A view of Lost/Un-found installation
A view of Lost/Un-found installation

Not all art exists to gratify the senses; in fact, it can play a positive role in highlighting social problems and change the way people think. Public art has the capacity to fulfill this function; works that are placed in public spaces are often interactive and not only do they transform the environment they are placed in but also urge the public to reflect on how they see the world.

It was with this intention that the Justice Project Pakistan, in collaboration with artist and storyteller Fahad Naveed, inaugurated an art installation recently at Fatima Jinnah Park in Islamabad.

Titled Lost/Un-found, the installation is meant to commemorate International Migrants Day by highlighting the plight of nearly 11,000 Pakistanis languishing in jails abroad, with almost 3,000 in Saudi Arabia alone. The weak regulation of labour migration in Pakistan leaves thousands of mostly low-wage Pakistani male workers vulnerable to human trafficking, forced labour, ill treatment in detention overseas, and even the risk of death.

Many of those imprisoned abroad are indigent labourers who travel for work opportunities and who are forced by their handlers into carrying drugs. Yet others are victims of human trafficking or travelling on forged documents provided by dubious overseas employment agents.

A public art installation highlights the plight of low-paid migrant workers languishing in jails outside the country

They are then at the mercy of local courts without access to lawyers, impartial translators, or consular assistance from Pakistani diplomatic missions. These destitute Pakistanis face the harshest punishments due to their lack of understanding of the legal process. Their incapability to communicate directly with the court and inability to produce evidence from Pakistan in their defence is a major drawback. Despite these circumstances, there is no consular policy in place and the fate of imprisoned Pakistanis rests at the discretion of individual embassies.

Lost/Un-found consists of 1,100 suitcases that are placed in Fatima Jinnah Park. The sound of recorded voices fills the air and dominates the open space. The voices seem to be emitting from the suitcases themselves. It is a cacophony of sounds that come from these objects and are played simultaneously — stories of families waiting for the release and return of their loved ones from jails abroad, and of prisoners narrating their ordeals and the circumstances of their arrest and detention. As these accounts are all playing at the same time, they create a “wall’ of sound that is sometimes incoherent, distressing and perpetually unnerving.

Naveed talks about the concept for his site-specific work and says, “This installation is an attempt to raise questions about the thousands of migrant workers in jails around the world. By placing 1,100 suitcases — a fraction of the number of prisoners — in the open spaces of a park, I hope to get visitors to pause and think about those who are locked up and do not enjoy these freedoms.”

Visitors to the park are intrigued by the unique form of art display and have interacted with the artist on the occasion. The scale and expanse of the installation has immediate impact on the public and in this case, the sensory experience also make viewers pause and reflect. Public art allows artists to not only bring their skills to the table in a unique environment but also engage directly with the public.

The installation has chronicled untold stories that acquire new meaning in a public space because it urges viewers to reflect on the plight of the personal lives of their fellow citizens. Such artworks are a response to current issues and the times we live in. Not only do they record public experience but they inform our conscience.

“Lost/Un-found” was displayed at Fatimah Jinnah Park, Islamabad from December 18 to December 19, 2019

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 29th, 2019