May 10, 2020


Artist Anwar Saeed once found himself alone all day at a friend’s house, without a pencil or pen to be seen. Unable to subdue the creative urge, he began drawing with a spoon dipped in coffee. The artist Hanif Shahzad made breathtakingly detailed collages of a railway platform for his graduating show, with a palette of coloured papers from magazines, because he could not afford paints at the time. Iqbal Geoffrey calls his collages ‘NeuroFusions’ which he describes as “Imagination + Oil and Odder mixed media” in perfect compositional balance.

We inadvertently become creative when we rummage around for material to express an idea, and in the process learn to see materials through the lens of an artist — cardboard is the colour ochre, a bottle cap is a circle and a button a red dot. While the pleasure of working with perfectly prepared artists’ materials cannot be denied, creativity is less in the materials than what the artist chooses to do with them. Nearly 30,000 years ago, the earliest artists discovered coloured earth, charcoal and burnt bones from last night’s cooking were perfect for making drawings on the walls of caves.

Twentieth century artists consciously sought new materials — found objects and industrial processes — to more accurately reflect a world changed by mechanisation, consumerism and urbanity. Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Merzbau’ construction of 1923 filled the interior spaces of his home with found and shaped materials, creating the first examples of installation art.

Partly to blur the boundary between life and art, but also to prove beauty can emerge from destruction and fragmentation.

Robert Rauschenberg in the ’50s and Louise Nevelson in the ’60s incorporated objects found from urban debris to make their artworks. De Kooning made a series of paintings on doors. Assemblage of found objects became a genre. When one steps out into what is called Outsider Art made by folk artists or eccentric self-taught artists, the range of materials used to make art becomes even more unconventional.

James Hampton, a janitor in a government building, spent 14 years making an elaborate secret altar, ‘The Throne Of The Third Heaven’, crafted from found materials covered with aluminum foil, which was only discovered after his death. It is now placed at the Smithsonian Art Museum.

Paul Smith, an artist with cerebral palsy, achieved worldwide fame making beautiful images using only a typewriter. Muhammad Rizwan Khan whose art name is SOKV, an employee of the Karachi Port Trust, has for years been making text-based art to convey eccentric messages. It is only now that he can share his work on Facebook. One can find art unexpectedly in the cracks between the gallery and society. A trader in Karachi’s wholesale steel market proudly showed us the sculpture he made with scrap steel. The Canadian artist, Pnina Granirer, observes “The urge to create compels artists to continue working even in the face of poverty and obscurity.”

Whether art is meaningful or meaningless, the urge to create seems to be an integral part of our emotional needs, from childhood to old age, from prehistory to post-modernity. Darwin himself recognised that selection of the fittest does not explain the creative urge, given that it does not contribute to physical survival.

Mark Pagel explains it as “group survival”, where cultural practices ensure the survival of a society’s way of being. It explains a warrior’s willingness to die in battle to ensure the survival of his tribe. Shakespeare believed writing or being written about, gives immortality to the individual: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see /So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email:

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 10th, 2020