'Squeaky Clean' - Rabia Farooqui
'Squeaky Clean' - Rabia Farooqui

Art in a crisis; meditations in an emergency

‘Prints for Pandemic Relief’ is an online print fundraiser selling art for those affected by the pandemic in Pakistan

What is the relevance of art in times of social crises? It’s a question that crops up often in difficult times, and the present moment is no different. In the current pandemic we’re facing, several art fundraisers were introduced globally with the purpose of raising capital for those affected by the pandemic. One such fundraiser was created in Pakistan called ‘Prints for Pandemic Relief’ (PfPRP). It is an independent online print sale mobilising art for aid towards all those affected by COVID-19 in Pakistan. It functions as a bottom-top initiative that has partnered with six grassroots (citizen-led) activists and initiatives who will receive all the proceeds from the fundraiser, and use them towards the vulnerable communities in Pakistan.

The fundraiser comprises over fifty contemporary Pakistani artists’ original artwork – photographs, images of paintings, and digital art. It opened on 1 May 2020 and will close by 22 May 2020 with shipping to the UK, USA, UAE, and Pakistan. 

Origins of prints for pandemic relief

In order to find more out about this project, we interviewed the brilliant “all-women team of three workaholics”: Seyhr Qayum, Zuneera Shah, and Naeha Rashid. The concept was inspired from another successful fundraiser, ‘Pictures from Elmhurst’ for Elmhurst Hospital in New York. As an MFA Graduate at Pratt University, Seyhr came across it one night while feeling anxious from the rising chaos of the pandemic in Pakistan. She instantly thought: “This is genius – we should do this for Pakistan,” given it’s a simple model to replicate with little or no immediate costs. She reached out to Zuneera and Naeha the same night with photos of Pictures from Elmhurst, and asked if they were interested in bringing an arts fundraiser to Pakistan. With Zuneera’s network of grassroots organisations and Naeha’s background in the development sector, they came together to start raising funds.

Motto: ‘art as aid’

After a serious WhatsApp brainstorm session, Zuneera and Naeha formed the motto of Prints for Pandemic Relief – ‘art as aid.’ They wanted to make explicit the connection between Pakistan’s visual artists and the act of collaboration to help the country’s relief workers at the frontlines of COVID-19. 

Naeha tells us what she loves about the motto:

Seyhr: “We have Naeha to thank for our powerful motto ‘art as aid’ – it fully encapsulates our ethos of drawing on creativity’s immense propensity to soothe, support, and heal.”

Behind-the-scenes: technicality and mobilisation

Although the online art-fundraising concept is simple to replicate, the founders had to meticulously organise, set up networks, design a website, mobilise artists and partners, and finally ship prints off globally. First and foremost, a simply-designed website is key to the sellability of artwork. Zuneera’s brother Aun Abbas runs a start-up called Tech Titans in Pakistan with whose help the website was created. 

Naeha: “For a web-based arts initiative, our website has to be engaging, responsive, and, of course, incredibly aesthetic and we’re so grateful for all their [Tech Titans] hard work!”

At the core of this project is art. Mobilising artists is not always easy, especially when there’s no physical interaction possible to meet people, spread the word, and host an event. According to Naeha, Seyhr was behind artist mobilisation and “set the tone by aggressively recruiting across the art community” by emails, Instagram and text messages. They went under a process of curation that resulted in a collection of artwork by professional and cutting-edge Pakistani artists living both in Pakistan and abroad – “Our artists belong to different parts of the world, and our inventory reflects their rich experiences and standing in the global art community.”

‘Musalman Jaleebi’ by Shiblee Muneer. One of the prints available on PfPRP.

To begin publicising, Seyhr explains they relied heavily on their friends and family. The key medium that really helped the word spread and resonate among so many was social media. Here they also utilised their university networks by asking prominent professors to support them on their social media accounts. 

Seyhr: “It wasn’t particularly difficult to reach people; most people have been tremendously helpful, and it just goes to show how desperate everyone is to help during these dark times.”

The relevance of grassroots organisations as partners   

Prints for Pandemic Relief’s final purpose is to support grassroots organisations in Pakistan who aid those affected by the pandemic. It’s important to realise such organisations don’t normally have smooth outreach channels like more established organisations do. This is why it’s extremely significant to open up accessibility for them – both interactional and financial. Zuneera explains they managed to find six partners among whom the funds will be divided. All of them are embedded strongly in their target communities, and together make up a diverse portfolio for relief action. 

The partners include Slumabad who’s providing food for the Pakhiwas – gypsy and nomad communities – majority of whom have lost their sources of income during the pandemic. Similarly, Karachi Bachao Tehreek and Corona Solidarity Campaign are helping daily wage labourers with house rents to avoid evictions in Karachi, and providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to parts of Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan. Humanity First is supplying private and governmental healthcare facilities with face masks, sanitizers and PPE gear. There are also individual activists partnered with PfPRP: Aroon Arthur who works closely with the Christian Community to aid its members, and Mirwais Kakar who focuses on the disproportionately affected people of his district in Ziarat, Balochistan. 

Zuneera: “We’re really excited to have a diverse mix of activists and organisations who are providing relief aid to some of the most vulnerable geographies and communities in Pakistan right now.” 

‘Mela Charaghan 2’ by Bibi Hajra.

The nation-wide social impact

PfPRP’s impact on Pakistani society is multi-layered. It doesn’t only reflect and engage with the pandemic-struggles for marginalised communities, but is leaving long-term impressions on how we understand philanthropy, art, and their relationship. If we go back to the fundraiser’s origins, Seyhr was shook up by how the pandemic has devastated Pakistan. There’s no doubt the most vulnerable countries, and their most vulnerable communities, were hit the hardest. 

Naeha: “Not only has our country’s poor economic and health infrastructure left us unprepared to face a challenge of this magnitude, our more underrepresented communities in Pakistan also have the least access to traditional institutional support and [have] the weakest social safety nets.”

This is why PfPRP has gone for a non-traditional tool for fundraising to specifically target those areas and people where funding generated by traditional mechanisms fails to reach. Similarly, it has introduced us to a modern and creative form of philanthropy which not only uses art as a basis but highlights the usefulness of the digital medium. The initiative has successfully made artwork accessible to buyers with the intention of producing social good. 

Zuneera believes the initiative’s emphasis is on art as a mobilising tool “whether that’s in the more literal sense of fundraising or in capturing our particular social moment into visual storytelling that are, at once, personal and political.” At the same time, a space for the creative industries has paved way as a byproduct. According to Seyhr, while artists were doing incredible relief work individually, there was still a “perceptible dearth in collective mobilisation on the part of the Pakistani art community.” And more so in times of despair, it’s harder for artists to make art both practically and emotionally. To be able to show that creativity can be used to affect positive social change will prove as extremely impactful for artists across Pakistan, and generate a momentum towards collective efforts.

A future of collective culture 

As PfPRP ends on 22 May 2020, the team has no doubt they’ll organise similar fundraisers in the future. Seyhr is already thinking of replicating it for MFA students across New York. She says there’s no losing aspect to this fundraising model – it’s a “win-win format.” Moreover, it can be used for any relief purpose, not just the pandemic. It encompasses a sense of collective culture: excellent publicity for the artists; helps bridge the gap between the art community and general public; helps relief agencies grow their network; develops their capacity-building to better support vulnerable communities; and “the team doesn’t go to sleep for weeks but that’s okay.” 

You can find Prints for Pandemic Relief on social media and on their website. Links below!

Website: https://printsforpandemicrelief.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/prints4pandemic
Insta: https://www.instagram.com/printsforpandemicrelief/

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