A Conversation with Dr. Razia Sadik, TC Alumna, Adjunct Assistant Professor and Artist ☆

You received your undergraduate degree in Pakistan, then earned your MFA and a post-graduate diploma in England.  How did you wind your way to TC?

After I received my MFA, I went back to Pakistan and taught art full-time for seven years at a middle and high school and two professional undergraduate and graduate art schools.   At the end of the seven years, I felt I had nothing else to offer my students and I needed to learn more.  Teaching full-time doesn’t leave you time for other things.  And as an artist, I didn’t have an art practice over those seven years.  It’s funny that I came to an education school because this is where I got my art practice back.  My dissertation came out of that art practice.

What is the medium that you work in?

Mixed media.  I did my BA and MFA in textile art (sculpted textiles). For my BFA I made an installation out of woven textiles, as big as a whole room.  Now in retrospect, I don’t really like that sort of work.  It was 20 years ago, and I was very young and easily taken by the monumentality of art that was trying to be different!

Lately, I’ve been working in steel,  I draw a lot and I write.  I like the idea of writing becoming a visual medium.  I have these videos that have text running in them, juxtaposed with and layered on top of each other and running into images and onto sculpture.

Is there a commercial side to your art-making?

No, I wouldn’t do it for that.  Or maybe I would….one should never say never!  But seriously, that’s not an initial premise in my mind for making art.  My art practice is research-based.

The Art and Art Education program, where you are now an instructor, offers an interesting balance between studio practice and art education theory.  When you were in the program as an Ed.D. student, how did you feel about this practice and theory balance?

It was fantastic—a really pleasant surprise.  When I came to TC I had no idea that this was the way they would teach us.  The instruction that I got in many of my core courses encouraged connecting the practice to theory.  “The practice of teaching and the practice of your art” was the message, which was in and of itself a really radical idea.  It was very inspiring, and just a different sort of space for learning.  So my own dissertation, part of it, is practice-led.  My research methodology, for instance, emerges out of my art practice.

What does it mean to be both an artist and an art educator?

In my personal opinion, they are just so connected.  Every single millisecond, they are the same to me.  And this is a complex thing to explain as it has several aspects. I will talk about a couple of them.

I have a small, independent curating career, which is something that’s been going on for the last five years.  My dissertation is about practicing artists, and I’ve done curatorial writing about the Pakistani contemporary art scene.  (I made a contribution to the catalogue for the first exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art that happened in the United States two years ago at the Asia Society, “Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan”).

Because curating brings one into close contact with artists, other curators, gallerists as well as art world aficionados, I tend to think about this every day:  What does it mean to be a teacher who is an artist?  That is, as opposed to someone who is only an artist or an artist/teacher, or a teaching artist?  I find there are issues of ethics and ecology in this question.  In that regard, I find myself raising questions about the motivations for making art:  how they might be different and similar in the different iterations of being an artist. I feel that I am personally at a more privileged place by being someone who is equally an artist and a teacher because in this context, amongst other things, I get the opportunity to interact with people and get feedback on my artwork.  I thrive on direct feedback, as it powerfully engages with my ability to reflect – as an artist, as a teacher, and as a citizen.  That sort of interaction is not mainstream in the art world.  So perhaps I’m cut out to be more of a teacher/artist!

Another issue I think about, and something that really bothers me about the art world, is the commercialization particularly of art that has come out of South Asia.  There are many reasons for it, one being the political situation in that region.  What are the motivations for young artists who are coming out of there to make art?  Are they the right motivations?  And while they are making art, if they are teachers, what are their motivations for teaching?  To make and nurture new artists or to make and nurture new citizens in a fairly difficult and uncertain political environment?   These are the avenues of inquiry that I find I am in a privileged position to experience and learn from as a teacher of art teachers and artists in a school of education.

