Colouring Karachi's walls with cheer

Art teacher Norayya Shaikh Nabi (right) and her daughter, Gaiti Ara, adding finishing touches to a wall mural in Karachi on May 31. A group of volunteers hopes to bring happiness and pride to the city.
Art teacher Norayya Shaikh Nabi (right) and her daughter, Gaiti Ara, adding finishing touches to a wall mural in Karachi on May 31. A group of volunteers hopes to bring happiness and pride to the city.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Artists, volunteers hope to bring happiness to Pakistani city beset by hatred, terrorism

KARACHI • For years, Karachi's walls have been spattered with the bloodstains of murder victims and scrawled with graffiti touting everything from sectarian hatred to cures for erectile dysfunction.

Now, a group of artists and volunteers are reclaiming the walls by painting them with cheerful designs aimed at bringing some happiness and pride back to an often violent and chaotic city.

Karachi, Pakistan's economic capital and biggest metropolis, has been swamped in recent years by a wave of extortion, murder and kidnapping - for religious, criminal, ethnic and political reasons.

Those behind the project, called "Reimaging the walls of Karachi", hope that by taking art to the streets they can bring a more positive outlook to its 20 million residents. "We are working together and taking back the city by reclaiming the walls which are filled with hate graffiti," said artist Norayya Shaikh Nabi.

PAINTING AWAY THE HATRED

We are working together and taking back the city by reclaiming the walls which are filled with hate graffiti.

ARTIST NORAYYA SHAIKH NABI

Ms Nabi, who teaches art at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, is one of 200 artists, artisans and labourers taking part in the project. With help from the city authorities to get the permission they need, they aim to repaint walls in 1,600 different places - from warehouses to schools to flyovers and underpasses.

The scheme is being run by I Am Karachi, a charity working for the cultural, social and literary uplift of the city, backed by funds from the United States Agency for International Development.

Pakistan boasts some talented young artists, but public art is rare.

Mr Munawar Ali Syed, who is leading the team of artists, said it was a pleasure to take their work beyond the elite circles of galleries and graduate shows.

"It's important for society to remain involved with art and music, but unfortunately such things are waning from our culture," he said. "In my 17-year art practice in the galleries, I have enjoyed working here the most as I am directly communicating with my viewers."

Under his watchful eye, a team of artists use stencils to create images of boys flying kites, donkey cart races and other images of rural life.

Elsewhere, flamboyant, brightly coloured paintings of peacocks and elephants have not only radically changed the feel of Karachi, but have also drawn foreigners.

Aside from daily murders, Karachi was hit by two major terror attacks in just over a year. A Taleban attack on the airport left 38 people dead in June last year, and in May this year gunmen slaughtered 45 minority Shi'ite Muslims on a bus. It was the first attack in Pakistan to be claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist group.

Project coordinator Adeela Suleman said she was delighted the work had brought a "less hostile" look to the city. The artists hope the project will subtly change people's behaviour after years of violence.

"I believe that this will yield good results in the long term," Mr Syed said. "When you see positive things around you, your behaviour becomes positive and a big change comes along."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2015, with the headline 'Colouring Karachi's walls with cheer'. Print Edition | Subscribe