In remembrance: Country’s worst industrial disaster comes alive through art

The artists tried to put themselves in the shoes of the workers who lost their lives in the fire.

Photo Ayesha Mir/rabia Ali February 09, 2013
Around 83 artists from various art schools expressed their feelings about the Baldia factory fire at an exhibition titled ‘Awaaz’. While some artists photographed over 200 people to show the number of lives that were lost, others used contrasting images of gleaming surfaces and black insides to show the lives of poor labourers. PHOTO: AYESHA MIR/EXPRESS


In a city where tragedy strikes nearly every day, the Baldia factory fire that killed over 250 people remains etched in every resident’s memory.

To show just how tragic the industrial disaster was, a bunch of students decided to immortalise the tragedy through art. On Friday evening, the exhibition ‘Awaaz’ opened at the Arts Council, where people saw the imaginations of around 83 artists on sculptures, portraits, video and sound installations.

As soon as you enter the hall, you will see Seher Naveed’s ‘Emergency Exist’, a red and black light box built digitally and illuminated by three tube lights. Explaining the concept behind it, Naveed, who teaches at the Indus Valley School (IVS) of art and architecture, said that her work shows symbols of a person as depicted on emergency signs. “The direction signs are missing because I wanted to show how the factory workers must have felt in a chaotic situation without any exit.”

Adeela Suleman, the organiser and an IVS faculty member, said that the purpose of the exhibition was to show how artists are sensitive to tragedies that take place around us. “We will keep our Awaaz alive until justice is served to the affected families. We won’t let anyone forget what happened to all those people.”

Some artists were so shaken up by the country’s worst fire disaster that they wanted to feel the heat of the incident. Falak Noor, a graduate of the Karachi School of Arts used hot red and white wax to make a facial sculpture of a man whose mouth was wide open, screaming for help. “Every time my hands would feel a burning sensation, I would realise the pain the people must have felt burning in the fire.”

Printmaker Nurayah Sheikh worked with architect Arshad on a dangerous piece that involved acid and metal to make a copper bowl. The outside shiny surface depicted how gleaming things are produced while the inner black surface hinted at the poor working conditions, she explained. The piece was mounted on top of a surface that had Ghalib’s verse: ‘Aah koh chahiyah aik umer asar honay tak’ printed all over it. For Sheikh this verse stated the gist of the incident.

Admiring her work, Naz Akramullah, an artist by profession said the exhibition was very moving. “The works were not hastily done and shows that the artist have put their hearts into it.”

One end of the hall was covered by 259 black-and-white portraits of random people - from tandoor walas to bus conductors - taken by an IVS teacher, Muzzumil Ruheel. “Though they are not the victims, they represent the victims. It could have been anyone of them,” said Ruheel.

Before the art exhibition was inaugurated, social activists and artists spoke about the Baldia fire. Singer Jawad Ahmad hummed ‘Han Main Hee Pakistan Hoon’ [Yes, I am Pakistan] before showing the video of this song that he made especially for the fire victims. When he sang ‘Sun Lo Kay Hum Mazdoor Hain’ [Hark, we are the labourers] which was dedicated to all the workers of the world, the audience struggled to fight back tears.

Nazia, who lost her husband in the fire, appreciated that so many people are showing them support. “Our pain becomes less when others join us,” she said, clutching her toddler.

Lawyer Faisal Siddiqui, who is pursuing the fire case in the Sindh High Court, called it a day of the artists. “Our dream is to turn the factory into a public monument, and also to turn it into a rehabilitation centre for the survivors. We dream of having a country where no factory would be unsafe for labourers.”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2013.


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