Mujtaba Rizvi of Kashmir Art Quest tells The News Kick about his highly inventive project, ‘Keep the canvas rolling’, which he believes will interpret Kashmir visually.
As part of the project – due to begin in Srinagar from April 14 to 19 — a traveling canvas will travel to 12 countries across the globe for over a year. The final artwork will become a public art installation at Zabarwan Park in Srinagar. Excerpts from an interview.
“Keep the canvas rolling”. Tell us about this project.
To be very descriptive, it is a long scroll of canvas, 33 x 5 ft, which will travel to 18 cities in 12 countries around the world. In each city, artists will work on the canvas, therefore producing a single work of art visually interpreting Kashmir.
A marked resemblance with the Olympic torch.
Yea, nearly 200 artists will join the project and this will establish Kashmir’s first international artists collaborative, Arts network Kashmir. The work, once completed, will be exhibited at various global locations. There will be video-conferences between artists, online content sharing – and by the end – the artwork will become a permanent public installation by the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital.
A book will also be published documenting the whole process and with writing by artists, critics and curators etc. – this publication will be made available globally. So this is a year long, quite a multi-dimensional project, and very dynamic in scope.
Why did you choose this theme and is there any particular reason behind this name?
The long scroll of canvas will be worked on for a week in each city, and then rolled before shipping it to the next city – where it is opened again, worked on, rolled and shipped forward like a relay race. Even conceptually the implications of the project are very long term, permanent even. There were discussions, and one day while speaking with some friends at Goldsmiths, University of London, I finalized this name, which is quite literal but at the same time quite conceptual – Keep the canvas rolling. Personally I think that it somehow reflects in a broader sense, how life and society itself function – may be I will elaborate on this in an essay in the book.
Whose brainchild is this project?
I along with some of my friends run an organization called Kashmir Art Quest (KAQ) and one of our main aims is to create a situation in Kashmir where international contemporary art might exist. We have done many international projects before – but obviously like any other organization we wanted to grow in scope and take things to a higher pedestal. I had an idea about this relay work before I moved to London, but I had not discussed it with other people at Kashmir Art Quest as I believe it would have sounded too unrealistic and overambitious at that time. So I spent some six-seven months looking after all practical details developing the project and most importantly meeting the right people and finalizing coordinators in each city who would facilitate the project. And then when I showed the project document to my other colleagues at KAQ, everyone was excited – and now it is happening. We are all working on it. This is not a project by any one individual. I was advised and helped by a lot of people along the way. This is a project by Kashmir Art Quest in collaboration with very fantastic people and artists around the world.
Who are the artists taking part. Is there any renowned name among the list?
As I mentioned earlier, we have around 200 artists expected to work on the canvas. We are going to 18 cities in 12 countries (US, UK, China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Malaysia, Australia, Turkey, Iran, Brazil, and Switzerland.) But the origin of the artists is very diverse. We have German, Greek and Ukranian artists working on the canvas in London even though we are not going to Germany, Greece or Ukraine. So there will be people from many more nationalities. All artists are from very prestigious institutions of art, with a very well established and serious practice. In Kashmir, we have the very best Masood Hussain, Iftikhar Jaffar, Naushad Gayoor, Shafi Chaman, Yousuf Naqshbandi, among others.
What do you want to achieve through this project?
Many things, but most importantly 1) we want to create a global conversation, an intellectual discourse, about Kashmir – its art, people, culture, politics, society, and its relation to the world; 2) Put the Kashmiri contemporary art scene on the global map; and 3) We hope to enrich the cultural infrastructure in Kashmir.
Is there any particular theme that you want artists to focus on?
We have asked the Kashmiri artists to create some sort of visual narrative onto the canvas. We have asked the international artists to interpret Kashmir visually and what it means to them as outsiders, and how they will respond to the work done by Kashmiri artists. But we also have people like Inder Salim in New Delhi, a renowned performance artist, who will do a conceptual performance while other artists are painting on the canvas – so the response according to the theme may take any forms and may not necessarily be limited to the canvas surface.
Not much is reported about Kashmir conflict – one of the world’s oldest disputes –in international media. Would you like to see artists painting about the issue? That would catch more eyeballs, don’t you think so?
