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Art and the Pandemic

Dua Abbas Rizvi

Curated by Madeeha Maqbool as Digital Guest Editor.

A few days before my city of Lahore went on lockdown in the spring of 2020, I had a young artist over at my home studio. She wanted to use my photography equipment to document some works and once she had taken the photographs she wanted, we sat down for tea and cookies and ended up talking about our homes and families.

The conversation quickly wound up at the square, black door of her mother’s death. She opened it and entered—matter-of-factly—and recounted the circumstances of it as she munched on the cookies, moving ruminatively from the toxicity of her parents’ marriage to her mother’s depression, to her apparent overdosing. She moved lightly and gracefully over the grim fact that it was she who found her mother dying in their living room. She seemed to pirouette over the funeral, the coldness of the house afterwards. And finally she arrived at what has since made me think about creativity and life and our innate, desperate need to create. She whipped out her phone and started showing me pictures of arts and crafts projects her mother had started before she died. A small wooden fence painted bright blue, put away as if for later on top of a bedside table. A patch of the landing wall painted with thick, pink roses—so thick, their edges were crusty. An old lantern with its base painted a riot of pure colours. A set of smooth pebbles wrapped in plastic and shoved into a drawer with purple diamantes.

The girl swiped through these pictures, brushing away cookie crumbs from her shirt. I wish I knew what she wanted to make, she said. I wish I knew what plans she had for these things. I wish I knew what these pebbles were for. I wish I knew if she was going to paint leaves around those roses on the wall. I wish. I wish. I wish.

When social isolation began some days later, I, too, found myself wondering what the woman had wanted to do. At odd times, I found myself wondering. I felt I knew the answer but I wondered, still. My parents, who live down the street from me, are—at any given time these past couple of years—in the middle of one creative project or another. My father, having retired from work two years ago, now works compulsively with wood. He makes wafer-thin boxes and long-legged chairs so delicate you’d imagine they were for people made out of paper. My mother makes jewellery with whatever she can find—leftover lace, stray beads, papier-mâché dewdrops—and arranges it in generous, radial compositions on clay trays that she also makes. Sometimes, when they show me a creation they’re particularly proud of, I look at it, turn it around in my hands, and say, “You should sell it”. They chuckle, take whatever it is back from me, and put it away. They never ask how to go about it.

I went to art school, where they teach you how to monetise creativity. That is the first blow. They also teach you what it means for something to be archivable, for something to outlive you. This is the second. You come out of there and spend your time resisting a lot of your creative impulses. You start planning what to do with things. Thereafter, when you create, you are not alone and you are not free. The market watches you always and always your concern is if the paper is acid-free or not. You start creating for an imagined museum and not for yourself. You start thinking that art is not art if it does not lead to something.

But the pandemic forced many of us to reassess our relationship with creativity. It launched us into liquid rooms dislodged from time. During that first lockdown in the spring of 2020, with what suddenly seemed like all the time in the world, I found myself making a lot of useless art. But can any art be called that? And yet, shouldn’t all art be just that?

Two years on, I am still making things that I always wanted to make, I am working with paper of all colours, I am cutting it in big, clumsy shapes and putting it on top of each other. I have no plans for it. I am making pictures that defy colour theories and quality checks and make me happy.

The galleries shut down, then opened again. The museums staggered, then found their footing. But in the moment it took for their lights to come back on and their exhibits to bob up from the dark, we had been shown a world in which art had been as useless as it had been crucial.

The featured photograph is courtesy of the author.


Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. She graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2010, with awards for excellence in fine art and art history. Her artwork has been part of numerous exhibitions at home and abroad, including Home Alone Together (Washington D.C.), Stations of the Cross (New York), Beyond Borders (New Delhi), and Art for Education: Contemporary Artists from Pakistan (Milan).

Rizvi has been writing on art and culture since 2009 and her essays, reviews, and creative nonfiction have been published in Pakistani and foreign English-language newspapers, journals, and anthologies of repute including Dawn, Herald, The Friday Times, The Aleph Review, Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue, Image Journal (for which she also serves as an editorial advisor), Selvedge Magazine, and the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception.

She is currently working on her first book, a work of autofiction, on a South Asia Speaks Fellowship (2022).


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