If there’s a revolution taking place in the country, it is perhaps on the walls of Karachi. Various artists have come together to replace hateful, political and religious graffiti with colourful art and messages of peace. These zealous heroes are as close to Bansky — the pseudonymous English graffiti artist — as a city desperately drowning in a sea of unsightly advertisements and hostile messages can have.
Initiated in the first week of May, ‘Reimagining the Walls of Karachi’ is a collaborative project of Indus Valley School (IVS), ‘I Am Karachi’, Abdoz Arts, a non-profit organisation that aims to educate and promote peace through wall art, and Phool Patti, an initiative that promotes Pakistani truck art across the globe. The aim is to ‘reclaim’ Karachi, starting with MT Khan Road area, and promoting a sense of ownership of public places among the city’s residents through wall art.
With the kind of vitriol spewed on the walls at present, the project is a sight for sore eyes. When the walls are not sporting belligerent messages, they are plastered with ads for weight-loss medicines, countering magic spells and cures for erectile dysfunction, displayed in bold black letters. The colourful splash of these artists has turned the commute along MT Khan Road into one of the best five-minute rides in Karachi. Many have begun to even envy the residents of Premier Residency apartments, as the fortunate denizens have a great view of the decorated walls from their windows and, of course, whenever they set foot outside.
The initiative has been divided into three tiers. The ‘Stencil Art Project’ is supervised by IVS teacher Munawar Ali Syed and comprises stencil work by various painters. Artist Rabeya Jalil and art critic Shahana Rajani are taking care of the second tier, ‘Wall Project with Children — Bachon se Tabdili’, which promotes artworks by children from impoverished areas of the city. The third component, ‘Individual-led Artist Project’, is supervised by the IVS Fine Arts department head Adeela Suleiman and features the works of different artists on different themes. Abdoz Arts and Phool Patti work under Suleiman for this venture, supervising and assisting artists, and providing them with paints and other necessary equipment.
A cityscape painted along the wall of MT Khan Road. PHOTOS COURTESY: ABDOZ ARTS
According to Suleiman, 50 artists have participated in the project. “These walls have become like a monument, or a cultural place which people use as a backdrop in their photographs,” she explains. “The main purpose of the campaign is to remove negative wall chalking from Karachi.” But Suleiman and her team did not want to just whitewash walls. She says that would just provide people a clean slate to paint hateful messages on the walls again. “Through the years, we have noticed that painted walls almost never fall victim to wall chalking as the cost [of doing so] doubles. You will have to scrape off the art, paint it white and then chalk over it,” she explains.
Suleiman says the Stencil Art Project is the fastest and most effective way to cover as many walls in as little time as possible. “It is as fast as chalking. We have covered 26 locations so far under the Stencil Art Project,” she says. These include the Airport Bridge on Sharah-e-Faisal, Sohrab Goth, Liaquatabad, Korangi, Nazimabad and Gulistan-e-Jauhar among others. “We also plan to paint the Karsaz and Jinnah Hospital bridges on Sharah-e-Faisal,” she says.
Along with a break from the negativity that surrounds Karachiites, the project provides an opportunity for some to earn a decent livelihood. According to Suleiman, the campaign gave a number of truck artists and signboard painters a chance to make some money. “It is like providing sanity in the city’s madness,” she says. She hopes that this art campaign turns into a movement. “If we are able to promote peace and change the mindset of just 10 people, I believe we have achieved a lot,” she says.
Several truck artists worked with students of Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture on the wall art. PHOTOS COURTESY: ABDOZ ARTS
IVS teacher Munawar Ali Syed stresses that the project is the need of the hour. “Citizens are already too stressed when they are commuting on the city’s roads. Why not show them art? A majority of our people don’t go to galleries. This is our way of introducing them to art,” he explains. Syed claims as many as 1,500 artworks in 26 different locations of Karachi have been produced under the Stencil Art Project with the help of 16 artists. “The artists produced designs, some of which were repeated 100 times,” says Syed, adding that only spray paint was used to add colour. “The stencil designs were made in two months and spread across the city in another month and a half.” Many people from different areas approached him to ask if the walls in their area would be painted, says Syed. “But we have limited funds and can’t cover every area,” he adds. Moreover, Phool Patti founder Ali Salman Anchan says eight truck artists worked on MT Khan Road and Airport Bridge. “In 20 days, we did truck art on eight pillars of Airport Bridge and covered 42 walls along MT Khan Road,” he says.
