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Sadequain’s ‘Treasures of Time’ mural at the State Bank of Pakistan Museum | Courtesy Sadequain Foundation
Sadequain’s ‘Treasures of Time’ mural at the State Bank of Pakistan Museum | Courtesy Sadequain Foundation

While public art in Pakistan is in no way a new phen­omenon, it has a some­what gloomy history. Initiatives by I AM Karachi and the Karachi Biannale Trust and Lahore Biennale Foundation are just some that have attempted to remedy this by bringing art out into public spaces in the hope of making it more accessible to a larger audience and removing the stigma of elitism. When one looks at worldwide art fairs and biennales, one aches for a similar culture of art in our own country revitalising the urban landscape. But in a country such as Pakistan the question arises: is public art really what we need at the moment?

Such comparisons are rather unfair as public art in the West follows a sound historical trajectory. When it comes to Pakistan, this history gets interrupted with the Zia regime, and tumbles down a path of destruction of colonial heritage, theft of public murals such as those by Sadequain and vandalism of countless other public artworks. In the Western world, the state has played a huge role in making public art more ubiquitous, making it an inherent part of its development projects through policies like the Percent for Art policy in the US and Europe (the term ‘percent for art’ refers to a programme where a fee, usually some percentage of the project cost, is placed on large-scale development projects in order to fund and instal public art). Cities were then planned in ways that took public art into account, instead of inserting it in as an afterthought.

On the other hand, projects like ‘Reimagining the Walls of Karachi’, while commendable attempts at cleaning up and beautifying the city, are burdened with the responsibility of holding together a disintegrating city, rather than being catered by it. The question is, should public art be inserted into a public domain that is not conducive to its survival?

Should art be displayed in a public domain that is not conducive to its survival?

Robert Morris once said, “If there is such a thing as public art, what then is private art?” The latent irony makes one ponder the characteristics of a public space as a space open and free for all; do museums and art galleries not fulfil this criteria? If accessibility is the main purpose that we are trying to achieve, then art within galleries and museums is as accessible as that in airports and malls. Even by this stretch of definition, public art remains at a disadvantage in Pakistani cities, with truly accessible galleries being rare and art museums next to non-existent. How can the public be expected to engage with art in public spaces, when there is no respect or relevance given to it in the ‘private’ realm?

Reimagining the Walls of Karachi, Walls of Peace Project by I AM Karachi
Reimagining the Walls of Karachi, Walls of Peace Project by I AM Karachi

The problem of public access to art then becomes not a matter of physical proximity, but that of unawareness, disinterest and sheer unavailability. According to Cher Krause Knight, art is most public when it is an “extension of emotional and intellectual as well as physical, accessibility to the audience.” The artworks need to speak for and to the public, but it seems the way this has been done is largely through a dilution of the message for easy digestion for a generalised audience, such as the I AM Karachi project where only the aesthetic purpose of art is fulfilled. This differentiation between high art and public art highlights the very elitism that is supposedly being subverted. In other cases, such as ‘Henna Hands’ by Naiza Khan at Cantonment Railway Station in Karachi, the work speaks more to the same art world audience while existing in public for its political relevance to its narrative.

In the Pakistani context, we may then interpret Knight’s vision of accessibility as an intellectual awakening for the public instead. Public tastes and understanding of art practices need to be honed through awareness, education, discussion and dialogue, possibly through state involvement. By fostering a culture of creativity, open-mindedness, tolerance and civic responsibility, a sense of ownership of cultural legacy can be built.

In a place where even ‘private’ art struggles to create a space for itself, where museums are a myth, artists are unknown to the general population and the public is largely uninitiated and uninterested in art itself, simply placing an artwork in the public’s line of sight is unwise and ineffectual. Instead of bringing art to the public, we need to be bringing the public to art, so that when it does venture out into the open, perhaps it will not be ignored, disrespected or vandalised, but understood, appreciated and celebrated.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 8th, 2018