The art scene in Islamabad has lost much of its charm. Some citizens are trying to change that by organising culturally relevant events
Unlike some other Pakistani cities, Islamabad has a cold, bureaucratic art life. An army of directors general and their subordinates inhabit castle-like art institutions, waiting for or waiting on mighty ministers. Art events are also important for many think tanks that invite international actors to showcase their presentations on the theme of peace in a sanitised and orderly manner. The general public in Islamabad is usually locked out of these events.
“Unlike Lahore, Islamabad is a very dull city for art,” Prof Dr Sajid Mehmood Awan, director of the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research (NIHCR), a centre of excellence at Quaid-i-Azam University tells The News on Sunday. “Art has always been an avenue for peace. Unfortunately, here it is an avenue for money,” he laments. “In Lahore, you will see quality pieces of indigenous art on public roads, under bridges and on buildings. Students from art institutions express their talent and exhibit their culture. The practice gives out a message of peace and hope. But here, art centres admit little value to the culture and history of the region. They have dug themselves waist-deep into commercialism,” he said.
Prof Awan says that the peace conferences taking place in Islamabad “everyday” mean little out of a historical context as their cultural significance is lost. “Islamabad is in a Gandhara Civilisation region. It has a very rich art culture. Paintings depicting the history and culture of this region need to be understood. Unfortunately, our art institutions are beholden to non-indigenous cultures and styles. They have put a price tag on everything. This is why you do not see art permeating the air in Islamabad,” he said.
Despite this commercialisation of the art scene in Islamabad, some citizens continue to encourage young people to unlock the artist within themselves and give life to their ideas of peace. Madeeha Arsalan and Arsalan Haneef, one such couple, recently hosted an event titled Art for Peace in Islamabad.
The event, which attracted notable people from all walks of life, aimed at bringing diverse individuals‘ ideas of peace to canvas and paper.
Aliya Zafar, the first female director of the Pakistan Cricket Board and a former civil servant, was scheduled to introduce her book, The Magnificent Heritage of Punjab. However, she was unable to do that on account of some health problems.
Farukh Sohail Goendi spoke about the books he has written and about his experience of politics in Pakistan.
For the last segment, Madeeha Arsalan, a poet and critic, distributed canvases amongst the participants. She then talked about the shocking violence against Noor Mukadam. She said Art For Peace involved carefully facilitated art-based activities including theatre, dance, painting, yoga and music to foster positive behavioural change.
“Like sport, art can be an entry point for peace building. The purpose of Art For Peace is to convey conflict transformation objectives,” she said.
“Everyone of you must have a reaction to recent incidents of brutal violence. Draw your reactions on the canvas. All of you can draw. This is art for peace,” she said.
The participants then proceeded to draw their ideas of peace on the canvases that had been provided.
Aamir Ghauri, The News resident editor, who also made a drawing, said he hoped that peace will finally prevail in this part of the world. He recalled working for the BBC in various war zones. “We had to stand in long queues for hours just to dispatch news. There are valuable lessons in these memories. The most important lesson is peace,” he said.
Goendi, recalled his visits to some socialist countries during the Cold War era. He said it had been hard on humanity.
A child drew scales, a widely recognised symbol for justice, calling it their reaction to the lynching of a Sri Lankan citizen in mob violence in Sialkot.
Madeeha Arsalan said art allowed one to engage the youth in a productive manner. “Art is creative and flexible. This makes it an excellent tool for the young. Art can be a positive distraction for children suffering either directly or indirectly from conflicts in their communities,” she said.
The canvases, pencils and colours were donated by Zulfiqar Hussain, a community member. Most of the participants took great care to express their feelings about the psychological effects of ongoing violence, economic deprivation and political unrest and their yearnings for internal as well as external peace.
Ahmed Arsalan, the youngest person in attendance, played a Beethoven symphony as his idea of peace.
Sabookh Syed, a TV show host, said that such activities were good for the city. He said the media should contribute towards extending the debate on peace. “The fundamental point we need to understand is that a difference of opinion is potentially a productive thing. It holds an opportunity for one to understand more, see more and hear more. This is what you see in quality art and this is one of the areas my show focuses on. Problems arise when people refuse to learn from differences of opinion and fall into enmities. This is the starting point of violence and war,” he said.
“It is not enough to say that we wish for peace. This preference should be reflected in our actions as well. We need to know that people can be different and have their various beliefs, politics, food habits and culture. This difference does not mean that they are inferior to us,” he said.
Khilsal-e-Zainab, the writer, said that art’s greatest contribution to the development of human kind was fighting for peace. “Since time immemorial, art, from the caveman’s rocks to Picasso’s renowned masterpieces has portrayed a message of peace and justice for humankind. It has served a higher purpose than what meets the eye. Art has different mediums, but it has always shown mankind the way to establish peace either by showing the true face of war, like Picasso’s Guernica, or by showing us a utopia. The Greek deliberated on Olympus, the romanticists portrayed the beauty of nature, the surrealists painted places where there appeared to be no such thing as sanity or sense of time,” she said.
Zainab said art had become the biggest resistance to forces undermining peace. She said art was the absence of war. Her artwork contributing to Art for Peace depicted children witnessing the horrors of war. The landscape was an image of a war torn land where two children surrounded by artillery looked at the smoke rising from the ruins of a village.
“Replacing missiles and bombshells with crayons is part of my early childhood memory. I have tried to depict this. Whenever I passed by the Missile Chowk in Rawalpindi I used to call it the Crayon Chowk,” she said.
Writer Fatima Zahra, whose works have focused on the relationship between war and peace, echoed similar views. “Art has been a form of resistance to oppression and war. Hence art is a manifestation of peace. From the BLM graffiti, to the painted tanks in Afghanistan, Maya Angelou’s poems, Bob Dylan’s songs and the multitudes of tributes sent to Alan Kurdi art has existed in every call for peace and freedom,” she said.
“In my artwork for Art for Peace I have depicted a Banksy-style graffiti of a whirling dervish. The dilapidated wall represents a war-torn land. Three children gather in the rubble to render their own touches to the dervish, painted upon that wall by an omniscient artist. They gather olive branches, another symbol of peace,” she said. “The painting embodies the idea that even in times of suffering and disquiet, art will rise from the ashes and debris of anguish and lead to new horizons of peace,” she said. She said she had highlighted the bond between childhood, peace and art. “Even in the trials and tribulations, the innocent minds of the children see through the illusionary politics of the adult world, into the hearts that yearn for love and peace. Because of this, they are able to see harmony amidst the wreckage,” she concluded.
The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad. Twitter: @HassanShehzadZ Email: Hassan.firstname.lastname@example.org.