Of the ‘Wall Project with Children — Bachon se Tabdili’, artist Rabeya Jalil says children are ambassadors of peace. She explains how drawings of children from public schools were cropped, enlarged and painted by a billboard painter on the walls of MT Khan Road. “Children may not be making a direct impact, but it’s very personal. They are independent thinkers and have free imaginations and expression.” She adds Bachon se Tabdili has engaged children from public schools of Lyari, Keamari and Shireen Jinnah Colony to paint the walls of their schools.
One crucial factor taken into consideration is that the themes for the artworks are acceptable to all segments of society. There is nothing controversial that would hurt the sentiments of either the majority or minorities. “We strictly told the artists that there should be no text, or anything political or religious in the artworks,” says Suleiman. “Our aim is only to promote positivity. It was a test as we have no precedent of such an art movement. We are gradually moving forward, which is why we were careful,” she adds.
Colourful graffiti along MT Khan Road turns the drive along it into one of the most exciting commutes in the city. PHOTOS COURTESY: ABDOZ ARTS
The experience is enriching, says Abdoz co-founder Umer Asim. “The best part is that artists from all strata of society have participated in the venture. Truck artists, those from Lyari and IVS students from different areas all came together on one platform for one purpose: art. It is heartening to see how art is coming out of the drawing room and on the roads of our city.” Asim says that while painting the walls of MT Khan Road, some people were protesting against the water crisis and half of them turned around to catch a glimpse of the activity. “This was really motivating. We were amazed to see that art has the power to mesmerise people even when they are emotionally charged.” Furthermore, Abdoz founder Humble Tariq adds that residents of MT Khan Road were very welcoming. “They bought us food and drinks. Some of them even held a spray can and filled in some colour. They were generally happy to see the work.” He adds this was particularly encouraging as the adjoining Sultanabad area is considered a notorious locality.
Referring to a particular artwork titled ‘City of Lights’, Tariq says it is a true reflection of Karachi. The work depicts gold bulbs hanging on a black background and has a touch of grandiosity to it. “This is my favourite. There is a delicacy to it. The artist, Beenish, took three days to complete it. It’s very detailed and depicts the true essence of Karachi. It makes the viewer revisit the image of what Karachi once was — the city of lights.” But what if people spoil the graffiti by spitting pan or urinating over it? Tariq replies, “The artwork is a gift to the people, and it would be their loss if they destroy it.” He maintains there is one thing that can save the artwork — powerful messages. “We can’t stop vandalism. But what we can do is have such powerful messages that a person would think twice before attempting to spoil it. We have conducted numerous art activities across the city and hardly anything has been damaged.”
Artists scrape off political and religious slogans to paint colourful and peaceful messages over them. PHOTOS COURTESY: ABDOZ ARTS
Just as a precaution, however, Tariq says the group has a counter-measure: more and more graffiti. “This is the only way we can fight if we have to. If somebody paints over the art, we will go back and do artwork over it. We won’t be discouraged by such acts.” Suleiman, too, is of the same opinion. “This is a city where we are helpless when people die, let alone when walls get spoiled. We will have to balance the bad around us with good, by doing it ourselves. If 10 walls are spoilt, we will paint over 15 others. The process will go on and there will come a time when no walls will be damaged.” The fact that none of these artworks have been vandalised says something about Karachi’s people. Not all is lost; and some of what is can be brought back.
Minerwa Tahir is a subeditor at The Express Tribune’s Karachi desk. She tweets @minerwatahir
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 12th, 2015.