KARACHI: Sabeen Mahmud epitomised the creative forces within Karachi, and with her death earlier this year in April, the city found itself in trying times with the fate of its creative forces left uncertain.
The various projects she and her team at the PeaceNiche were working on, credited for lending a more tolerant shade to the city, stood threatened and many believed would lose direction without the tour de force that was Sabeen.
Dil Phaink, an exhibition part of the Alchemy Festival at London’s Southbank Centre held in May, was one such project.
It took the combined forces of Sabeen’s team at PeaceNiche, along with her undeterred friends, to take the project forward despite the untimely death of its creative head.
Although the exhibit, according to many who attended it, could not completely encompass the original vision admittedly because of the circumstances it was put up amid, it attracted large crowds and was much appreciated.
Also read: A tribute to Sabeen Mahmud
The Alchemy Festival, an annual celebration of dance, music, theatre, fashion and literature from South Asia, was the perfect place for Dil Phaink to harness the theme of love and to throw its heart out to the world. An amalgamation of varied voices and mediums of expression, the exhibit aimed to sum up the contradictions the country is home to.
According to Sara Nisar, who has been with PeaceNiche for almost five years managing design and communication, Dil Phaink aimed to show the good and the bad side of Pakistan.
She spoke to Dawn about how there seems to be a one-sided view of the country within international circles. “Despite the violence, there is so much more to celebrate in the country. So the team decided to pick up influences from previous projects we had worked on and incorporate it in Dil Phaink.”
With a dash of cinema, distinctive Pakistani art and artists, musicians and writers, the variety offered at the exhibit was in the form of a walk through installation that incorporated Pakistani street culture and pop culture, the country’s cinematic highs and its visual impressions that have imprinted on millions. Overall, “a multimedia love letter to the Pakistani spirit”.
Sabeen’s journey began when she set up the T2F in 2007, a neutral space for open dialogue where multiple voices could come together and encourage cultural exchange. Since its inception, the T2F has hosted dramatic readings, allowed poetic exchanges and qawallis, exhibited artists both local and foreign, as well as screening films, accompanied by stimulating debates on issues that plague the country.
The distinctive logo of Dil Phaink, a heart-shaped betel leaf, represents Sabeen’s spirit and what she worked for all her life. For Raania Durrani, Manager Arts and Programming at PeaceNiche, “Sabeen wanted to provide an approachable setting, to move people out of the galleries and mingle with art and artists.”
It was in 2014 that the PeaceNiche team imagined putting up a show called Dil Phaink. Ms Durrani spoke about how the team took the idea forward and eventually “the show brought together a dozen components, and a team of over 40 artists, designers, architects, programmers, musicians and creatives.”
The multi-layered and multi-dimensional structure of the exhibition was meant to be a foil to the never-ending rhetoric present in the media about what the country represents. Not that it steered clear of tackling serious issues head on.
“We didn’t want to sugar-coat for foreign audience,” said Ms Durrani.
And so Dil Phaink included stories that highlighted different facets to the country — an ode to Karachi; a photographic series revealing the demure bride of the east; a deconstruction of Pakistan’s love affair with truck art; and of course politics, Pakistan’s national sport.
Alia Chughtai’s video and sound compilation of news pieces titled ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ was played in the background, and was considered as one of the strongest component at the exhibit.
Delving into what changed the modern history of Pakistan, Alia Chughtai aimed to present all the “ridiculousness of news in Pakistan which is clearly in a loop”. The 10 minute video weaves together a narrative that represents Pakistan’s trajectory after the nuclear bomb. For her, “most people believe that 9/11 changed the course of this country. I disagree. It was the bomb that has shaped the country into what it is today”.
Travelling back to 1998 when the first atom bomb was tested in the midst of a desert in Balochistan, the video presents the absurdities of what has happened in the country after. In all its seriousness, among bomb blasts and drone attacks, dictators and cricket, it is all painfully comical.
Music was not far behind and at Dil Phaink Live over a thousand people danced to Overload’s ear shattering performance. For Ms Durrani, it was “a celebration of the inimitable spirit of Pakistan, just as Sabeen had imagined”.
However, the most distinctive feature was the ‘Dil Phaink Galli’. A slice of the city was taken to London that had a “paan ka khokha, a darzi ki dukaan and a hipster art café … a quintessential city street where myriad worlds collide and exist, survive and thrive”.
It was Sabeen’s idea that the shutters of the shops be down, as is usual in the metropolis on days when strikes are called, and on them audio-visual stories, music and short films be displayed. Architect and project builder Ayesha Aziz and her team were involved in the building of the galli, according to the specifications of the hall and the requirements provided by Southbank, and it went on to become the largest visual art component of the entire exhibition.
The writings left on the street installations made the entire experience more poignant for all involved. While some congratulated the team for the dynamic exhibition, others left personal messages dedicated to Sabeen, all messages of love, a befitting tribute to Sabeen’s legacy.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2015