Artists in Karachi are working towards giving the city a facelift. Alone among its mega-city peers to have no significant public artworks, a number of artists are working to revive Karachi’s public art. “What the Taliban have done to the ancient Buddha’s statue in Bamiyan a few years ago, fanatics and ruthless government functionaries did to Karachi’s statues long ago,” says Shahid Rassam, a local artist, lamenting the dearth of public artworks in Pakistan’s biggest city.
Public art in Karachi flourished under the British Raj in India and survived for a couple of decades until the early years of military dictator Zia ul-Haq. But public art crumbled under Zia, as culture became an early casualty of a regime that nurtured religious fanaticism. The rot had set in under Zia’s predecessor, Abub Khan, the first in a long line of military rulers, who held power from 1958-1969.
“The religious extremists launched the first campaign against beautiful statues in Karachi during Ayub Khan’s rule when the city was stripped of most of its street artefacts,” says former city official Saifur Rehman Grami.
Art enthusiast Grami says old Karachi was dotted with huge statues, at that time appreciated across religious boundaries. The monuments survived sporadically until Zia seized power in a military coup in 1977 as Pakistan reverted to military rule. “General Zia ul-Haq’s period remains a nightmare for art and culture during which Karachi suffered the most, because this city was the cultural hub of Pakistan,” Rassam says.
In a country once again under military rule and divided by political and religious turmoil, Karachi’s mayor Mustafa Kamal has made a bold stand to “invest” in culture as a buffer against rising extremism. “We have started investing in culture, encouraging cultural activities, as it is the only way to combat extremism and terrorism,” Kamal says. City hall has commissioned two statues from Rassam to be erected in the heart of city—a Whirling Dervish and a woman in chains symbolizing earth’s vulnerability in the universe. “This contribution of mine could help give Karachi some places where people could proudly identify themselves with, as people do elsewhere,” Rassam says.
Anjum Ayaz, another internationally-recognised sculptor, is busy erecting his latest monumental work in the midst of a maze of flyovers in the city’s eastern neighbourhood, Korangi. His 30-tonne, 67ft-high monument depicts sea, birds, animals, people, rituals, holy verses and galaxies.
“What I’ve tried to depict is the universe,” he says. Ayaz, whose works stands in Tokyo, Beijing and Dubai, has voluntarily created and installed a dozen mini-sculptures at the city’s busy Seaview beach in what he says is a bid to bring art into the public domain.