Karachi, the capital of the Pakistani province of Sindh, is not only a place of terrorist attacks and ethnic violence, it’s also a place of sharp contradictions: While some children play in private pools in the glittering sun, others don’t have access to clean tap water to bathe. “It’s a city of huge, huge contrasts,” says Sohail Zuberi, a core team member of the interdisciplinary collective Numaish Karachi. He adds that this contrast echoes in several aspects of Karachi life, including transport, education, technology and art.
“The problem lies in the marketplace; the galleries are all located in posh..areas and obviously, the buyers [are also quite posh],” Zuberi tells progrss. “There are no art museums showcasing Pakistani contemporary art, and automatically, that restricts access.” Zuberi adds that people from lower income communities in Karachi – which is home to more than 23 million people – don’t even know about the art scene in the city; many are oblivious to the fact that Pakistan has an art scene at all. “I would say the exposure of art to people on the street is zero – or even negative.”
Numaish (which literally means “exhibition”) gives those with little or no access to Karachi’s elitist cultural scene a chance to engage with art, design and technology. “Unlike art in the galleries, our projects are interactive, giving the public a hand-on experience,” Zuberi says. Numaish tries to integrate the Karachi community, which is segregated by income and quality of education; to start with, Numaish Karachi does not charge audience members for their interventions. On April 30, they launched DIY CITY, an intervention in a rural part of Karachi, and created a buzz on social media with the help of The Manchester Digital Laboratory (MadLab) in an effort to engage the wider of the community. The primary attendees ended up being the ones living in the neighbourhood itself, which is Numaish Karachi’s main goal – to engage the community where the public intervention is taking place. However, it implies that the main obstacle to integrating Karachi’s segregated classes is the absence of public spaces that allows people from different social classes to mingle; that if neighborhoods are diversified rather than separated according to income, things would change.
“We must understand that the shrinking of these public spaces is creating a polarization in our society,” Program Manager of I AM KARACHI, a collective that unites civil society organizations Saddam Siddiqui, tells progrss. He adds that cultural awareness is key to reclaiming these public spaces. It is only when the public becomes aware of the vitality of public spaces that civil groups will begin to work in earnest to engage them. With time, Siddiqui adds, after they have managed to convince the public, these civil groups will be able to influence decision-makers to develop policy frameworks and strategies aimed at the planning and development of public spaces for social and cultural activities in Karachi.
Siddiqui elaborates that there are tools that can be used to shrink the growing gap between the elites and the lower-income community. These tools include festivals, school tours, open air concerts, street festivals, public installations, and street performances, all of which showcase the innovative uses of public spaces.
Public spaces in Karachi are missing a number of aspects other than class-integration, though. Zuberi recalls that when he was a child, he would go to the park with his friends to play on the many rides like the slides or the Merry-Go-Round, which were ones out of many activities available to children. “They seem to have disappeared,” says Zuberi. “There are no recreational activities happening,” he adds, going on to note the lack of conservation of the city’s public spaces: parks are not maintained, the grass is not green and the trees are either not cared for or cut down.
Many challenges that IAK face with their interventions and campaigns to reclaim public space can be attributed to lack of awareness. In the past five years, Karachi has been victim to mass shootings and terrorism, resulting in the death of 13,500 citizens. The violence has taken its toll on Pakistan’s largest city, which has become a religious and political battlefield. As a result, while planning or implementing interventions, IAK often faces challenges such as vandalism, land grabbing, extremism, oblivion, and conservatism coupled with violence. IAK also faces some trouble while getting permission from the city’s authority, which prefers commercial projects that can bring in revenue to civil society projects, according to Siddiqui.
However, this is not exactly the case with Numaish. Zuberi tells us that the government has its own agenda of programs to carry out the interventions they want to launch in order to extract the desired results. But it’s safe to say that once every five to ten years, they might host a contemporary art show, usually giving priority to folk art and craft. When Numaish was working on DIY CITY, for example, the municipality provided the space for free. “Aside from finances, whatever we asked for they provided. They are very helpful so I wouldn’t really put the blame entirely on the government.”
Zuberi explains that while civil society in Karachi is doing a great job, in the bigger scheme of things, they are a “drop in the ocean” due to the ever-growing population. Since Karachi is Pakistan’s largest economic hub (it was also a landing hub for immigrants moving to the city when the country was first established), its demographics keep shifting. While that enriches the city with diversity, it also creates a burden on both the government and the civil society, as neither can keep up with the surge of migration, leading to wider gaps between the classes. With the help of art, science and technology, civil society is still trying to create a more cohesive society in the city.
But they’re also using other recreational methods to grab the attention of the young, the old, the poor, and the rich. IAK is reclaiming sports grounds that have basic infrastructure but were abandoned or underutilized due to the lack of funds and/or capacity. They’re cultivating sports’ academies and youth cafes equipped with facilities like reading corners and internet. As part of their artistic campaigns, IAK have transformed walls that have been vandalized by graffiti with hate messages, replacing them with positive messages of peace, unity, hope – values that they hope Karachi can build on to recover from the aggression of the past years. They also reclaim abandoned spaces in public parks and use art to introduce environmental messages about reusing and recycling. On the social level, IAK organizes open air concerts and open air events in order to promote better usage of public spaces.