Reclaiming walls I Am Karachi
Joyous Melodies mural design done for I Am Karachi by Madiha Sarwar. Photo Credit: Behance (Madiha Sarwar)

Reclaiming public space in Karachi, wall by painted wall

Whenever I’ve spoken to people about art in Pakistan, about public culture and the need for collective dialogue, one of the most repeated phrases is for ‘the need to reclaim public space’. That word keeps cropping up. Reclaim.

But for I AM KARACHI, a city-wide cultural project that started three years ago, there’s another word just as important. Rebuild. And it is with this two-pronged approach that the organisation seeks to reconfigure the cultural landscape of Karachi. Reclaiming what is ours, and rebuilding what we have lost in order to create a robust infrastructure for public art to thrive.

Set up by citizens of Karachi, I AM KARACHI began as a way to engage with the youth of the city through positive creative narratives. Three years later, it now covers all six districts of Karachi through a variety of means including sports, public art, dialogue sessions and more. It now also runs a pretty massive annual music festival in collaboration with Lok Virsa – over 40+ artists performed at the finale.

I AM KARACHI holds an annual music festival. Photo credit: Youlin Magazine

But how do you execute such a project in a city like Karachi, which is almost always tagged as ‘one of the most dangerous cities in the world’ in the international press? I asked Ambareen Thompson, the executive director of IAK, this question: “Karachi has got a reputation but the city is not as bad as it looks from the outside” says Ambareen. “In fact, Lok Virsa in its 49 year history never came to Karachi fearing security issues. In 2017, they agreed to come and be part of our festival and brought more than 200 artists and artisans from all over Pakistan. The event was held at the Arts Council and was open to the public. Nine thousand people from my Pushto driver and his 25 friends to boys from Lyari, the elite from Defence watched the performances and danced along with the artists all evening. There was no divide, no ethnic differences, just music and joy.”

There was no divide, no ethnic differences, just music and joy.

The real thrust of public art projects should always be to encourage inclusivity and diversity in the arts, especially since so much of art world can be sequestered into the private galleries of an elite class, and totally inaccessible to middle or working class people. Perhaps the first step of this is a superficial but nonetheless important one: to establish the simple fact that Pakistani art is being created, performed and expressed publicly and regularly. Events like Lahore Music Meet, the Lahore Biennale and I AM KARACHI Festival are working towards this soft image of Pakistan, not for foreign diplomats to look at and nod their heads in approval, but for our own people to experience and understand the ineffable need for art.

Public art in Karachi
Public art being created in Karachi. Credit: AFP

For Thompson, this demographic-spanning movement is stitched into the culture of IAK. “We found sponsors who helped to bring almost a thousand kids from under-resourced communities, from areas that have been targets of violence. These kids from Lyari, Shireen Jinnah, Korangi etc will see people they relate to and be inspired by them and perhaps emulate them. The ticket to watch 20 plus bands including big performers was only Rs 500 so that it is affordable for all. Compare this with the Rs 2500 that Strings charged for a 2 hour show to launch their new album which very few could afford”.

There is also a very literal ‘reclamation’ of the city that is in progress. On their website, IAK has a ticker that counts ‘over 3000 walls reclaimed’. Rather than being painted with the colours and taglines of giant telecom agencies (I’m currently writing this on a bus from Abbottabad to Lahore and I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve seen ‘AIK NAYA KHWAB’ surrounded in pallid green), but instead adorned with public art by local painters. “The 3000 plus walls of IAK are public art”, says Thompson. “They are everything from iconic figures (Edhi, Bajia, Parween Rehman, Sabeen Mehmud etc) to the Alif ka Qaida. Seventy-six walls depict the various areas of Karachi, or the Gizri water tanks which are the highest public art in Pakistan. These art works inspire people, they give them ownership. The proof of this is the fact that they are the ONLY walls in Karachi not to have been chalked or defaced in the past 2 plus years. We get dozens of requests from young students to be allowed to paint these walls and get involved. In 2018, 30 walls have been painted by young students themselves.”

When talking to Ambareen over email I was reminded of a conversation I had with another Karachi group, a small two-man band called Shikari. They talked about reclaiming public space in their own unique way: by going out to parks, malls, parking lots armed with a ukulele and a song. I remarked how it was odd to use the word reclaim and they said: “exactly because it’s already ours!”

That’s the real heart behind public art movements, from city-spanning projects like I AM KARACHI all the way to a small independent musician duo. This space belongs to us.


You can find out more about I AM KARACHI by visiting their website here

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