IT is said that art heals and colours are therapeutic. As if proof were needed, one has to only see the transformational effect of a beautiful picture on a distressed child.

In this context it was a brilliant idea to paint Karachi’s graffiti-marred walls with pretty pictures. I am not an art critic but have enough sense to prefer a picture of beautiful animals to slogans declaring adherents of different faiths/sects ‘wajibul qatl’ (liable to be executed). More harmless but equally uncouth are the ads of obscure dawakhanas promising to restore to men their manliness.

One morning in 2015, Karachiites woke up in this defaced city to see some walls painted with bright imagery ranging from crows, trees, ethnic motifs, donkey-cart races and truck art. The number of such walls kept going up.

Hate messages are being replaced by images of beauty.

This was the doing of the Society for ‘I am Karachi’ (IAK), a citywide movement launched in 2014. It is designed to revitalise the metropolis and give its inhabitants a sense of ownership. Under its umbrella, a few core projects and activities around art, culture, sports and dialogues have been introduced.

One with special appeal is the Walls of Peace project led by Rumana Husain, a multi-dimensional, dynamic personality, who is an author, illustrator, photographer and, above all, a Karachi lover.

Under this project, it was decided to replace the hate messages on the walls of Karachi by images of love, peace and beauty. In the first phase, launched in 2015, several local artists, artisans and citizens painted the walls along M.T. Khan Road, Shahrah-i-Faisal, Gulistan-i-Johar, etc.

IAK received a positive response to the initiative. No paintings were defaced by graffiti, ads or betel stains. The project leaders took heart and the second phase was launched in May 2016. Similar to the first, the second phase, which ends this year, has also been implemented by Vasl Artist Collective. The latter created most of the designs that were then executed on the walls by experienced sign board and cinema billboard painters.

This time the paint and brush went to Hoshang Road, Rustomji Bagh near St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Cantonment Station and other venues including just inside the entrance of the Governor’s House.

Approximately 2,180 walls over almost 50 kilometres have been painted so far. The walls painted in the second phase are more thematic and convey a public message, educate and inform, honour personalities and beautify.

Thus individual artists responded to an open call for designs on Hoshang Road by painting pictures that have a message — gently reminding motorcyclists to wear helmets, advising people to desist from littering the city and save endangered wildlife. One painting from Rumana’s own book glorifies the reading habit in children.

In the ‘Alif Bay Pay of Karachi’, 76 walls around Rustomji Bagh focus on various sites in the city, ranging from D.J. Science College, Jinnah’s mausoleum, Merewether Tower, to the Narayan Hindu temple with text in an adjoining panel giving background information about the image.

One hopes the walls of peace will continue to grow and gladden many a heart. They are beginning to be noticed but will make an impact only if people are involved in a big way. The venues should also be diversified to reach out to communities in low-income areas. IAK hopes to do that in the next phase.

So far the walls have an aesthetic appeal. The public’s response has been positive and hopefully this will create a sense of pride in the people for their city. But all their beautification potential notwithstanding, the walls of peace face a serious threat from the solid waste that litters Karachi’s neighbourhoods from the most posh to the most humble.

The civic authorities’ inability — or is it unwillingness — to collect solid waste from all over the city and arrange for its long-term disposal could lead to Karachi being engulfed by huge mounds of garbage. The city generates 15,000 tonnes of solid waste every day. Since July we have been hearing about two Chinese companies being given the contract for collecting waste from only two districts of the city at a cost of over Rs2 billion. Why have the other districts been neglected? A Solid Waste Management Authority was set up two years ago but has nothing to show by way of performance. Meanwhile, Karachi’s trash continues to pile up. Once the cleanest city of the East, Karachi is now a mound of garbage.

This lack of interest by officialdom has robbed the citizens of motivation where their individual input to keep the city clean is needed. Hopefully the walls of peace will create required incentive in the people, but without the municipal authorities’ leadership role in sanitation, it is unlikely that individual efforts can be sustained.

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2016


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