A Week in the life of Aftab Gharda
Issue 75 December 2010
Professor, Aftab Gharda is Deputy Head of Visual Communication at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (BIAD), and probably the only Muslim professor in visual communication in the UK.
I wake up at 6.00am to perform the Fajr prayers and then shower and read the Qur’an. Breakfast is around 8.30am and consists of a bowl of cereal with half a banana, and then green tea when I get to the office. If I’m not lecturing or supervising my masters’ students, all of whom I meet for half a day every week, then I’ll be at a meeting, or talking on Skype to our overseas partners in Hong Kong or Thailand, or answering emails, or even travelling up and down the country as an external examiner.
My fascination with art and design began when I was 12; I was struck by how the logos of brands like Coca Cola and Rolls Royce embodied so much power, and how so much time was spent making one image look immaculate. I am still constantly fascinated how words and images are translated into forms of visual communication or design. I always used to doodle and though I didn’t really understand it, I came across the term ‘graphic design’ and decided that’s what I wanted to do. Fortunately, my father fully supported me contrary to the wishes of Asian parents at the time who only saw medicine, engineering, accountancy and the like as worthwhile careers.
By the grace of God, my students and I have been nominated for or won awards nearly every year for the past 40 years, including first prize for photography at the 1974 RSA Bursary Competition and first prize for animation/multimedia at the BBC Talent 2000 Awards. My motivation is to continually improve and produce forms of excellence that have value and humanitarian benefits.
I am that clichéd professor who holds impromptu discussions with his students. We often go off on momentous tangents on anything and everything that fascinates us about the world, and how it may directly or indirectly relate to visual communication. I find it very rewarding, especially when a student asks for advice, takes it on board and comes out with challenging work beyond their expectations. For this reason, I’m always prepared to support and help.
I remember talking to a student who had the potential to do a PhD, but she was finding it hard to reconcile this with her parents’ desire for her to get married. Purely coincidentally, I saw her parents that summer when I went to visit my son’s in-laws. I was delighted that afterwards they were convinced of their need to support her on her journey to contribute to society. I believe everyone is put on earth for a particular purpose and we have to go through different journeys to decide our area of interest and focus.
When I’m teaching, it is a revelation to see students’ different perceptions of a visual symbol, which is important for cross-border advertising and communications. The simplest thing could be Thai students finding the thumbs up sign offensive, or Chinese student perhaps not understanding an old Fiat advertisement about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I have quite a few international students, which is very enriching for the University. Education is a means to develop creative ideas and understand the world around us, and what upsets me is after having sacrificed a lot of time and money to come to the UK, these students see their studies solely with a view to improve their employment prospects. For them, it is important that European and British values do not have an undue or exaggerated influence – but rather they understand them and then customise them for their own home environment when they return.
I travel a lot for my job, whether it is to deliver lectures or discuss collaborative initiatives that I manage for the BIAD Faculty. I’ve been to such places as Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, Singapore, South Africa and most European countries. I have made many fascinating observations, and one that immediately comes to mind is how in Malaysia they have a wonderful way of entering mosques by leaving one central aisle free right up to the mihrab, and always praying in an orderly fashion from the front row, with those that just want to sit and contemplate doing so at the back.
Some periods in my week are unavoidable bureaucratic hot spots; there’s also the preoccupation with standards and league tables. This creates additional pressure against a backdrop of serious underfunding in education. Therefore, when I get home, I enjoy precious time with the family. I do my prayers and we all eat together. I lost my father (may God bless him in heaven) ten years ago this December and since then my mother, who is over 80 years old, has sadly deteriorated in health. So it is good to reassure her everyday with familiar faces as we eat together and relax, ready for another day.