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Today I missed him and thought of writing a note to him. The email bounced. I googled his name to find out if he was still at Goldsmiths. Turned out he had passed away in January, 2021.
My journey as an artist from Kashmir was full of anxieties, self doubts and burden of making sense . When I met Nigel Perkins, my supervisor, my mentor at Goldsmiths, where I went to pursue my Masters in Visual Communications, I felt calm immediately. The way he looked at every stroke of my work, the way he held my work in his hand, as if he was holding a butterfly in his hands, very carefully.
While working on the first draft of my book, Munnu; A Boy From Kashmir, I wasn’t sure if I could finish it. At the same time I was working on Father and Son movie animation for my thesis and writing several essays. I asked him if he can have a look at what I was writing. I was writing with pencil and the text was smudged, erased, rewritten here and there and the pages looked so messy that I couldn’t read the draft myself. Nigel suggested that I should read the draft to him instead of spending time unnecessarily to making it presentable for him. The final version of Munnu was over 35 thousand words but the first draft had nearly 65 thousand words. He would finish giving feedback to every artist from my batch and then ask me to read the draft to him in his office. I read out the text to him every week for 3-4 hours. He would close his eyes and picture the place I was writing about. Occasionally, he would ask me to stop and repeat some sentences. After graduating, I started worrying who would now read or listen to what I was writing. Nigel invited me to his favourite cafe near his home and studio in Chelsea, London, and eventually the cafe owner also became aware that I was there to recite my draft to my mentor. He would turn the volume of the music in the cafe low. There would be a big smile on Nigel’s face every time I finished reading a chapter to him. He would say that he could picture the place and the details of life in Kashmir like the notches on a surface. He would ask me to visit this gallery, read that book, watch that movie. After I would visit those place I could see new possibilities. That was his way of offering his critical feedback. One day, I was two hours late to meet him in the cafe, I had forgotten something at my home, when I reached the cafe, Nigel was still there and he smiled when he saw me. He didn’t give me any chance to explain him the reason for being late, and told me that he was waiting to hear what I had written. He introduced me to Mallarmé’s “printless-distance,” which is a way of leaving an art work /text incomplete to some extent so that the viewer could fill the missing parts with his or her own imagination and make sense of the notches from their own experiences or cultural vocabulary. I was afraid of putting some personal and political text in the book. He addressed my fears by saying that “one can’t be an artist without shooting his own foot.”
This morning, I could feel the same wave of fear after trying to write something that potentially invited plenty of trouble. I could almost hear him say that one can’t be an artist without shooting his own foot. I missed him and his calming voice. I wrote an email to him that I miss him. The email bounced. A big part of me is just lonely without him.
He was a man with cool vibe like the shade of Chinar in summer. All the artists that he had taught for over 40 years who contributed to his obituary that I read this morning, felt the same way about him. He emphasised on artistic integrity the most. He welcomed people from every ideological background, every facet of human circumstances. He would somehow bring the best out of you. He cultivated your own critical but empathetic perception over a rigid ideology. While writing these word, it feels like he can still see me and I can almost hear his voice, he is telling me don’t bother fixing it/drawing/text/life too much, just keep moving and evolving, don’t look back.
Pretence is the only thing that would bother him. He felt as if he was in a cage when people pushing trendy tantrums would be around him. However, he met them with grace too and as usual brought the best out of them. He was such a great inspiration and a source of strength for his students. As if he had lived one life already in which he had seen all the roller coaster of the world and he now was living a second one with Zen calm while guiding his students through the maze of human condition.
He had been a race car or motor bike driver before dedicating his life to exploring art.
He introduced me to German expressionism, nuances of mechanical reproduction of art, and he would listen to my obsession about Manto. I told him about his story’s and the ironies of partition of India. The tragedy of Kashmir. The dog of Titwal. He paused and then told me about a story that Jack London had written. The story was about a starving man. The man saw a poster inviting people to defeat someone strong-built in a fight and earn a reward. The poor deluded hungry man participates in the fight hallucinating that he may win and get something to eat with the reward money. As soon as he steps into the ring he receives a punch and passes out. The punch leaves a deep scar on the poor mans face and he starts bleeding profusely. At that time science hadn’t advanced much. The people rewarded the strong-built fighter and dabbed the wounds of poor hungry man with a beef patty. One of the ways of treating an open wound back then. Irony! I paraphrased the story from my memory of one of the interactions with Nigel, and surely I must have missed or misquoted most of it. But such interactions with Nigel prepared me for the challenges of artistic journey.
Nigel didn’t like the formalities of academia, the poker faces of administration or HR, and point by point planning sheets. He was a subtle pain in neck for the UK Border Agency who were stalking foreign students, checking their attendance, performance, and eager to deport the ones who didn’t meet Terrisa May’s sadistic and racist political ideals. He was a shield that protected us from the bureaucracy of the UK and reduced all the noise of political chaos around us so that we could concentrate on the whispers of our inner voice. In the quagmire of marginalisation, listening to your inner voice is a risky and scarce opportunity. On the day of final submission for my Masters, I failed to submit my portfolio because the machine I was working on crashed due to overload of high-resolution animation. This was the end of the road as far as my degree at Goldsmiths was concerned. The outside jury from the University of London was going to evaluate the portfolio that was supposed to be stored on a DVD disc which I had failed to burn and submit. This meant that I had failed already. Nigel wasn’t a part of the jury so my my anxiety was realistic. However, when I bumped into Nigel, he said “Sajad, you look tense.” I explained the reason. He raised his brows and said “anxiety!” like he knew where the missing key was. Then he smiled and whispered to me “just submit a blank DVD and by the end of the week, handover your portfolio disc to me.” He quietly replaced the blank disk with my portfolio DVD before the examiner or anyone from the University of London could see it. When I came back to Kashmir, he made sure that I finished the book. I would recite the remaining text to him via skype. When Munnu was published, he wrote to me “Sajad, this looks business!”
He was always there when I needed him. In 2017, he was offering feedback to his art students from his hospital bed where he was recoverIng from cancer related treatment. He was there to check my recent graphic reports.
Being his student, even if the whole wide world judged you, you could feel Nigel there, next to you, encouraging you to observe the performance at display, to engage with the spectacle critically rather than helplessly. The difficult situations enhanced your understanding and sped up your evolution. An immensely tough task that if mastered can liberate one almost instantly.
Today, I can’t help but feel immensely sad that he is no more. However, death being the ultimate spectacle of life, his words make sense all the more.
“Jean-Michel Basquiat’s crown acts as a perfect complement to his fascination with the human head and skull. The two themes — crowns and heads — proclaim a deep struggle between dichotomies: perceived self-worth and marginalization, divinity and destitution, and the interplay between the material world and the intellect…