May Issue 2015

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 5 years ago

With attention shifting to market response and media hype, we often forget the importance of art and its relationship with the audience on the ground. Commercial gallery shows mostly attract a predictable audience consisting of the artist’s peers, friends and buyers.  Walk-in visitors from the street are seldom welcomed nor is any effort made through gallery talks to invite an uninitiated audience. This means however much art may reflect the common experience of a people, it is often fated to be seen only by a handful.

Sadequain, who in his self-effacing manner called himself “an artist of the dustbin,” was a champion of the audience from the street. Not only did he proactively seek commissions for public murals, he designed his calligraphy shows with great care for the mass audiences. They left behind such an impact that to this day they are recalled with a sense of nostalgia. The great Master engaged the people throughout his life as he focused on larger issues, from acknowledging the contribution of peasants and labourers to the nascent country and celebrating iconic thinkers, to infusing mesmerising energy into the verses of Iqbal through whorls of colour on the ceiling of the Lahore Museum.

I remember Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s excitement on being commissioned to do a sculpture for the Maritime Museum. But the prospect of a public dialogue must have also been daunting for a man whose art was characterised by his cerebral introspection. In the end, he chose the familiar form of a fish and transformed it with a complex grid where the play of light lends it a movement and buoyancy seldom seen on this scale in metal. His sculpture, installed in the Maritime Museum grounds, attracts thousands of visitors on weekends, and most certainly provokes their senses as they discover new possibilities within the form.

An invitation to attend the First Public Art Prize in Shanghai recently, provided me with an opportunity to see the diversity within public art from around the world. The prize-winner was a project from Columbia in which artists and skilled workers had volunteered their time to create a youth centre for their poor neighbourhood to keep them away from criminal activities. The factors that impressed the jury were the collaborative spirit and and the innovative design, which was almost completely crafted from recycled objects and material.

Public art, which is purely audience-driven, can be a permanent structure or a temporary intervention within space and memory, and its impact on the audience serves as the barometer of its success. Once limited to commemorative monuments for a passive audience today it is interactive and looked upon as a partnership between the two. In the 1990s, when artists Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth hitched a shamiana in the garden around Frere Hall and made the act of visitors sharing their dreams through writings and photographs an integral part of the installation, it became the precursor to future public art initiatives that involved the masses. Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema has been one such success story in recent times.

The recent ‘Numaish,’ curated by Saima Zaidi at Frere Hall gardens, introduced art to visitors through creative games, film screenings and art objects installed at the venue, which is particularly popular with apartment-bound middle-class families. The exhibition, if judged by the peals of children’s laughter and adult curiosity, was a welcome intervention in a city dominated by a fear of violence.

Expanding the base of engaged audiences with art has the potential to create collective memories of inclusivity and participation, with the power to defuse tension and open new forms of communication and pathways to harmony.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 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 80’s.