I want to be a superstar
I want to be a superstar

Over the last few years several community projects have been reclaiming Karachi’s defaced walls in order to paint and redecorate them. This has familiarised citizens with mural painting as an outdoor public art expression. But, a recent Canvas Gallery, Karachi, exhibition, Lucid Dreams by S.M. Raza, featuring a mural series prompted inquiry, as it was intentionally painted on the confined walls of a gallery space.

Unlike recent mural art projects undertaken by artists and ordinary citizens to beautify vandalised walls and community spaces in unkempt deprived areas of Karachi with uplifting images of hope and peace, the Canvas show projected the plight of disadvantaged inhabitants of those very areas.

Using reverse psychology, Raza shifted the location of his murals from the usual neglected neighbourhood venues to an upscale gallery, and his targeted audience was not the general street public but an affluent, elitist crowd. Painting the forgotten strata of society which struggles to meet the basic needs of food, clothing and education, he attempted to remind the rich about the poor. We are all familiar with the homeless who sleep on pavements but seldom pause to consider their plight.


S.M. Raza paints the forgotten strata of society in his murals


Raza’s mural, ‘Heavenly sleep’, spotlights a destitute in deep slumber on a sidewalk (which is symbolically buoyed by a cloud). Well-executed, this innocent portrayal is not a loud confrontational encounter. It draws in the viewer on account of artistic treatment and plight of the subject and also because the enormity of size is difficult to ignore in the restricted gallery space. As the artist points out, other than audience specificity, he deliberately chose a gallery space for his display because the impact of his murals would be diluted or lost in a vast open-air location.

Mann-o-Salwa
Mann-o-Salwa

Deciding to persuade through soft images to deliver the message, the artist concentrates primarily on painting children. Lost and forlorn in a rubbish dump, queuing for food with begging bowls in hand, daydreaming / doodling idly with pencil and notebook in hand or simply enjoying vagabond pleasures, the expressions of these children, especially the sadness in their eyes, articulate the desolation surrounding their dreams and aspirations. In real life, one can find these children of a lesser God in front of popular malls and marketplaces, local tea or cigarette shops, parks and amusement centres or at railway stations.

His humanism can only be effective if we allow it to resonate through our thoughts. A hardened and desensitised public needs to be reminded of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots and mural power is emerging as a popular messaging device among concerned young artists here. The immediate and wide accessibility of the art form contributes to its power, and, as acclaimed street artist Banksy says, “A wall is a very big weapon ... it’s one of the nastiest things you can hit someone with.”

Raza graduated with a BFA from Karachi University in 2009 and is currently working as a drawing and design instructor at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. He was ‘concept artist’ of Pakistan’s first feature animation 3 Bahadur and has executed a number of murals and illustrations for organisations like BBC Urdu, WWF and the Army Air Defence Centre, Karachi. His thesis show also centred on mural art, and as a practising artist, he has been exhibiting in group shows since 2008. In 2012 he participated in a residency in South Korea, and his most recent solo was in 2013 at Art Chowk.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 3rd, 2016