August Issue 2015
Art Sans Politics
There is seldom any talk about the indigenous people of Karachi, for all formal histories of the city focus on its post-1947 growth and the preamble seldom goes beyond its colonial past. Either by design or through neglect, this erasure has eliminated the Kalmati tribe, Karachi’s original settlers, from the public consciousness of Karachiites.
Karachi Art Anti University, a discussion group initiated by Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajhani to explore the erasures and slippages in Karachi’s official narrative, held six sessions throughout July 2015. This informal group mostly drawn from the visual arts – artists, curators and art critics -– met every weekend at different locations to discuss intersections between art and politics. Concerned by the de-politicisation of art education, the founders were keen to start conversations around the untold, unheard stories of resistance that lie embedded in Karachi‘s culturally contested spaces.
As activism and resistance became common ground between disciplines, the group was introduced to the work of poet Shaikh Ayaz and filmmaker Mushtaq Gazdar. These men, who spoke out against state tyranny in the 1970s and ’80s, were not only persecuted but their work was banned from public circulation. As Ayaz’s poetry found resonance in Sindh, incarceration was used to silence him.
A similar thread runs through the history of theatre in the country. The Syed Hashmi Library in Malir, an archive of Balochi literature that was founded by the late scholar and writer Saba Dashtiari, serves as a symbol of resistance now, at a time when Balochi literature cannot be printed in its own province and Balochi intellectuals are under grave threat. Dashtiari was gunned down a few years back and his blood-soaked clothes are preserved in his study, along with his books and photographs with other Pakistani men and women of letters.
A visit to the Syed Hashmi Library brings home the grim reality that death stalks those who speak out because Pakistan’s democracy today has become deaf to voices that speak for their people. Parween Rehman was silenced because she fervently mapped the goths (villages) around Karachi that belong to the indigenous people so they could be officially claimed and saved from the land mafia. According to writer/scholar Rasool Buksh Kalmati, who grew up in a goth near Malir, sitting atop a hill in nightly gatherings at the goth, he had his first exposure to Balochi poetry. Here his grandfather would recite epic poems, an oral documentation of his people’s history of heroism as they resisted the Portuguese, the Mughals, the Talpurs and the British. Parween, with her knowledge and expertise, had chosen to protect the rights of these people who have lived in Karachi for centuries. Sabeen Mahmud, with her mantra of Piyar Ho Janey Do, brought thousands together at T2F, a peace initiative she founded to heal a terrorised city with dialogue and critical thinking. And yet her murderers did not flinch at the thought of leaving Karachi bereft of a citizen who valued and worked for peace.
This obscurantism can be traced back to General Zia-ul-Haq, whose ideological interventions in the 1980s unleashed mass intolerance and mass violence. While his regime customised knowledge to suit the dictator’s extremist ideology, what is perplexing however is, why the very political parties that campaign for change again and again, cannot rise above their own selfish interests and stand with all those who endanger their lives to bring sanity to Karachi.
The Karachi Art Anti University manifesto states: “Over the past few decades, a systematic de-politicisation of the art community has taken place in Pakistan. The primary site has been the art school, where this process begins early on in the education and training of young artists… The death of any critical discourse and progressive politics in contemporary art in Pakistan is a direct result of the de-politicisation of the art school, enacted and sustained through the discouraging/banning of student politics, the infantilisation of our students and the barricading of the art school from the larger urban context.”
The instrument used to achieve this end has been a curriculum which includes very little of the history of culture, which is embedded in the people’s struggles and an overdose of doctored political history that has marred a nation’s vision of the past and taken away its ability to imagine a collective future.
To resist this, all art institutions must respond by rethinking art education to stem the rot spread by a de-politicised pedagogy. Art, as a form of knowledge, puts the onus on artists and art educators to re-read the context, not as consumers of the crisis, but as contributors to social change for a progressive future.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2015 issue.
The writer is an art critic and curator. Her work covers art criticism, art history, curatorial projects, art education and art activism. She has been regularly contributing to national and international journals since 80â€™s.