Iconography of a City Under Siege
Iconography of a City Under Siege


Author: Amra Ali
Originally published in NuktaArt, inaugural issue, One, May 2005
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration : Painting by Zubeida Agha, Karachi by Night, 1956

A city’s monuments, public structures, and ‘art’ in public spaces serve as institutionalized visual memories, nurturing the patriotism of its citizens, often depicted through national heroes and symbols of unity. These visual elements and old associations continue to provide psychological linkages to the city for its inhabitants. In this respect, public ‘art’, hoardings, and billboards are often, and in the case of Karachi, blatant tools of propaganda that consecutive governments have imposed on its visual landscape; altering, manipulating, and creating a space that has disregarded environmental, civic or/and social concerns, which in turn, has nurtured a lack of ownership of the public space of the city by many of its citizens. The sociological and political factors that have contributed in shaping its psyche reveal themselves in the iconography that exists in the many cities within this city of fourteen million.

The changing face of the city is visible in the conflicting architectural styles of homes and public spaces. The modest simplicity of the architecture in the Parsi Colony, one of the few untouched old neighborhoods, for example, stands in jarring contrast to the garish vulgarity and monumental ‘Whitehouse’ type structures, replete with armed guards that have mushroomed in Karachi’s more affluent areas. A shift to the fortification of homes since the ’80s, and the construction of high boundary walls have changed the concept of ‘home; the sight of rangers, tanks, bunkers and Kalashnikovs on the streets; gigantic billboards that advertise western consumer products, such as Nike, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, side by side with those that have Quranic inscriptions, is amongst a maze of the many parallel and conflicting aesthetics that surrounds us.

Karachi’s face presents a picture overwhelmingly loaded with that of oppressive militancy. The aftermath of an abundance of apathy towards creating spaces of recreation and entertainment, or a disinterest in creating cultural or artistic expression in its public spaces, by successive governments, has bequeathed a war legacy of swords, fighter planes, submarines, tanks, replicas of nuclear debris, and fists. These grotesque martial structures stand unashamedly, posing as monuments on our roundabouts, constantly reinforcing and propagating a sense of false pride within a people. If these blatant symbols of might and destruction, or monuments, can be referred to as ‘public ART’, then has art become nothing more than an extension of the much greater game of power politics?

In an attempt to discuss the city aesthetics at play, we must look at the wider milieu, or the framework that has prompted this militancy in iconography, and then try to decipher the conflicting visual messages that we get from around the different parts of Karachi. The undercurrents that have shaped politics seem to be revealed in this iconography. “A rise in militarism came after the ’65 War (with India), with the political glorification of the army,” comments noted architect, city planner and social scientist, Arif Hasan. Thus began the public display of war-related imagery: pictures of the Shaheeds (martyrs), and the other of power of the establishment. In his essay, The Causes for the Political Alienation of Pakistan’s Elite, (2002), Hasan describes the division between the conservative and the liberal elements of the Zia-ul-Haq and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) camps as having played a crucial part in shaping this polarity:

In 1977, Pakistan was polarized. It was divided into anti-Bhutto and pro-Bhutto camps. The division on both sides contained partners that bad little in common with each other. The urban working and middle classes were fiercely divided. The elite and entrepreneurial classes, by and large were with the PNA, the anti Bhutto alliance. They had reason to be. The populist political culture promoted by the PPP had seriously undermined the political power of the elite and Bhutto’s nationalization of industry, education and his alliance with big feudal interests had adversely affected the economic and political power of businessmen, traders and middlemen. The religious parties and their networks of mosques and madrassahs were the backbone of the alliance. In the Bhutto era they had seen the propagation of a state culture which they felt was undermining their authority and promoting what they considered were ‘unIslamic’ values and it was the promotion and protection of Islamic values that gam them authority.

Mukka Chowk

Despite ZAB’s popularity, the establishment remained pro-army and pro-bureaucracy. Hasan views that a ‘ghetto’ mentality began to emerge in the westernized, English speaking elite, and hence their ‘distancing from the larger political and social processes.’ He also points out that prior to ’77, the elite were part of the city, and took their children to the city’s zoo, local archaeological sites, and visited tea shops in Saddar and public cinema houses; they were proud to travel in the national airline, and even used the railways. They saw to it that parks, museums, zoos, and other public places were well maintained. But the beginning of Martial Law and also of an ‘Islamization’ saw the end of the patronage given to cultural activities; many of the liberal poets were banned; the use of glywroos was banned; cabarets were closed down; children of the rich were sent abroad for higher studies, and families started to go abroad for holidays. As a result, explains Hasan, the elite abandoned the city centers and started to live in ‘increasingly posh and isolated ghettos surrounded by armed guards and security systems with their own clubs, golf courses, libraries, and recreational facilities.’ This was the beginning of a process of the alienation of the elite from public spaces.

