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Art lessons

Updated May 23, 2018

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“DO you know anything about aboriginal art? No? Well, let me tell you about it.”

These confident words came not from a museum curator in Australia, but from a young student of SMB Fatima Jinnah Girls School, a government’ school in Karachi. I was at The Second Floor to see ‘Taruuf’, an art show by the students, and speak to them about the artwork, but instead, I got a lesson in what investing in art can do for children at every level of society.

Since 2007, Shehzad Roy’s Zindagi Trust has been managing SMB Fatima Jinnah Girls School, which caters to those children whose parents can’t afford to pay for their education. Along with improvements in infrastructure, teacher training, and governance, as well as extra curricular activities like football, chess and life skills, an art programme was started here and at the Khatoon-e-Pakistan Government Girls School. Teaching art to the students would help them discover their artistic and creative talents and develop into well-rounded citizens.

Girls had created self-portraits inspired by cubism.

Teaching art in Pakistan is extremely difficult. Teachers are not drawn to the subject; there is a serious lack of exposure to art among educators. The Zia years effectively turned art from a necessary part of society into something evil and taboo. An art teacher recounts stories of parents not wanting their children to draw hands and feet because they considered it un-Islamic. “If you want to kill a society, kill its arts,” she says.

It was a real challenge to introduce art into a school that had never even had a drawing teacher, but the Trust’s head of art, Anam Shakil and her colleagues were determined to prove that art could be taught at a low-income government school, and taught well. Attitudes would have to be changed too: the girls “hated” art and never wanted to choose it as a subject, and parents were equally negative.

Shahida Abdul Ghaffar, a teacher at SMB Fatima Jinnah, spoke about the dearth of art in the school. “Before this programme, we were only able to teach the girls simple things, like drawing a Pakistani flag or the four provinces of Pakistan.” Even rudimentary materials were too expensive for children to buy and bring to class, but the programme supplied the paints, brushes, pencils and papers. Art became a weekly subject at both schools, with Ms. Shakil training teachers about different mediums, techniques, and famous painters. The teachers then passed this information on to their students.

Not only did students learn the art of different cultures and countries through the curriculum, but they learned art history as well. They went on field trips to “find art everywhere” — museums, heritage buildings, places of worship, galleries and universities. A huge art room was opened at each school, with students’ work displayed. Ms. Shakil reports that when parents walked in, they were bowled over by the art their daughters had created. Soon, parents were asking Ms. Ghaffar why she wasn’t assigning them more art homework; some even demanded that only art be taught to their girls.

The art programme had unexpected results: attendance went up, and so did enrollment. Student achievement rose in other subjects, too, because art was integrated into the entire curriculum. In biology class, studying mammals, students were told to draw an imaginary creature made out of two separate mammals.

Parents began to withdraw their children from low-cost private schools and register them in the government schools just so that they could access the art programme. Although it was only coincidence that the schools with the art programme were for girls, parents began to ask, “What about our sons? Can’t they learn art too?”

At the T2F exhibit, young girls in 7th and 8th class talked enthusiastically about pointillism, the life of Pablo Picasso (the four periods of his artistic career were explained very carefully to me), how optical illusions worked, and the origins of Pakistani truck art. Girls had created self-portraits inspired by Paul Klee and cubism; desi takes on the Mona Lisa; collages and pastel drawings. They knew more about art than I did.

The effect on the girls’ personal development might be the real miracle here: their minds began to open to the world, and to the beauty in it, but they also started to think about their place in the world and what they might accomplish.

Since the programme was introduced, some girls have graduated and begun studying at Karachi University and medical college. Others have come back asking to be taken on as interns so they can help with the art and football programmes (another success story waiting to be told). Art has made these girls bloom; imagine what it could do for every child in Pakistan.

The writer is an author.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2018