Having gone through doctoral research in the field of art and art education, upon reflection I am not sure if I would want to teach only in an art school.   There are elements of my past experience as an art school teacher that I don’t quite agree with.  For example, the whole idea of studio critique:  I think it often tends to be quite disrespectful because it does not acknowledge artists who are learning to be artists as fully adult human beings. It reiterates power hierarchies such as those of teacher – pupil, learned – learner. (And that’s something the whole world is guilty of, not just schools in my past, but many art schools in the U.S. and Europe as well).  Studio critique is often carried out in that brutal, critical way that might not provide healthy, helpful feedback and lacks the nurturing and facilitation of learning that a teacher must provide for the student.  It often crushes students’ confidence and that is counterproductive to learning.

Is there something you do to prepare your students who are going out to teach in a very difficult political climate, where many arts-based programs are being cut?

There are a lot of challenges to work under for people going out to teach in schools.  Funding is being cut, and instead of going the other way, the field in many instances seems to be regressing.  The biggest advice I give students is to be flexible and be enterprising in the use of materials.  Materials do not have to be actual, physical expensive materials.  They can come from your mind:  text and ideas can take the form of materials.  While it is a little bit of an abstract idea, I do think that just conversationally one can draw out students’ interests in materials.  They can work with found materials, but not imposed found materials, or, “here’s a lot of trash, make something out of it.”  I think it is really important to draw out each child’s interests.  I believe strongly that you need to use dialogue and conversation to find out what these might be for each child.

Why do you feel art education is important for children?

That’s an unquestionable idea.  It is important because it is hugely transformative.  It has the potential to change our notion of what the world is or is not.

We are in a city with hundreds, if not thousands of art galleries.  As the director, why do you feel the Macy Gallery is such a special place?

Many reasons:  and I can speak as an insider as well as an outsider.  As an insider:  It is a special gallery because we have a very small budget, and it is a huge challenge to show up to16 shows in a year.  I think we do a great job of showing a diverse array of content relating to art education as well as contemporary art, as well as regularly offering events such as guest lectures, artist talks and exhibits.

Having said that, from the outside we sometimes run into conflict with people’s notions (people being exhibitors from outside TC) on what a gallery should or should not be.  And their understanding of a gallery might be a Chelsea gallery; but this is not Chelsea.  This is an institutional art gallery.  As a part of an institution, the premise becomes somewhat different.  It doesn’t exactly have to conform, but it does have to feed the agenda of the program and the needs of its students, community and the institution within which it exists. The agenda of this program and TC is to educate and have regard for several different audiences.

The gallery itself is physically located within office and classroom space.  I think that’s a really beautiful thing.  It becomes a functional space in more than one way.  While the artwork displayed is on exhibit, it also plays the more subtle role of directing attention to the various parts of the program and the variation and daily variability of their function – from office to social, to studio to lecture, to classroom and seminar space.  When you look at the space itself, there are so many doors and nooks and crannies and places where people go every day.  They pass through it and encounter it every other hour.  So, it’s a space that by default immerses you in the experience of the art and the functions of the program in many different ways. That is a very special parallel duality that can be tapped into really creatively, or on the other hand may also cause conflict.

It might, for instance, be considered a conflict by exhibitors who might not prioritize the institutional role of the gallery and consider that role as too conservative. They might desire for the need to conceal the daily activities of the program as they might be considered as “interruptions” to the exhibits. On the other hand there have been outside exhibitors who have used this parallel role creatively by responding to the spatial presence of a program, rather than only as a gallery. This has been really exciting.

There have been shows that have embraced the uniqueness of the gallery.  They’ve been set up by community organizations and exhibitors, and create exhibit-based learning and art activities plus improvisational art performances that use the specificity of the space to evolve.

Another example of a creative embrace of the space is the weekly use of the gallery by young visitors from the Rita Gold Early Childhood Center, who will sometimes give exhibition tours to adults. In this particular context, the inclusion and selection of exhibited content becomes very important.  A key condition that we must make outside exhibitors aware of is a determination of content suitable for viewing by all types of audiences.

All of these encounters open up discourses about what art might be and the responses it can elicit amongst varied audiences. There is no other place as well-suited for this as an art gallery in a program of art education!

The space has a very long and interesting history.  I’m wondering what your contribution to this storied past will be?