In ZAB’s time, however, there was relative openness and patronage provided to artistic expression. The PIA Arts Academy, the Ghanshyam Dance Studios, Bulbul Chaudhrey’s Dance Studio, and the Saddar Arts Academy were all shut down during the Zia regime, while many enlightened and liberal people chose to migrate to other countries. The focus on war imagery had already started to emerge publicly in the Ayub Khan era, and continued under ZAB. The towering Teen Talwar (three swords) structure in onyx tiles, in Clifton, stands for the national motto of Unity, Faith and Discipline – as reads the inscription on it. We must ask, however, what it meant to have such a symbol in the middle of a busy roundabout at that time, and more importantly, what kind of an attitudinal conditioning was being brought about. If we decide to look at it from a critical point of view, we face the arduous task of where to draw the line between art and politics, a line that is already too blurred. Yet, it may not be far-fetched to assume, as the late Ali Imam once suggested to me, that ZAB was really putting his own signature, thereby immortalizing his power. Incidentally, as Imam saheb pointed out, Zulfiqar, in Arabic, means ‘sword; the structure stands close to 70 Clifton, ZA Bhutto ‘s family home. Was the ruler, then, trying to immortalize his own name, through a public monument created from public funds in the name of creativity?

War imagery in abundance, has probably desensitized us to its deeper implications. Outside the ZAB home now, there is a large poster of his late son Murtaza Bhutto, and under it stands an armored car, complete with armed rangers, their guns pointing towards passer-bys. The Do Talwar (Two Swords), also in Clifton, however, was conceived as an abstract form at its inception in the early ’70s and only at a later point came to be related to the image of a sword; probably due to its close proximity to the Teen Talwar. Militancy was already beginning to be ingrained in our consciousness. The inscription at its steps commemorates the heroes of the 1947 Freedom Movement. However, it has been fenced in and kept under lock for fear of public vandalism. Such measures have helped in building a mutual paranoia and distrust on both sides of the fence. Arif Hasan points that, in contrast, the nearby Jehangir Kothari Parade is open for all, and children are often seen sliding down its slopes. The Quaid’s Mazaar, with its open gardens, is another such rare example of an interactive public space.

In a review of the text The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq, by Samir AI-Khalil (1991), in Art in America, Irene J. Winter cautions that in the end, ‘politics as art is politics, not art’. In the original text, Al-Khalil discusses the ‘Victory Arch’, a war monument located in Central Baghdad. Conceived by Saddam Hussain, it is ‘composed of two identical mammoth arches separated by a broad processional avenue; each arch consists of a pair of giant bronze forearms that spring up from concrete masses of ground. The swords are made from the melted and recast weapons retrieved from Iraqi martyrs with bronze nets containing 2,000 mar helmets and melted clown weapons.’ Even if we chose to ignore the predictable American habit to portray Saddam as the villain, her response in taking the argument further becomes interesting. Winter makes a comparison between Saddam Hussain and the Pop-Artist Andy Warhol. ‘Unlike the Pop-Artist, this artist-President has no ulterior intention of subverting the cannons of artistic taste. His reasons’, she comments, ‘are not by and large artistic – they are political.’ The remnants of a war-torn plane from the 1971 war with India, a ‘sculpture’ by the senior artist Gulgee stood at what is now the Schon circle roundabout, and was later removed after much controversy, but prominent art personalities like Ali Imam and others extended much support to the idea of sculpture in public spaces, in parks, where people could interact with the work. At present, a replica of an Emirates airlines plane stands at the roundabout diagonally opposite the modest Kothari Parade, fenced, locked and kept under guard. The presence of the armed guard and the steel barriers give the structure and its surroundings a militant connotation. A more people-friendly approach would have been the plantation of few hardy neem, keekar or gulmohar trees that could have provided a space of beauty and shade to the thousands who visit the Play land and Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine. An indirect extension of the establishments’ presence is also visible in the recent phenomenon of the plantation of date palms along the Clifton beach, giving it an ‘Islamic’ look, points out Arif Hasan. At a little distance from here, there are neon-lit imitation palms, a direct importation of Dubai kitsch.

Mohammed Imran Qureshi, mixed media, 1999

A Beautification Committee, set up in the early ’90s, was formed by the local government to include the artists of the city for advising in the creation of public art. It turned out to be yet another empty gesture. Apathy towards city planning and a sincere lack of desire to involve the city’s artists, left the art community frustrated. Mehr Afroz, who was among the artists invited to the Committee meeting, had suggested at the time that instead of expensive structures constructed on busy roundabouts that will eventually be dug up to accommodate the traffic, simple plantation of trees, suitable to Karachi’s climate, was perhaps a far better option. She also suggested that instead of spending so much money in ‘beautifying’ roundabouts, priority could be given to people’s basic needs, such as the construction of public toilets. Suggestions by her and others like Ali Imam were sidelined and ignored by individuals in compliance with vested interests. Thus continued the building of random structures conceived without any imagination, stemming from the lack of city planning with a vision for the future.

