A woman’s initiative fosters artistic expression in the street children, who swap wipers with crayons for a day.
The bustling, branched out slopes of Karachi’s “Khadda market” bore the look of an art school last week as a group of street children – some shoeless, some in rags, but all with pure enthusiasm –gathered along the concrete pavement, right next to the noisy traffic of cars ferrying shoppers in and out of the commercial zone. The kids had come together begin their art lesson with st.ART, a team of volunteers providing free art lessons to the underprivileged.
The ground was uneven and grimy, causing muddy prints on the white sheets of paper as crayons wobbled over the unfriendly terrain, but they remained bright-eyed and eager. With the session focused on shapes, the kids’ inquisitive eyes followed their teacher’s moves on the whiteboard, which hung off a railing. The whole commotion drew a trickle of curious onlookers, and suddenly the street children of “Khadda market” were receiving more attention than they ever did.
It is easy to dismiss this initiative as a naive notion, when artistic expression sits high up on Maslow’s famous pyramid, above basic physiological needs which these children lack. A closer look is needed to appreciate the effort.
“Just the fact that we take them seriously and make time (for them) seems to matter so much,” says Emaan Mahmud, the brains behind the idea.
The children are used to being waved away by a ten-rupee note (or simply ignored). For them, pestering strangers who barely give them a glance, is a daily routine – one they have to follow in order to earn their livelihood. The st.ART initiative is almost a reversal of this harsh reality, where these children are finally being noticed and attended to in a friendly environment.
While the utility of ‘the arts’ has long been debated, Mahmud firmly believes in the need for creativity. “Art may seem like an irrelevant point of focus in developing countries, yet, it's been well-documented that art-producing societies have notable vitality and general development, both socio-economic and ethical,” she argues. Putting the debate aside, at the very least, the initiative has opened doors for street children to explore art, especially when they are often limited by a lack of options.
Mahmud took the first step towards turning the lessons a reality following a street performance in the same commercial area by New York Times journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal, who performed "Birdywork" – a whistle-show “focused on seeking the attention of locals who didn't have a clue about the lady.
“Flower sellers, windshield cleaners and other children had gathered from around and were quite entertained by her performance. I found their curiosity so interesting. When it ended, I asked if they would like to draw with me sometime. They screamed "Yes!",”recalls Mahmud. If nothing else, the warmth of the children makes this effort worth the while.–Text by Claire Chin and Photos by Momin Zafar