Meet Raafat Ishak, Head of Painting at the VCA

Raafat Ishak, Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments (detail), 2006–2009, Oil and gesso on MDF 194 panels: 30 x 21cm each. Image courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.
Raafat Ishak, Responses to an immigration request from one hundred and ninety four governments (detail), 2006–2009, Oil and gesso on MDF 194 panels: 30 x 21cm each. Image courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.

Raafat Ishak is the Head of Painting at the Victorian College of the Arts. Working across painting, installation and site-specific drawing, Ishak’s practice is informed by architecture and his Arabic cultural heritage. here, Dr Ishak answers some of our questions about the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Visual Art) program.

In a few sentences can you tell us about who you are and what you stand for?
I am a professional practising artist with an exhibition record at local, national and international levels spanning 30 years. I am a graduate of the Victorian College of the Arts (Painting). I have a masters in Architecture History and a PhD in visual arts. I began lecturing in 2011. I guess my trajectory is not dissimilar from the majority of other lecturers at the VCA except that I came into teaching slightly later than usual.

What do I stand for? Well, many things, but in relation to teaching art, or being an artist, the main things for me are integrity, fairness and a deep sense of curiosity. There is so much to know and experience, and in many ways, teaching has provided an avenue for that. I get to know the world around me through the eyes and minds of my students.

It is vital that as a lecturer I stand back, keeping my values and views in check, to allow students to explore theirs unimpeded. I think being fair and equitable is also important. It takes a long time for artists to mature. Some are slow starters while others are quick to adapt to the gruelling and rigorous demands of an art practice. It is important to treat everyone equally, giving those who lag behind as many opportunities as possible to develop.

Raafat Ishak. Photo by Giulia McGauran.

Can you tell us a bit about the course? What does it involve?  
The Bachelor of Fine Arts (Visual Art) is a three-year studio based program. There are two core subjects, Studio Studies and Critical and Theoretical Studies (CATS). In simple terms, students will make artwork in a studio-based environment (more than 50% of the degree), attend “art history” lectures and tutorials, and read and write, and select from a range of Breadth subjects offered by other disciplines within the university.

The focus, however, is the Studio Studies. This is where students are engaged in making their own work in their own studios. This core subject encompasses a variety of activities that assist students in developing their own visual aesthetic interests and concerns. These include drawing classes in the first year, individual and group tutorials, professional practice classes and exhibitions throughout the entire degree. In the Studio Studies program, students will be equipped with the necessary technical and analytical skills for developing their unique artistic pursuits and visual language.

The VCA visual arts course is unique in so many ways. Students will be taught by professional artists and academics who are engaged in the field at local, national and international levels. Some of those engagements are directly linked to the learning and teaching that takes place on campus, through exhibitions, conferences and events. Each year students are allocated their own studio space where they create work and meet with their lecturers (and peers) to discuss the work.

VCA Art is a vibrant environment of making and thinking as well as associated activities, guest lecturers, guest speakers, gallery and studio visits, exhibitions and many conversations about art. some of our students have been on exchange programs at art schools around the world. The message when they return is always the same. No other art school offers the same vibrant environment and community, not to mention the technical facilities and the geographical position of being so close to the most important public and commercial institutions in Melbourne.

The capstone graduation exhibition is a major annual event that attracts thousands of visitors, including curators and gallerists. Additionally, scholarships, grants and awards are given out on a regular basis at every year level.

What sort of careers/pathways can students expect to go into?
VCA Art trains students to become professional visual artists in the contemporary field. This means that graduates will be exhibiting artists at commercial, public and artist run galleries and museums. We train students to be studio artists, engaging in the visual arts’ contemporary dialogue and practice. Having said that, trained artists will often encounter financial insecurities and uncertainties about their place in a particularly small and competitive field.

A visual arts bachelor by the nature of its teaching and learning methodologies, trains students to be lateral and analytical thinkers armed with material and technical knowledge. This can lead to a number of career opportunities and further academic studies.

Once again, I stress that we focus our training on professional art practice and what that entails. However, students will have the appropriate training that can lead to teaching, art therapy, museum installation work, art retail opportunities, employment in commercial galleries, design, fashion, publishing, art conservation and curating. There are also opportunities for further studies other than in fine arts, including architecture and design.

Is there a philosophy or piece of advice that has held you in good stead throughout your career?
It goes without saying but hard work does pay off. Hard work is a very generic piece of advice – what does it mean to work hard? What does it entail? A lot of patience. Very little in life will work out the first, second or third time. Everything takes time. I always tell students that it is easy to make art but it is not easy to make good art.

And what is good art? individual artists develop their own good individual art. It is an individual pursuit, which means that it takes a lot of experience and maturity to work it out. So how do artists survive not knowing? Patience, and a lot of work, which will often include a lot of failures. Failures are important – we always ask our students to identify the failures, we want to see them, the failed art works will always give students and artists a way forward.

Curiosity and engagement are also very important. Even though making art is an individual pursuit, it does not operate in a vacuum. A single artist is part of a much larger community of artists and art workers. It is very important to know what everyone is up to because your contribution forms only a small part of what is collectively generated by the community.

If I were to impart advice, it would be engage, engage and engage more. Make, fail, and make more. And exhibit – always exhibit and test your work in the public domain. The art world is a small world but it is a very active and engaged world. In Melbourne it is also a supportive world. And lastly, have no fear. Artists are the most socially awkward people, so you will never feel left out or out of place.

Raafat Ishak, Mount East, 2012, Oil on cotton duck, 80 x 60cm. Image courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne.

In your opinion, what’s the best thing about working at the VCA?
VCA Art tends to attract the best available applicants, so first and foremost, the students. Then the staff. I work in an environment of professional artists. My colleagues are also my friends. We tend to see each other outside of the VCA as much as we do there, going to each other’s gallery openings as well as socialising.

Working at the VCA is actually a dream job – working with people you like and teaching something that you love and are passionate about. Going to work never feels like a burden or a chore because I know I will be somewhere talking about and looking at things that are important to me and to those around me. Teaching becomes an extension of the studio.

For students, it is an amazing, vibrant community where you generate life-long friendships, both social and professional. There is a point, particularly in third year, and in postgraduate studies, where lecturers don’t feel like they are teaching students anymore but speaking with future peers.

I keep forgetting to mention the history and the geography. An astonishing number of VCA graduates are exhibiting, professional artists with some included in major private and public collections in Australia and abroad. Any given major biennale or museum exhibition will inevitably have VCA staff or alumni included in it. The list is too long.

The location is incredible. There is nothing like having Australia’s premier art collection next door (NGV), not to mention ACCA and Buxton Contemporary, and the great number of commercial and artists run galleries around the Melbourne CBD.