The few early public sculptures that did materialize by the ‘efforts’ of the Beautification Committee, were Rabia Zuberi’s Anchor in fibre glass on the Zamzama Boulevard that was painted black and raised on `bathroom’-type black tiles without the artist’s permission. Anjum Ayaz’s Bird in metal at the Jail Road now stands amidst a pile of rubble, disconnected to its surroundings, which have all been dug up. Ozir Zuby’s famous Allah structure at the Shahra-e-Quaideen roundabout has been the most interesting piece of artistic expression in relation to its surroundings. All fenced up in a claustrophobic space standing on top of a drain, and facing the ‘golden arches’ on one side, with a colorful corporate logo that robs the icon of its religious sanctity.

Firstly, the use of the name of God, and that too in Arabic, and these may be incorrect judgments on my part, has automatically given the justification of having it approved by the authorities, for reasons of reverence. Secondly, due to the risks involved in questioning the artistic credibility of this structure, a critical dialogue cannot be undertaken. Even more revealing is that there are now replicas of this sculpture not only within Karachi, but also on roundabouts in other cities of Pakistan. Besides, miniature decorative replicas of the same in plaster of Paris are also available on road sides. Is the desire to buy this particular image prompted by religious sentiment? Or is this the revelation of another aesthetic tradition that prevails? More interestingly, even though this to me may seem a piece of kitsch, the popularity of the Allah piece reveals that art that makes you connect to it, exists as a result of the socio-cultural values that it manifests, and from which it is born. Are these diametrically opposed interpretations yet another face of the polarity and the alienation between the modernists and the traditionists? Just as recently as last month, a gigantic billboard of the first kalima and its meaning in Urdu was seen opposite an equally large-scale image of a model in a nighty, posing for a mattress company. That particular advertisement has now been replaced with an ad for a mobile phone company. These are interesting parallels and contradictions that we often come across; a bombardment of images that seek to brainwash, and those that target the very ‘liberal’ segment of society. Similar versions of religious text are seen at traffic lights, and all along the main arteries. The question that is cause for alarm is that firstly, religious text is being put in a space where its sanctity does not remain preserved. Even in our private spaces, we observe certain rituals of purification and ensure respect to the Quran at all times; something missing in such public display of the text. Secondly, such texts on billboards react beyond its written message; is it some sort of advertising, after all it is on a billboard, sponsored by organizations whose identity is also publicized?

Repeated messages, such as the one near the mausoleum of the Father of the Nation – the Quaid’s mazaar– written in both English and Urdu, translates into, ‘All Believers are Brothers’ on a structure made out of ‘bathroom’ affect tiles, have marked our consciousness with double messages. And as Arif Hasan remarks, ‘enhanced the power of the clergy’. Religious text, which was previously the domain of shrines and mosques, has become visible on the architectural facades of private homes. Verses from the Quran, especially the Four Quls, that are believed to protect against black magic, often heavily decorated, are now inscribed on the exterior of homes to ward off the evil eye of hasad (envy).

Parallel to the loud embellishment and vulgar show of new wealth, (also an outcome of a strong wadera or feudal presence in Karachi’s rich neighborhoods), emerged a new ostentatiousness – the same as the one visible in fake palm trees – in the architecture of homes: The ‘White House’ phenomenon became an important development in the sociology of our changed attitudes and architectural history, revealing the mentality of the rich new middle class, who started to look up to the American ideal as a sign of prosperity and power. A corresponding demand for western designer products, imported fast food chains and an emulation of a ‘designer’ lifestyle have integrated with this new subculture. A stepped platform, domes, and Corinthian arches supporting a central pediment, combined with local variations replete with garish gates and high boundary walls, the home has begun to symbolize the power of the individual. As one observer has pointed out that the borne, whether it be a White House, or with ornate trimmings that give a cake-icing effect, and juxtaposition of extreme elements, is the realization of a fantasy that may also be trying to negate/react to what lies in our public spaces.

On the street, though, we continue to come to terms with imagery such as that of the Mukka or fist, at the Azizabad Chowk, or the replica of the Ghuari missile, which stands on guard as we approach the city from the airport. The Chagai nuclear site replica that stood at the Bagh -e-Jinnah, was not too long ago set fire to, stripping this militant splendor of its expensive fibre glass facade. The grim steel grid remains still, but boys are seen playing cricket around the space, and families seen relaxing under the shadows of the trees in the same gardens.

Amra Ali is an independent art critic and curator based in Karachi, Pakistan 
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