As the Managing Director of a contemporary arts foundation I cannot have a preference. Kashmir Art Quest is all about creating an alternate breathing space for the artists, an open space for open artistic expression. We don’t do projects to move more eyeballs, we do this because we believe that the state of arts in a society strongly influences its social, cultural and intellectual evolution. We want to move heart and brains. This project is about Kashmir – how the people see it – and how outsiders see it. We will have to wait and watch what the final artwork will look like. Artists are free to do whatever they want.
Graffiti artists have made more headlines in Kashmir like other conflict zones in the rest of the world. What do you have to say about such artists in Kashmir and the overall scenario in the Valley?
Media, unfortunately, often tends to follow what they see as newsworthy. They may see it in graffiti artists or superstar artists like Damein Hirst, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, MF Hussain or Subodh Gupta. Overtly political works or record auction prices make catchy headlines. Most of the graffiti works in Kashmir that I am aware of are political slogans, more textual. But then this is the social reality in Kashmir. Also, we do generally lack art education. But I know some people who are doing this with a different approach. Personally, I want to see a creative outburst in the valley. Creativity and Innovation are very important.
Artistic freedom in Kashmir. How do you, as an artist, see that?
When we started Kashmir Art Quest in 2009, we recognized the lack of avenues, spaces and infrastructure for artistic freedom. That was the main reason we embarked on the journey of promoting art and artists. There is a remarkable talent, but unfortunately they did not have any place to go to. I remember visiting the sole institute of fine arts at Rajbagh, and in spite of the amazing faculty and works being produced by the students, they did not even have a proper degree show. I saw spider webs on a mind blowing work by G.R. Santosh, and in the next room was a drawing by M.F. Hussain which he had made in Srinagar. The J&K academy of arts, culture and language hardly seemed to engage with the public. The so-called namesake art was only happening in restricted government functions.
Curbs on freedom of speech and creative content is an open fact in Kashmir. And I think this is very dangerous. Art allows us to reflect on things, and if you don’t let that happen, you create an intellectual vacuum – which directly influences the society, the education, and the culture of a place.
You are in London these days and obviously you would be interacting with more cultures. How is this experience helping you as an artist and a manager?
Coming to London and especially being at Goldsmiths University of London has been a wonderful experience. London has a vibrant art scene and some of the most major art galleries, fairs, museums and organisations. It is very multi-cultural and meeting people from all parts of the world has been a wonderful experience. Conversing with these people has been the most amazing thing, and I don’t think I would have been able to do ‘Keep the canvas rolling’ project in so many cities if I had not met all these amazing friends. Goldsmiths is a remarkably distinct institution with a very challenging, critical, creative and unconventional approach to research and education. They allow us to experiment and develop our own practice. There are not many institutions in the world that would allow me to study and work the way I do at Goldsmiths. I feel very blessed.
How many people are associated with this project?
I lead Kashmir Art Quest team along with my colleagues Fasal Dar and Adil Abbas. I am the project manager. There are 18 coordinators, one in each city. The activities will happen in public places in each city and will be open for people to interact with. So that translates to reaching thousands of people. The wonderful people at Redstone films are advising us with the promotional visual content material. The Kashmir Walla team is our media partner and will also advise us on the compilation of the book which will be published by Gulshan Books in Srinagar. The project is being done in association with J&K Tourism who have allocated the space for the 33-feet-long permanent installation in Zabarwan Park near Dal Lake. Many people are donating to help us reach our budget. And there are many more people who have helped behind the scenes. There are people like you who spread the word. Many critics and theorists who have offered to contribute towards the book. A lot of experts advised on the critical aspects of the projects from the perspective of contemporary art theory. So yes, this is one massive international collaboration. Everyone has been very generous.
Tell us about your future plans.
We aim to establish Kashmir Art Quest as a research institution, and establish Kashmir’s first serious art galley and museum. Our focus will be contemporary art practice, interdisciplinary research and visual cultures. The first step towards this was realized in the form of Kashmir Archives Project which will compile, organize and catalog historical and contemporary information about arts in Kashmir and make it available as an open-data library, free for anyone to use and build upon. We are developing a software to collect all this information via our website, so that anyone in any part of the world will be able to contribute and access the library. It will be the most comprehensive resource for researchers, writers, historians, artists, teachers, students and the general public.