I grew up not knowing much about art. At least not in the terms that convey its real meaning. Art was a drawing/ painting class at school and anything related to music, performances, or literature was mere entertainment: all fun and games reserved for free time. The puppet festivals and theater extravaganzas that I grew up attending were just for children’s amusement. My mother’s sewing, knitting or embroidery skills were just part of being a good home maker; music, writing, and performing were just things people did if they couldn’t perform well enough at school to become doctors or engineers. There was no such thing as art: everything served a purpose. Under such functional view of things the idea of art is a frivolity and so, despite my interest in several artsy activities I had also come to believe that performing and creating were talents one was born with. It was obvious from my performance in the Art class — yes, there was an exam for ‘Art’ and you were marked on how beautifully could draw and paint — that I possessed no such talents.
In the years to come I would fall in love with literature, theater, and photography without realizing that these were also art forms and that there was a reason I was repeatedly drawn to them. The enjoyment of these mediums turned into a fascination as I grew older. I got a few chances to perform at school events in various activities and sports events but that came to an end once I graduated high school. The university I attended offered no opportunities for extra curricular activities especially none for women. We were expected to give our full attention to the study programme if we wanted to be successful graduates with decent job prospects. It was during this time that my interest in photography took off. I did not own anything except a simple point and shoot film camera and I would browse the internet all night long for photoshop tutorials and learn about photography. It wasn’t until I was in my mid twenties when I got my first DSLR that I taught myself photography. When I got to a point where I could make some money off of it and grow as a photographer, I was told that it need to stop because photography was not a profession suitable for honorable women (what is that and who decides who’s honorable or not is a topic for another time).
A Pakistani illustrator Shehzil Malik recently wrote something about her experience abroad and what influences her art that resonated with me:
I went for a masters on a Fulbright scholarship and those two years ended up changing my life. […] The experience of living independently, becoming friends with people from different cultures and having professors who were first and foremost kind, changed my ideas and my art. When I talk about women and the narrow confines we are kept in, it’s coming from experience. You never know what you are capable of until you’re given the opportunity. And you shouldn’t have to leave your country to discover your own capabilities or discover what it feels like to live on your own terms.
In the past few years that I have been traveling and living abroad, on my own terms, I have had the opportunity for self-discovery that has been as painful as it had been liberating. You notice your narrow confines when you are forced to give up valuable parts of yourself because they don’t fit into the mould of the woman society had created for us. You forget the feathers that were clipped convincing us that those were the parts we needed to get rid of. But once you find yourself in another civilization, you are forced to examine your own, James Baldwin noted after moving to Paris. And something similar happened to me. Even though I was aware fairly well of the confines I was spending my life in, it wasn’t until I moved abroad and was living completely by myself that I realized the scale of those confines: the painful fact that my being was only a set of reactions to the circumstances I grew up in. Once those circumstances were gone, I didn’t know who I was anymore. During this long period of rebirth, it was art that helped me find myself as I came to understand it as a potent means of communication, an expression of self, of various aspects of the human condition and pretty much the only thing that has the power to reach beyond our lived realities to connect us with ourselves and others.
It has taken me a literal lifetime at this point to understand what art is and to do away with utilitarian understanding of it that I was taught growing up. There is no shame in choosing to be an artist instead of a scientist. Musicians, painters, writers are not any less important than doctors, engineers and lawyers because while others may help us survive, artists are the ones who feed our souls.
Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.Toni Morrison on Art
Note: The featured image I have used for this blogpost is also from Shehzil. Check out her awesome work at http://www.shehzil.com