Perhaps the most basic definition of public art is given in the glossary of New Land Marks, “art placed in public places and spaces,” which are “open to everyone to use and enjoy.” This oversimplification, however, leaves much to be discussed and reduces and restricts an expansive and complex practice to mere geography. In theory, all art is made for public consumption, and even museums and galleries are technically open to the public. Yet, not all art is readily accessible to all. Public art at its core is then not only meant to be accessible to a wider audience, but to also engage the public in ways that add value to the community. Thus, this ‘accessibility’ is not necessarily of the physical kind alone.
In 2012-2015, the tentative collective activated members of ethnically and economically diverse colonies of Karachi to use the cheapest and most pervasive technology— a cell phone — to create videos exploring everyday life in these communities. This public-sourced media was then projected onto various public spaces within the city via a projector-fitted rickshaw— a mobile cinema — incorporating the city’s architecture and infrastructure into the work. Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, made for, about and by the public itself, perhaps encapsulates the true essence of accessibility when it comes to public art.
This project aligns with Cher Krause Knight’s understanding of public art as an,“extension of emotional and intellectual, as well as physical, accessibility to the audience.” She further iterates that “we can best understand art’s public functions when we consider the interrelationship between content and audience; what art has to say, to whom it speaks, and the multiple messages it may convey.” As art moves into the public realm, the purpose of art must take into consideration the needs and concerns of this new audience in order to generate relevant dialogue.
This is perhaps exactly what public art in Pakistan has failed to do in the past. Its bleak history, as briefly recounted by author and CEO of Dawn Media Group, Hameed Haroon, in his keynote speech for the inaugural Karachi Art Festival, is wrought with vandalism and theft. According to art critic, curator and historian Niilofur Farrukh, public art is a process where constant exposure allows the public to view art in a non-threatening way, take pride in it and develop more tolerance towards it, a process which we have missed out on. As a result, the kind of public art we get is nationalist symbols and displays of military power on roundabouts, which the public cannot engage with and which add no value to the public discourse. Gallerist Sameera Raja believes this is the result of lack of awareness on the part of the state, and a failure to consult with experts from the art world when proposing plans for beautification, along with other priorities that send art to the back burner.
However, both Farrukh and Raja agree that things have been steadily improving, and there have been many successful projects in recent years initiated by private art institutions, organizations and individuals with support from private corporations. I AM KARACHI continues to bring art into the public realm with projects like Reimagining the Walls of Karachi, andthe International Public Art Festival currently in the works, while the recent inaugural Karachi and Lahore Biennales brought art out of galleries and into public and quasi-public spaces. Canvas Gallery has also hosted public art exhibitions and sculptural residencies that bring art out of its comfort zones and to newer and wider audiences. “There is so much happening in the public sphere but there is so much other noise that you kind of forget,” says Raja. Farrukh believes that this constant exposure is what is needed, “The more you experience it, the less these ideas will threaten you. You will engage with it, maybe even read about it, try to understand it, and learn to enjoy it.”
Yet, merely placing art in the vicinity of the public seems to have not had an impact on any dramatic scale in the past. In order for this understanding of art to develop, artists need to take a more active role within communities, and in turn activate the communities from passive consumers to patrons and owners of art. Karachi Ka Manzarnama was one such project by Vasl Artist Collective which brought contemporary art exhibitions about Karachi to 4 community centers in different low income areas of the city, going beyond mere exposure and engaging community members in the curation process, discussion of works, and drawing workshops.
However, awareness and understanding within the public itself only solves half the problem. Another project by the Tentative Collective, A Pakhtun Memory(2011), an hour-long public performance of an old Pakhtun folk tune at an abandoned roundabout near a Pakhtun migrant colony, was thwarted by policemen. “This is not a place to celebrate happiness,” they said to the reveling crowd, revealing the controls placed on expressions of creativity and emotions in public. “The problem is that we have restricted our public places,” as Farrukh aptly puts, and this is what perhaps hits at the root of the issue with public art.
Attempts at promoting public art by individuals and private organizations can only go so far; there is a dire need for support from government bodies, financial and otherwise. While the state fails to provide spaces for public expression and engagement, public places themselves are unwelcoming to certain groups, and free expression is discouraged and suppressed, creating a culture of creative apathy. “There is a disconnect in our society. When a society evolves organically, with education, with connections, with collective memories, with shared activities, it learns how to negotiate with each other. We have broken all avenues — social spaces, cultural spaces, intellectual space — nobody talks to each other,” Farrukh says of the rampant intolerance in Pakistani society.
Not only is there no state department or ministry dedicated to the arts, policies relating to culture are geared more towards restrictions rather than allowances. Public art has been able to achieve a certain ubiquity in cities all over the world due to government initiatives such as the Percent for Art Policy, allocating 1% of the development budget for the acquisition of public art. However, at home, cities themselves are barely planned, and superficially inserted art is less an inherent and integral part of the landscape and meant more as a band aid for a city on life support. For the art that does exist, there is neither motivation, nor infrastructure for proper preservation or maintenance, resulting in decay, vandalism, theft and erasure.
The sad reality is, with the state the country is currently in, it is understandable that art is not a priority for the leadership. Inclusion of architects and renowned artists in the recently appointed heritage committee is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go before an environment conducive for art appreciation on a mass level is created, and art becomes an integral aspect of the everyday experiences of citizens. In the meantime, we can only do our part in creating a more connected, open and tolerant society, and for that, ephemeral public art projects discussed above are perhaps what our cities need at the moment. And someday perhaps a time will come when support will be offered, and art will become stitched into the cultural and social fabric of the cities, revitalizing it, rather than merely being an unwelcome guest.
1. Bach, Penny Balkin, Fairmount Park Art Association, New Land Marks: Public Art, Community, and the meaning of Place, Editions Ariel, 2001, 153. 2. Knight, Cher Krause, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, x. 3. Knight, Cher Krause, Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, viii. ohammad Ibrahim, born in 1972 hails from Quetta, Balochistan. Ibrahim completed his BFA from the University of Balochistan, Quetta and has shown with galleries in Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Islamabad. Despite his unique style, the artist does not showcase his work often and likes to spend a lot of time on each piece until it reaches the point where he has envisioned it before starting. He has been teaching painting and calligraphy since he graduated as he feels giving back is a part of his artistic process.