When I was asked to write about 'the city as art', I thought of the topic as an opportunity to imagine the spatiality of the city, particularly Lahore
When I was asked to write about ‘the city as art’, I thought of the topic as an opportunity to imagine the spatiality of the city, particularly Lahore, which transforms in the month of February, as experienced by Lahore Literary Festival-goers. I borrow this term from architectural historian Dell Upton, who refers to “spatial imagination” as the way a given group creates relationship between “social and physical phenomenon.” Who could have imagined going to a literary festival few years back, when the whole of Lahore was celebrating basant, with the city sky filled with kites, and the only literary reference one could bring to mind was Amir Khusrow and the colour yellow. Successfully holding the festival amidst security threats was commendable, but the entry to the venue itself was loaded with references to a conflict zone. Alhamra Art Centre was heavily surrounded by barbed wire and several personal check points while Mall Road looked deserted, with every person and vehicle approaching Alhamra suspect. If we think of the visual language used recently by many Pakistani contemporary artists, Alhamra presents the living manifestation of those art works. The shift from spatial to “social imaginary”, according to Charles Tayler, is “expressed in the way the ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and the way that imagination is expressed in images, stories, and legends.”
Expressed overtly are the ever-present security gates and barriers in the works of Bani Abidi a few years ago, and the emergence of brick, high walls and barbed wire in my own and a few other works, reflections of the relationship one feels with one’s cityscape. That relationship has often emerged as a form of resistance, as in the henna-coloured female hand impressions that acclaimed artist Naiza Khan created on the walls of Karachi. It is the same imagined spatiality of the residents of the city, which was pointed out to me by an artist friend who had flown in from abroad to participate in the Lahore Literary Festival: “I often wondered when keeping up with the works of my fellow artists like yourself, that why can’t they see any thing else but barbed wire? And that now I am here I realize the brutal picture this city presents to us.” For my friend, it was a shocking personal encounter with a city was filled with many memories of growing up, but only experienced (which the common person does everyday) recently through narratives and stories painted by other artists. In the same realm of imagined spatiality, I would suggest that even the act of painting flowers, as in the internationally known works of Imran Qureshi, becomes a political act following the lines of Shakir Ali. When he was accused by Urdu fiction writer Intizar Hussain of painting flowers and moons during times of war, Shakir Ali replied that people must be enjoying the new moon and blooming flowers on the other side of the border.
This article is an exercise in investigating where and how one locates the practice of public art. One can either imagine the city harbouring art through installations, sculptures and other artistic expressions in its public spaces, or a city with imposed sculptural and ideological monuments decorating its streets and roundabouts. Thus, to locate the cityscape within western art and aesthetic sensibilities by comparing it with major public art events/projects, and permanent installations in western societies is a futile exercise because, Pakistani, or more specifically, Lahori, society did not go on a similar journey. The western political and social journey resulted in art movements resisting the church, industrialization, patriarchy and consumerism. As a result, it becomes important to raise the question of art as resistance within the Lahore cultural framework, especially when answering the question of city as art at a time when people in Lahore have reconciled with imposed bans on festivals including basant, horse and cattle shows (which local authorities are reviving this year), control of shrine practices like melas and dhol performances, and acceptance of enforced boycotts for many years on international cricket matches. The social imagination of the people had purged the city of its social and festive fervor even before terrorist s could formally engulf the city. Once known as ‘The Walled City’, Lahore has again erected high walls within its cityscape. Lahoris, known as festive lovers, did not seem to know fear in the past; I grew up listening to stories of how people responded to air strikes by Indian fighters planes, by climbing on rooftops, disregarding safety and blackout instructions, and screaming their hearts out to support Pakistani fighter pilots. These walls are not limited to their physical reality. These bricks and barbed wire also imprison the imagination of people who thus forget the art of joy, of festivity and sheer pleasure.
There are a few active groups in Lahore working to raise awareness of the natural and heritage sites of the city and safeguard the shrinking cultural space in the public life of citizens. Every weekend they spend time in the parks and markets of Lahore, raising cultural awareness. Crippled by a dementia-like state, people seemed to have lost an understanding of constructive enjoyment in public space. According to these groups, the response of Lahoris regarding the ban on basant is of passive, compliant citizens unable to recognize the failure of governance and regulation of sports and festivals, further problematized by a popularized discourse incorrectly equating the festival with Hindu culture. Thus, to imagine a city turning against its own traditional festive character through the lens of art can only invoke barbed wires and images of violence.