Expanding on the idea that the exhibiting spaces are situated next to, within and overlapping with the teaching and administrative spaces of the program, the most important and interesting thing to me about Macy Gallery is the potential to make connections between the curriculum and the gallery content.

In 2010-11, the program offered three weekend workshops to pre-service and in-service teachers.  We advertised these three free workshops (not offered for credit, not for payment) and had good attendance from both within and outside the program, from TC community and alumni.  We invited artists and educators from within and outside TC to teach the workshops and to link them, in a loose way, to whatever was going on at the gallery at the time.  From the feedback we received, we realized that this type of workshop was quite successful.  I see this linkage as potential for making greater and more complex connections between curriculum and the exhibiting space. I have always thought of the field of art and art education as best situated in an environment that thinks between theory and practice.   (Even fifteen years ago when I was at art school, I was very fortunate to go to a program that thought in a similar way).  Connecting exhibited artwork to the development of courses is one way of practicing that thought.

Are you writing any articles now?

I am working on a number of different articles that accommodate the various academic engagements and aspects of my professional profile. There are three parts, all of them connected in some form with each other and all of them embedded in the practice of art and/or of teaching art.

The first one is connected to my main research interest – arts-based research methodologies. I am working on a series of pieces on developing research methodologies for teaching and learning about different aspects of the arts. This work comes out directly from my dissertation, which was premised in creating a performative dialogic research methodology using autobiographical and biographical narrative through art practice. The purpose of developing such a methodology was to find deeper and more informative and transparent ways of representing the pedagogy of artists in higher education. In practice, such methodologies could have applications in areas ranging from art curriculum planning, arts education research, art historical and curatorial texts, and educational and cultural history.

A second trajectory of my research profile is related to my current teaching practice in art education. In Spring 2011, I taught the core course Curriculum Design in Art Education at TC. This course was taught parallel to a studio course that facilitated students’ pedagogic and curricular thinking in visual form. I am writing a documentary piece on that course as an arts-based teaching and learning methodology for art curriculum conceptualization. Another related but different aspect of my teaching taps into the potential connections between curating art and curriculum making. This summer I taught a course on the ecology of curating art, also in the Art & Art Education Program. The premise of this course was to make art teachers aware of the motivations of representing diverse cultures and issues relevant in our current times through contemporary art and their possible interpretations and transformative potential or lack thereof. The idea for this ties together my experience in art education and curating and the reflective inquiry that juxtaposing the two leads to. For art and art education teachers in certain contexts, in particular in higher education, I believe it is important to develop this consciousness.

The third trajectory is a continuation of my curatorial writing that I have been doing for a while. I am developing an essay on the Pakistani artist Huma Mulji, who is also one of three artist/teachers in my dissertation. Her piece, “Arabian Delight” (a gentle, grinning taxidermied camel curled up inside a large suitcase), is in the Saatchi Collection. This artwork makes a comment on the history of immigration from Pakistan to the Middle East in the 1970’s in search of better lives and livelihoods, or as the artist has often called it, “paradise”. “Arabian Delight” is a really interesting piece because the exhibiting of the piece itself developed a narrative, that somehow took it beyond its existence as an artwork to generate a discourse on broader issues of cultural representation, curatorship, politics, the circulation of art and much more. The first time this piece was shown internationally was at Art Dubai, an annual art fair in the United Arab Emirates in 2008. The piece was removed from the exhibit upon orders of the prince of the emirate, just before the opening of the fair, as it was considered inappropriate for the culture of the UAE (the camel is a highly revered animal there). What followed was a series of journalistic commentaries and reports on the incident, a whole new set of data that traces the circulation of the piece and what eventually turned out to be its transformative potential – in both desired and undesired ways. For Mulji this incident had mixed significance, which has left a lasting impact on her art practice and renders it all the more intriguing. For me as an educator artwork such as this that generates dialogic spaces of different kinds – journalistic, cultural, pedagogical, and those of art scholarship – are of great potential for enhancing and/or shifting our beliefs and knowledge about the world as it is or isn’t today.