Munawar Ali Syed has earned name, respect and popularity through his way of thinking and producing the art. An extraordinarily talented artist, ambitious and a bohemian, Syed is a graduate of National College of Arts and is currently teaching in different art institutes in Karachi including Karachi University. Syed strongly discards the notion of making money through art, but near to him art is the most peaceful source of bringing change in the society and in people’s perception. With a history of being a part of many major art projects in Karachi like ‘Rung De Karachi’, ‘Pur Sukoon Karachi’ and ‘Reimagining the Walls of Karachi’, Syed has been commemorating public art and still successfully climbing stairway towards his goal to provide the understanding of art.
You! Tell us about your art education?
Munawar Ali Syed: In 1999, I did my Bachelors from the NCA. I was very much involved in theatres and did many mime performances (in which a story is told through facial expressions, body movements) that polished my way of thinking and skills as well. In 2016, I did my Masters from Beacon House National University.
You! What your sculptures speak about?
MAS: I keep imaginary forms in my works and that’s why it’s easy for even general public to understand my work. I don’t do abstract. For me, the life size Buffalo made of fibre glass placed at the Frere Hall was an interesting piece because I could connect with the general public through my art and this has always been my approach to make a connection otherwise art inside the galleries is just for a specific group of people. When people saw my installation at Frere Hall they questioned, interacted and understood that how art can also speak to the general public.
You! Which one among your own sculptures is your favourite sculpture so far?
MAS: The Buffalo piece because it helped bridge the gap between art and public.
You! You extensively worked to bring the art to the public. How far have you or the art fraternity has reached with this motive?
MAS: I think Biennales are doing a great job. But there is still a need of a lot of mind mapping and by that I mean we lack discussions and debates to make it workable. To bring art to the public, one has to study the type of audience one is taking art to. It requires research and surveys. General public has no grip on art and what are we doing is taking the high art to the public and calling it ‘public art’ just because it is being placed at a public venue. There should be an organisation or unit who would take feedback from the general public what have they understood, either all this is working for them or not, so things can get better and the slogan ‘art for public’ could be justified.
You! You have been working a lot to promote truck art and Islamabad Airport Project is one example. How has it changed the perception of the people who did not consider truck art as an art form?
MAS: Truck art has learnt to flourish on its own without any Government support. Phool Patti and Phool Jee are two different groups who collaborate with different embassies and countries to take truck art abroad. Government support is highly needed to this form of art which is extremely popular in other countries. The good factor is that the local truck artists are working hard on this without other artists’ help. What other artists and I (involved in these projects) have done is that we have changed the canvas of this art form. In the project ‘Re-imaging the walls of Karachi’, we directly painted truck over the walls of Karachi which helped truck art get popular and a lot of truck artists were commissioned by many companies. In Islamabad Airport Project, we brought the wood work, steel, chamak patti on the walls of the airport which became the highlight of the project. An artist’s contribution in these kind of projects is that he/she intervenes in the craft and gives it a new direction so the collectors or buyers get involved after which the perception of craftsmen or artisans changes and they start looking forward.
You! Your artwork was one of the prominent works installed at the Karachi Zoo during KB’19. Tell us about it.
MAS: Karachi Zoo was a good selection among venues and I got an opportunity to put my sculpture over there. The Zoo sculpture of a baby elephant touched those points very deeply. Experiencing a 9x7 ft. paper over an elephant by the public was another kind of excitement for them and for me as well. Especially when they raised queries like is the elephant dead or sleeping? What is the concept of covering the elephant with paper? Either this animal was ever happy or not? I speak about how urbanisation has destroyed the environment and nature in past 60 years. My piece at the Karachi Zoo is an experimental piece; my work is not over yet. I will go after 6 months to see what the condition of my sculpture is and how people have reacted to it.
You! But like you said people do not know how to behave with an art piece...
MAS: Yes, exactly. We removed all British art pieces and there is actually nothing for the public. All the monuments on the roads have a history but nobody knows. There is a whole era missing in which we have not educated the public about art and then we expect them to behave with the public art. There were big dustbins installed at sea view which were shaped as dolphins. The public started capturing pictures sitting inside the dustbins because no one labelled it as dustbins and instead removed them from the sea side.
You! Are artists of today understanding the responsibility of being an artist?
MAS: They do, but everything runs in a systematic way. We lack funding agencies. Artists have to make the work for the galleries so they can make a good sell and run their houses. The same is with the galleries and the viewers or collectors. Funding agencies play a vital role in supporting the artists and art. If an artist would make something, let’s say, for a cause so he/she would be expecting at least his/her cost to be covered which would be sponsored by the funding agencies.
On the other hand, there are students who are passionate and want to do something without thinking commercially but they have no platform and support so they go abroad and apply for residencies and work there. I believe your dreams take you to your destiny. The starting 4 to 5 years after graduating are of survival but most of the artists lose hope and opt other professions but the ones who keep surviving with courage and passion achieve their goals.
You! Are there any benefits that you get from Government except ‘Pride of Performance’?
MAS: As far as the Government is concerned, we all are habitual of its behaviour now. One positive thing that happened in the Venice Biennale is the contribution of PNCA that they displayed Naiza Khan’s work. An ideal situation that I would wish happen someday is that the Government should make an artist village where it should provide studios to the artists and craftsmen. I have seen so many artists who have potential and are extremely talented but just because they don’t have or can’t afford an art studio after they pass out; they get vanished from the art scene. Thirdly, funding agencies by the government will play a good role in supporting artists so that they can prosper without worrying about their sale and working in pressure to get their work sold in the galleries.
You! As an art activist, what is your opinion on art censorship?
MAS: It shouldn’t exist. But I appreciate positive criticisms, arguments and debates as it is a source of growth. As far as censorship is concerned, artists are making nudes nobody is stopping them and they freely exhibit as well. In our country, there is a trend of sugar coating everything; dialogues, work and even truth. I stand with art. If, because of any controversy, the biennales will be banned then we will be in a big loss that nobody has realised up till now. In the era of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the state used to put the poets in jails for their poetries against the state. I don’t think so that state has to police the art because this does not come under their domain. An artist should have freedom to express and speak.
You! How do you see the Pakistani art scene today?
MAS: Art has become just like journalism. At the time of ‘war on terror’, artists started making works on the war on terror. But now, one can observe the change in the subjects and artists are producing thought provoking works like on Ecology which are connected to everybody in the world and addressing a bigger issue. Moreover, we compete with India on every forum but when it comes to art, we should analyse that art galleries in India are not only in Dehli. But in Pakistan, we only have a few renowned art galleries in specific areas. For instance, there is no galleries in Bhawalpur which is a cultural hub of Pakistan. Here lies the responsibility on the shoulders of Arts Councils also.
You! Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
MAS: Yes, my four group shows are coming up. As I work on the same projects like ‘Reimaging the walls of Karachi’, ‘Rung De Karachi’, ‘Pursukoon Karachi’ and ‘Islamabad Truck Art Project’, I would like to do collaboration with paint companies to do something on a higher level again, maybe making the wall paintings better.
You! Art for you in one word?
MAS: It’s like a ‘balm’ for me; a pain reliever.