Twin peacocks haughtily flaunt their feathers, a distinct blue like the sky that lights this image. Luminous embellishments, distinguished by curious shades of pink, scatter the emerald greens in the lower half of the magnificent fowl. Red curtained corners narrow the screen, almost as if the birds are a theatrical construct — ready to perform on the director’s call. A steel chain hangs from their beaks that present an emphatic “I love Karachi” penned on a heart-shaped display. The backdrop of luscious flora and sand dunes are juxtaposed with a brick wall on which the peafowl stand.
This panorama is neither a real life depiction, nor a painting found in an expensive art gallery. Rather, it is a mural portrayed on MT Khan Road in Karachi. But behind this glorious picture lies the bittersweet reality of the city’s contemporary art scene, which according to some, only belongs to the elite.
Karachi is a fascinating, urban mess. Despite a continual stock of issues, it continues to survive with several divisions of class, religion and ethnicity. It has also managed to keep some room for a group of intellectuals, patrons and executives who believe in reclaiming their hometown by consolidating public spaces through art. They are hard at work, day after day, in the search for an identity that binds Karachi as a city. But the question remains, is public art really the answer to a desperate need for reintegration?
The idea of a public space itself is quite vague — even in foreign nations. The use of public areas for art in Karachi is thus a reasonable concern.
According to Arif Hasan, a pioneering architect, planner and recipient of the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, public space can be broadly divided into two categories. On one hand is an expanse that is purposefully planned and integrated within the architectural landscape of a city. “This [type of public space] is perhaps caused by a lack of knowledge of the city, or apparent middle-class prejudices,” says Hasan.
On the other hand is a construct built in an unpremeditated part of a metropolitan. This space can be openly used and accessed by the public. Here, “children play, women gossip and small businesses are run”, as per Hasan’s narrative. The latter is far too common within this part of the world; and with diminishing beautification, it paves the way for the public arts movement.
Sara-Duana Meyer of the Goethe-Institut, Germany’s international cultural centre, believes it is not as simple as that. “Space is something that is also created in the moment,” she says. “There is a particular space which is not necessarily related to the place."
“I think it [also] depends on the public you are interacting with,” explains acclaimed artist and sculptor Abdul Jabbar Gull. He is convinced that the message communicated by art in public spaces depends a lot on the audience: their language, vocabulary, experiences, level of education and awareness.
Sahar Ahmed, Director of Programs and Partnerships at I Am Karachi (IAK), an independent organisation that is at the forefront of this movement affiliated with public art, tries to explain the reason for projecting art in public spaces. “You don't have to be very educated or come from a certain background to understand art,” she says. “Art is a universal language that binds you together.”
But IAK’s endeavours are not solitary in using art as a mechanism for change. Several others have come up and fallen down, all attempting to reunite the divided townscape.
Pursukoon Karachi has held talks and exhibitions, characterised by celebrity appearances and dramatic escapades of loud dialogues exclaiming the necessity for a ‘naya Karachi’. Mandates were made and projects were set forth. They too, like IAK, developed public art projects involving mural installations by Karachi-based artists. Unlike IAK, however, their work involved more blatant messaging about the problems with the city via depictions of arms and weapons. Yet, nearly three years since its first event, not much has happened in the way of their ambitious goals.
The VASL Artists’ Collective is conceivably a better tale to cite for relative success in the movement. A registered not-for-profit since 2001, it is a contemporary art practice that is committed to creating a progressive space for experimentation and exchange. A decade and a half later, it precedes its status by carrying out a multitude of projects that have broken ground for public art in the city.
Foreign organisations are also increasing their chapters across Karachi. In fact, even IAK is partially funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Moreover, starting from this year, the Goethe-Institut is engaging in a year-long project for public arts called 'Urbanities'. Partnering with VASL and the Lahore Biennale Foundation, it will include several artistic residencies and research projects, all leading up to the symposium that will attract a myriad of international and national speakers.
Meyer, an experienced patron of the arts and the project consultant for 'Urbanities', explains why projects like these are important for Karachi: “The people [of Karachi] want to see something nice and beautiful, and for a moment, forget the politics. They are far too overwhelming anyway.”
'Urbanities' is aiming to legitimise public art through mobile and interactive installations, instead of murals and two-dimensional displays. “We don't want white cube galleries, we want social and street art. You must [be able to] get your feet and hands a little bit dirty,” she says. This is perhaps what separates this foreign project from the innumerable others.
However, Hasan is skeptical towards such internationally-funded initiatives. “I have seen innumerable projects of culture, development and infrastructure that have been pushed by external agents,” he says. “I have not seen them last.”
According to some, art in Pakistan is commonly referred to as a pastime of the elite, epitomised by expensive galleries and glamorous parties. Therein lies the issue of its relevance to the common man. Nonetheless, Hasan is of the view that commoners are unnecessarily underestimated: “The common man has a much higher sense of aesthetics than is usually believed by Pakistan’s middle classes and the elite.” Hasan further explains that an average person has a greater understanding of space and its use since it directly affects him.
“Art is and always will be the concern of a common man,” says Gull, who believes that replacing propaganda and slander in public areas has a large effect on the psychology of a city. Sahar Ahmed, of IAK, also believes that by bringing art to the public, the movement is paving the way for inclusion of the largest section of our society. But Gull is troubled by the misappropriation of local artistic practices that is folly to an intermixture of the economic classes, citing truck art as an example. “If a fusion of both sides is balanced, then it is positive,” he says. “Otherwise, at some point, local crafts will disappear.”
But what does the common man himself think? “They [the murals] look great, it’s like my city has been born again,” says a man in white shalwar kameez riding a motorbike. While standing next to a freshly-painted display on Hoshang Road, he is beaming from cheek to cheek: “I now purposefully reroute my way to work to watch this wall before a long day.”
Gull is of the opinion that public artists must be weary of whom they are catering to. Hasan agrees: “If you put up a sculpture in certain areas of the city, it will be smashed, broken and not respected. If you paint women in a certain manner, it might be considered obscenity. There is no common culture of Karachi.” But if art is meant to be ‘universal’ why does it need to differ from area to area?
When foreign organisations start projects within the city, they are unable to access working-class areas such as Orangi, Lyari and Baldia Town. They cite ‘security concerns’ as their reasons. As a result, their projects cater to an already well-established class of population that neither needs much awareness, nor do their residential areas need much beautification. When asked about this, Meyer of the Goethe-Institut insisted: “But who will go and see it [there]?”
Hasan believes that if, because of these aforementioned reasons, we exclude low-class areas, we are creating a larger problem. “By not installing them there (affluent areas), they are increasing the division in the city.”
Despite the many concerns, however, art in urban spaces has already indicated a positive change. IAK’s Cantt Station fresco vibrantly celebrates the lives of street vendors that are part of the subculture surrounding the area. Ahmed recalls the previously tarnished walls, where cigarette sweepings, paan-spitting, and piles of rubbish were commonplace. After the mural installation, however, the vendors began to take ownership of the area and maintain it themselves. “They think what they do is respectful enough to be painted, and seeing their pictures right in front of them gives them a sense of belonging,” she says.
Although the organisations involved in the public art movement are still a work in progress, the future of art in public spaces shows promise. The people behind these operations are a dedicated force. They are though perhaps spreading themselves too thin through their larger-than-life mandates and ambitious aims. “At the end of the day, if they [the people of Karachi] are smiling, and if we made that happen, we have achieved our objective,” she added.
The writer is studying arts at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.