Taking the argument back to the spatial imagination in a city with a non-festive approach, I would like to articulate my experience of an interactive art performance in Lahore in 2003. I selected 14th August as the date and Minar-e-Pakistan, for its historical significance, as the specific site where I wanted to conduct my art performance. A team of male artist friends acting as toy sellers was present to assist me. This performance was designed to challenge the dominant ideological discourse that frames the public mindset in the public sphere. We bought plastic toys and objects made in China from Shah Alam wholesale market and transformed them into satirical artistic statements on the ideological discourse. Some of the objects were plastic shaving razors whose handles were made into sculptural female and male forms holding each other in an embrace with the shaving handle standing in between them. The stylized and excessive sexuality of the female form engulfed the male figure, which appeared to be helpless, content with a smile. The other objects included low cost plastic cameras, the type through which children enjoy several photographs of animals, buildings, or tourist landscape scenes. I replaced the films in the camera with the films of paintings I designed for this specific object. These inserted films enabled people to see six images by repeatedly clicking the button. The six images were mixed media collages showing popular icons in the mainstream religious, political, and establishment, juxtaposed with the ideal ‘hoor’ and details of pleasures in paradise taken from popular books in Urdu and from often-rendered explicit details in Friday prayer sermons in many mosques around the city.
The interesting part of this performance was that when we got to the venue on the morning of 14th August, at that very politically strategic point and time, a banned militant organization, Jaish-e-Mohammad, was conducting its public religious meeting with thousands of participants. My artist friends, Imran Ahmed and Asif Khan, created a temporary stall in typical street vendor style and placed the objects for sale. They were soon surrounded by many people visiting the area, including participants of the religio-political meeting. The response was very interesting — “aih ki ay?” (what is this?) often followed by laughter and smiles. No one said clearly whether it was affecting anyone’s sentiments. They would pick up the pieces, look through the cameras, laugh and replace them and leave. The interaction was fascinating in the sense that people were engaged, in the real Lahori sense, were intrigued, enjoyed the images, liked to hold them and then moved on in a light-hearted manner, leaving us doing what we were doing. For us, the art performance was connecting to the masses, even if only through a brief interaction that was not imposing any artistic structure on them. The vernacular language and kitsch-ness of the objects, even though they were Chinese made, enabled us to perform alongside one of the most dangerous militant groups in Pakistan.
In another performance in 2012, I recorded my walk in the city, keeping the walls, graffiti and other markings on buildings and on sidewalks in the frame. I wanted to be the protagonist who becomes the storyteller; this was a narration of a city told through brief yet momentous interactions with people and the visual imagery on the roadsides and walls. The juxtaposition of the above helped construct a complex and multilayered narrative, framing a citizen within significant markers of the city presented through the banality of everydayness. Later on, I turned the recorded narrative into as approximately seventy-foot-long lenticular work.
During the walk, one viewed parked cars and moving rickshaws alongside shops; a famous mosque; encountered ordinary people; the gates of Lahore High Court surrounded by police and lawyers; vendors and hawkers occupying footpaths to display their goods on walls adjacent to government institutions. The omnipresence of security guards, barricaded gates and open gates outside government institutions and blue containers outside visa offices, reflected the vulnerability of the city, while the advertisement of army recruits next to the wall advertising the sale of precious land, not only pointed to the relationship of the state with its citizens, but also illustrated consumer culture.
For me, the act of walking in the city was a performance of another kind, replicating everydayness and framing banality through brief encounters. To question the city as art, I would conclude my article at the last segment of the art walk that I conducted near Jain Mandir, Old Anarkali, Lahore. Here, the walls had several posters of German health centres pasted over a very large painted flag of Jamaat–ud-Dawa. While walking past this threatening advertisement of a religious militant organization, a cause for much fear in the city and abroad, I realized that the posters of German health centres, discussing increasing male sexual potency, were the best art work that the city was performing naturally, on its own.