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Public space: Reeling them in

February 12, 2017


The Peacemakers Guild Reel
The Peacemakers Guild Reel

The palimpsest of many pasts that combine to form contemporary Karachi, exude a creative energy that is untapped and palpable. ‘Reel on Hai’, an initiative of the Karachi Biennale Trust, uses this ethos to introduce public art to the city. ‘Reel on Hai’ is an ongoing project that involves transforming 100 empty, discarded, large, wooden cable reels into artworks, for and in collaboration with the communities where they are to be installed. Repurposing discarded objects and installing them in the public realm, eradicates the institutional pomp and commercial extravagance that one generally associates with art in Pakistan, thus creating the opportunity for a unique discourse.

Orangi Town was where artist Sanki King was called upon to transform and install the first reel of the project. Using shades of green to emulate the surrounding trees, Sanki painted one side of the reel with sayings by Abdul Sattar Edhi. The other side has verses by Akhtar Hameed Khan and the spine has quotes from Parveen Rehman — an astute choice by King, as both Khan and Rehman had served as dedicated directors of the Orangi Pilot Project, where this reel was installed.

The Peacemakers Guild, a society of 16 ladies, used their expertise in quilt-making to transform a reel and pay homage to Pakistani women. The materials they used were all locally sourced and made by women, and the reel featured pictures of their contribution to the textile industry. The cable reel itself was made to look like a larger-than-life spool of thread, by wrapping the spine with local dupattas.

‘Reel on Hai’ does what all good public art should as it directs attention to the surrounding people and places

A particularly innovative and functional transformation was Wajiha Afsar’s creation using three cable reels. The resulting pavilion functions as both an indoor and outdoor space, exactingly proportioned, and held together by interlocking. Afsar was adamant about only using the material that she was supplied with — the reels — thus came up with interlocking as a sustainable solution to the lack of screws. This project was particularly interesting because alongside the artist, it also used and showcased the skills of Pakistani carpenters.

Required to work on the reels in situation the very practice of artist’s working on reels became an educational exhibit for the local communities. Sanki was asked by children to teach an art class, and Dr Samiah of the Peacemakers Guild — while installing a reel at Beach Luxury Hotel — was approached by a police officer to replicate their work on the boundary wall of his station. The team of carpenters working with Afsar as well as the surrounding visitors on site recognised the transformed reels and developed the concept that rubbish can be given a new life. In a short time, ‘Reel on Hai’ has been successful in doing what all good public art should — breaking stereotypes by directing one’s attention to the surrounding and making us look with different eyes at the people and places surrounding us.

‘Reel on Hai’ isn’t just about a wooden spool’s whereabouts, ownership, or even physical existence. It’s about the collective elaboration of meaning and how interpretations change over time. The artist alone doesn’t decide what it means, neither does the viewer or curator. The meaning isn’t fixed and it isn’t located in just one place — it changes with its continued influence on the public domain.

Visit the Karachi Biennale website for information regarding future reel installations

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, February 12th, 2017

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