausheen Saeed – and Quddus Mirza who is an artist, architect and educationist.
A: What was the role of the mentors?
SR: As an emerging artist, you start off with a concept, but because it is on a bigger scale than what you have done before, you need someone to help you figure out whether it is possible or not. It is a bit of guidance and sometimes it is not even guidance; sometimes, an artist just needs a sounding board to work out the kinks. The mentor’s role is to listen and, if required, provide any kind of assistance.
A: How do you define an emerging artist and in this case, who were they?
SR: Artists who have graduated from art schools in the last 10 years. They were Safdar Ali, Suleman Faisal, Mahbub Jokhio, Ehsan Memon, Umer Nawaz and Jibran Shahid.
A: So they have yet to make a name for themselves?
SR: Yes. Faisal had just graduated in January 2016. I saw his thesis and I was blown away. The others had graduated three to four years earlier. One of the things about a residency is that because everything is provided, an artist can go completely crazy with the scale and the idea. They don’t have to worry about anything. The fact that they didn’t need to worry, either about getting the work into a gallery space or whether someone would buy it takes away the two most crushing problems for an artist. It is a most liberating experience. My only curatorial note was: “Go crazy! Do whatever you want. The sky is the limit. You have no restrictions. Just remember that this is for a public space.”
A: So the artists donated their work?
SR: In a sense yes, although they were compensated. They were on a stipend, which was also paid by Pioneer, and everything was paid from the time they left to the time they returned home. On the open day, we bussed in students and faculty from the the Beaconhouse National University and National College of Arts. The District Administration of Sargodha came to see it. The families of the people living in the township came, so there were lots of wives and children. It was a game-changer because people who had no prior exposure to the arts saw these works. There was a lot of ownership. The people who live in the township are very happy with the sculptures. To this day, they send me photographs of the sculptures to show me how they look. And because these sculptures are outdoors, they have become public art. They have planted flowers and foliage around them and at night, they are lit up. There is that sense of ownership because it’s beautification – and they all participated in the project and worked together as a team. This is probably the best synergy between the private sector and an artist. Artists do not have access to a private enterprise; we provided them with a platform to work with an industry using their equipment and technical expertise. In turn, we gave their workforce an insight into who an artist is and what his thought processes are. People have an aversion to the arts, not because they don’t like the arts, but because they are not aware of it. Awareness-building is the most important aspect in a society like ours, where we don’t have public art. We need to create that space and let people overcome those boundaries. I find the fact that there is a wider audience who is seeing these artworks constantly very heart-warming
"A woman is a woman and if she’s going to feel insecure, she can be 50, she can be 20, it’s the same thing. In fact, the younger you are the more energised you are and the more you overlook things."
A: What about the second residency?
SR: International Steels Limited (ISL) said they were ready to do it. We worked on the same blueprint; six artists and three mentors – the medium was different and the location was in Landhi. Three of the artists were the same (Ali, Memon and Jokhio) and it was very interesting to see how their work turned out to be completely different from what they had produced in Khushab. With the change in location and the medium, their entire vocabulary also changed. The three new artists were Aamir Habib, Fahim Rao and Yasser Vayani; the mentors were Amin Gulgee, Asma Mundrawala and Munawar Ali Syed. Both ISL and Pioneer have now decided to do an annual residency with us and we are working on our second Pioneer residency, which will start in February 2018. The mentors found the idea so wonderful that they asked to be allowed to be artists in residency. So in the next residency, Hamra Abbas, Quddus Mirza and Nausheen Saeed will be the artists, along with David Alesworth, Jamil Baloch and Huma Mulji.
A: You are moving away from emerging artists?
SR: In this one we have – and it was never meant to be just emerging artists, it was meant to be a sculpture residency. I did think about it though, but then the mentors said that an opportunity like this was not available to them when they were young, so why are they not being given it now. It made sense and I agreed.
A: What would be the business case when you approach companies?
SR: It’s CSR. I believe this has long-reaching ramifications because they are working towards the betterment of both the company and the artist. The company learns the creative side of things and the artist learns how to put that creativity into a logical and rational format. Both benefit equally, in different ways, but they both benefit.
A: Is the programme also open to women artists?
SR: Yes. In the second Pioneer Cement residency, half the artists are women.
A: They are experienced artists and perhaps a little older?
SR: It doesn’t matter. A woman is a woman and if she’s going to feel insecure, she can be 50, she can be 20, it’s the same thing. In fact, the younger you are the more energised you are and the more you overlook things.
"Government and private sector synergies are important, but most of the time, governments are not experienced in what they are doing, which is understandable. Limited knowledge never works."
A: I was thinking about it from a societal perspective; parents being worried about their daughters being far away and in the company of men.
SR: Not artists. If they have gone through art school, even if they have not lived in a hostel, I think by now their parents would have given up. And these are reputable places. As a woman myself, I think of all the possibilities. For the first two residencies I did not select women; I wanted to be absolutely certain that there would be no problem with women working there. Now that I have found my comfort level, we will include women.
A: How much time did Canvas invest on this project?
SR: A huge amount, time and logistics. But this is our contribution to society. When you belong to a society, you have to give back and if you believe in the cause, that cause cannot be on the basis of what you will get out of it. Getting people into a gallery is not what is important; building awareness for future generations is the main thing. And you do this to the best of your capabilities.
My strength is not talking to government functionaries. Plus, I can’t control a government-owned space. Yet, government and private sector synergies are important, but most of the time, governments are not experienced in what they are doing, which is understandable. Limited knowledge never works. If I don’t know something, I go to somebody who I believe to be an expert in a particular field. There are some hideous works on our roundabouts which have been put up by various corporate entities. They have no idea. Their marketing team decided they wanted to do something to beautify the city, but it’s horrendous, because they haven’t tapped the right people. Often, it is about nepotism and we need to rise above this. We need to do our research and go to the right person and not the person we know.
A: Do you plan to extend this to other companies?
SR: After ISL, I spoke to two other companies and they were very responsive. I am hopeful that in 2018 something will come of it. It takes time, because it is a different concept. Initially, when you speak to a company, they think about what they will get out of it. However, as I said, with Pioneer, it took just 10 minutes. Sometimes things just happen.
A: Adaptation may be required, Some companies may not have the space to accommodate six artists and so on.
SR: Of course, and it doesn’t have to be on location. If they don’t have living quarters, they can provide an off-site space where the artists can live and interact together at the end of the day. The interaction is very important; the discussions that take place between artists in a contained space.
A: So this kind of project would not work on a solo basis?
SR: No, because then you are commissioning an artist to do something. I am interested in the discourse that takes place, when people are within a space together. This discourse is very important. It opens the artist’s mind and the minds of the people around them; they share ideas which are not necessarily about work – they are having a discussion and that is what is important. When an artist works solo in a studio, they are alone with their thoughts and that is fine. But that is not a residency, it is a commissioned project. It’s a different thing. I am not negating one for the other, but for a residency, that cross-pollination of ideas is extremely important.
Sameera Raja was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
For feedback, email firstname.lastname@example.org