When you think of an art festival, you’re probably not expecting a chemical engineer at the helm of it. But that’s precisely what Najam Ul-Assar, the founder and creative director of the Lahore Digital Arts Festival, is. At least if you’re talking formal education. Formalities aside though, Najam has always harbored a deep curiosity for arts and culture in Pakistan. Since graduating from the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Lahore in 2015, Najam has worked as an art consultant for the British Council, managed and curated festivals for the Beaconhouse School System, and in 2016, he even started an artist representation company for emerging as well as established musicians and artists, called Rearts. But for all his past accomplishments within the art world, the Lahore Digital Arts Festival might just be his most ambitious undertaking yet.
Officially inaugurated on the 5th of March and running till the 23rd, the Lahore Digital Arts Festival, or LDF, is essentially a platform for digital artists to showcase their work and hopefully build important networks and collaborations. The initial plan was to showcase 50 artists, but the overwhelming response the festival directors got changed that number, and the festival now boasts displays and presentations by almost 76 different artists. There is a variety of digital art being showcased, with eight different categories to choose from, ranging from traditional formats like miniature art, to more experimental mediums, such as Artificial Intelligence Art. The festival also features a mix of local and international artists, making the scope of the event much more far-reaching.
Insofar as models go, LDF is not too different from other famed Lahore festivals, like the Lahore Music Meet, or the Lahore Literary Festival. In all three you find structural similarities: a platform, a showcase, a roster of emerging and established talent, and a space for collaboration and conversation. There are however, two glaring differences. First, LDF doesn’t really have a physical space, like the other two. It’s an event that’s taking place entirely online, partly because of ongoing Circumstances-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, but also because what better way to host a festival devoted to digital art, than to do it digitally? Still, Najam thinks it’s a shame that they couldn’t do a physical iteration of the event for its inaugural run. “In the future we’ll go for showcases that are physical, but I feel that the internet gives a lot of power to people who are sitting in Brazil and can’t come to Pakistan to see the artwork or the artists. So, a component of the event will always be digital, as a digital event is the essence of digital art” he told me.
The second feature that distinguishes LDF from other festivals in Lahore, is that it isn’t too heavily focused on panel discussions, talks or seminars (in this case, webinars). During the two-and-a-half-week event, only four panels have been scheduled, which is unlike the other festivals which promise at least 4 panels a day during their 3-day running. According to Najam, this was intentional. “We really want people to focus on the artists and their work. That’s why they all have a separate page, so they website can also work as an archive in the future. We have two keynotes, one panel, and another interview, but the rest is just the artists’ work, that’s what it’s about” he said.
Najam, who is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Europe as an Erasmus Fellow, got the idea for LDF when he realized there wasn’t really an official platform for digital artists to showcase their work on, or a body or an organization for them to turn to for legal help. “I realized that most of the top-notch art galleries in Lahore didn’t let digital artists showcase their art through exhibitions. I was really sad, because there was such great work being done that wasn’t being acknowledged” he said. He then reached out to his partner at Rearts, Azeem Hamid, and the two quickly gathered a diverse team of seven people who began working on bringing this festival together. According to Najam, most of the initial interest was from the artists, and not from governmental agencies or popular not-for-profit organizations within the arts sector. “They didn’t really negate the idea or anything, but they didn’t show any interest either” he explains, adding “For me, I was sure that this festival would happen with or without any support, because I was willing to put everything on the line for it.”
If you thought pulling off an entire festival without any outside support was a difficult job, just try throwing in a pandemic and a digital-only restriction. It hasn’t been easy. Gillian Rhodes, an American performing artist who is a part of the LDF core team says that the hardest part about being solely online is making the event retain the initial excitement that accompanies the launch. “If it’s in person, you go and you are kind of immersed in it, it’s happening all around you and you can’t help but pay attention to it. If it’s online, you’re competing for attention with their lives and everything else that’s online” she said. This is also why the festival created some intriguing tools, such as a virtual gallery space. The more immersive the event, the more likely it is that people will remain interested.
Even so, even with all the other online noise floating around the World Wide Web, even with all the cat photos and the #JustMarried posts and the Tik Toks, LDF has done surprisingly well. The response has been great, and Najam couldn’t be happier. Within its first week, the festival’s website received more than 25,000 visitors, which is an amazing accomplishment for the first run of an event that was born during a worldwide pandemic. As if getting double the amount of artist submissions wasn’t enough, Najam says that even more artists reached out to him after the launch of the festival, making him very hopeful for future iterations of LDF. Gillian too, is convinced that digital art is here to stay, saying “It’s coming to stand as its own medium, alongside other more traditional mediums, and it has to be respected and considered.”
If you haven’t yet checked out the festival, I ask you to consider getting off of Instagram, or Twitter, or whatever your social media poison of choice is, and paying the LDF a visit. At a distance of just one mouse click, it happens to be the most accessible festival in the world right now. In a way, it’s almost poetic. At a time when the whole world has had to shift online, what better than to focus on than digital art?
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