Home » Uncategorized » Public Art, Public Engagement

Public Art, Public Engagement

Published in the January 2013 issue of Paper Magazine

Graffiti is not new to those of us living in Karachi. We have long grown accustomed to words and phrases sprayed and stencilled across every available surface in our city. Most of the time, graffiti tends to be political, commercial or even romantic! Different neighborhoods’ in the city scream allegiance to various political parties; the reputations of gangs and girls and built and broken across our boundary walls. Our public service messages, and even a handy reminder of what number to call for an ambulance, find themselves stenciled across the city. Recently, many Islamic parties have taken to broadcasting their ideologies and aversions on the walls of their mosques. And then there’s a myriad of commercial messages – pest control solutions, tutoring centers – you name it, someone’s sprayed it.

But every once in a while, something different catches our eye. Something that isn’t just vandalism or defacement, but is perhaps aesthetically pleasing or intelligent. That may rise above the charge of graffiti and may actually be called street art. It can make us stop and smile, or maybe even start to think. It can engage us.

“Public art is public engagement,” shared Sabeen Mahmud of The Second Floor fame. It has a far greater reach than other forms of art, which are often confined to galleries and museums, and are the purview of a select, elite few. By contrast, street art can spread its message and aesthetics to a far greater audience. It invites public consumption.

Sabeen has done much to promote street art in the city. She had donated a wall of T2F for the creation of street art, and has encouraged and promoted Pakistani street artists, including Rang de Karachi, and the celebrated artist and graffiti activist, Asim Butt.

“Street art can start a dialogue,” Sabeen said. “One individual and group can spray-paint something, someone else can respond, and so it goes on.” The process itself also invites interaction. Street artists have shared stories of how, while they were stenciling and spray painting their message, members of the public stopped to talk, to ask about their work, and share their opinions and points of view.

Recently, students of a third year class at the Indus Valley School were asked to explore non-violent modes of resistance. Inspired by the street artist Banksy and by the subversive street art seen in Eygpt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring, many students turned to street art. Ayesha Omer, their lecturer, and an unabashed proponent of street art guided them in this.

“Street Art can be creative, fun intelligent and bad-ass,” Ayesha said in an interview. “It’s about standing up to the man and using a public space to broadcast a public message.”

Ayesha’s students armed themselves with stencils and spray cans, and hit the streets. One group tackled public urination – they drew a cartoon figure urinating, with a stern tag line following, “Maya Dekh Rehi Hai” (Maya [Khan] is watching.” Another group protested against the senseless target killings taking place across the country by spray-painting a poignant verse by the celebrated poet, Faraz.

Like many before them, the IVS students took to spray painting as a way of venting, in a society where their voices may not otherwise find an avenue for expression.

“Street art can be an way for voicing frustration,’ shared Taimur Suri, art historian, and lecturer at Indus Valley. In his upcoming book on the visual culture of Pakistan, Suri devotes a chapter to exploring street art and graffiti in Pakistan in all its manifestations. In an interview, Suri outlined the commercial aspect of street art, a form of low-cost, high-impact of street art, as well as the more subversive streams of the medium, including the ultimatums issued by Islamic parties, broadcast across city walls. He also identified a uniquely “Defence” manifestation of graffiti, a type of extracurricular activity for the elite youth.

A former student of Taimur Suri, the celebrated artist Asim Butt, will be remembered as one of the most prominent graffiti activists in Pakistan. In 2007, Butt took to the streets to protest against Musharraf’s military rule. He spray-painted an “eject” symbol across walls, trees and the streets of the city to symbolize a rejection of the dictatorship. The symbol quickly became synonymous with the pro-democracy movement, and was replicated in scores across the country.

Asim Butt also used street art as a form of social commentary. In 2003, he created 2 large murals in the city of Karachi about the US’s military operations in Iraq, and about glue-sniffing street children in Karachi.

Other artists in the city have also used street art as a form of social commentary. More recently, we have started seeing “Burkilyn”, a woman in a Marilyn Monroe pose, with her skirt flying up, yet dressed in a full burka. The acronyms that political parties use have also been poked fun off on the streets of our city, and the Pakistani map has been redesigned as a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The art work can be subversive or silly, it can form a wider social commentary or it can be a tongue-in-cheek statement. But what separates it from the other stenciling that we see across the city is that it suggests a form of public engagement and dialogue. It brings citizens – not just political parties and commercial enterprises – out of their homes and onto the streets to engage with their fellow citizens. It also adds some vibrancy and wit to our otherwise bleak urban landscape.

“Street art can introduce colour and intelligence into a city, without having to change the infrastructure,” Sabeen Mahmud shared. It can be a way of beautifying our city and making it a morelively place to be.

All the colour, humour and life that street art injects still hasn’t lifted it to the status of art form. It is mostly still regarded as vandalism or the destruction of public or private property. Street art also has a notoriously short self-life. Asim Butt’s murals have long been covered up, Other pieces have been covered by new layers of graffiti, or have been white-washed. But this in itself creates a new canvas, allowing the cycle to continue.


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