Every year, The Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, at Harvard University, invites artists from South Asia to further their research on issues that are shaping their countries today. This fully-funded fellowship allows the participant to fully immerse themselves in everything Harvard has to offer, from its impressive library and museum to its distinguished faculty. The opportunity, spanning over two months, allows the applicants to elevate their practice, through in-depth research, while also permitting the university to become conversant with concerns of the everyday life of South Asians.

This year, Numair Abbasi, an emerging Karachi-based artist, was selected to investigate the construction of binary genders as a result of colonisation. However, barely a week into his visit, Abbasi had to return home, as mandatory quarantine meant that life in Boston came to a complete halt. Two days after reaching home, airports in Pakistan were shut down.

In England, Shanzay Subzwari, another emerging talent from Pakistan, faced similar circumstances. Pursuing a Masters in Fine Art at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, on a fully funded Chevening Scholarship, Subzwari had already spent a few months in London when she was suddenly asked to go back to Pakistan because of emergency quarantine policies. Within six hours, she was packed and at Heathrow Airport.

After spending three weeks in Karachi, four artists sat at the Vasl Artists’ Association’s apartment after they were told that they were being sent home for the remainder of their Taaza Tareen residency. This residency, which caters to upcoming artists in Pakistan, funding and developing their practices, has extended their deadline to help the residents cope with the unusual change.

Covid-19 has forced art graduates or students to lose out on some opportunities to further their art practices

Now in isolation, the artists correspond with their institutes via online video calls. For Abbasi and Subzwari, the time difference poses problems to do the same as the two must observe international timings. Limited access to libraries and a removal from studios provided by the institutes have made research and work difficult as well. For the moment, there is no opportunity for the young artists to engage with accomplished artists and researchers, and the uncertainty of when they can physically return to the unique programmes they have enrolled in, looms over their future.

Nevertheless, in the midst of difficulty lies opportunity. Abbasi continues to work on his research, which is aided by online access to exclusive Harvard classes and a library. Subzwari is still able to attend her classes online, as well as receive critiques on her practice. Osama Rehman, one of the Vasl resident artists has shifted his research towards Covid-19, making his work globally relevant. His fellow resident Suleman Faisal is moulding his practice to using only materials available to him. He creates weekly videos, teaching basic drawing as a form of combatting his own frustration during this time, while also hoping to help others in the process.

Despite obstacles, stolen opportunities and the uncertainty of the future, these artists continue to push forward, determined, like so many others, to make it through these difficult times.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 17th, 2020

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