Is Alamgir Khan’s graffiti of CM Qaim Ali Shah vandalism or activism?

Published: January 7, 2016
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Alamgir Khan has stenciled the CM’s face near locations begging for government action. He painted the CM’s face near a manhole outside Karachi University (above). PHOTO: AYSHA SALEEM/EXPRESS

For a long time in Pakistan, art belonged in galleries and to the elite. It was individualistic, and for that reason, terribly exclusive and elusive. Though over recent years, tables are slowly turning and the high fences around the world of art are being brought down, with an increasing number of artists now looking towards engaging the communities and making their work accessible to larger audiences.

Last year was perhaps the best in this regard, especially with the revival of public art in the Pakistan. From IAMKHI beautifying the walls of Karachi with truck art and graffiti, to The Fearless Collective engaging the communities in storytelling via murals and Lahore Biennale Foundation (LBF)’s installation, Intersections, at Istanbul Chowk, Lahore, art is slowly being used as a tool for dialogue and social change. This has served in not only broadening the definitions of what art is – something much more than a well-proportioned, perfectly made piece hanging on pristine walls – but also encouraging the viewers to think constructively.

But more than that, the rebirth of public art and its focus on social issues has led to the people recognising their rights and using this medium to demand change. Every piece of public art is a political statement and serves as a reminder of the kind of beliefs and values a society holds. Perhaps this is why the stir caused by Alamgir Khan’s effort, Fix It, to highlight problems faced by Karachiites, and the government responding to the requests has been a welcome change, a reprieve during unstable socio-political times. It ignites hope that perhaps we are moving towards a change for the better, a change where the common man is more conscious of his role and rights in the society and is an active participant in ensuring their security.

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Photo: Fix It Facebook page

Regardless of this, there are two questions that have been largely avoided, or ignored in light of the positive support ‘Fix It’ has garnered.

As a society just entering into the realms of public art as a political statement, we must consciously, even if grudgingly, try to be aware of the downside of public art. One of the criticisms to Alamgir Khan’s graffiti have been that it is more of vandalism of public property than a piece of art – not much different from the wall chalking around the city highlighting everything from homeopathic ventures to political slurs.

So, where do we draw the line?

In Khan’s case of gaping potholes and ditches, does the notion of vandalism still apply when the caretakers of that property are content in leaving it in a derelict condition, despite having the responsibility of managing it?

Finally, looking at the response this campaign has resulted in, does it still count as destruction of public property when it has led to the reconstruction of that destructed property?

Political graffiti, by its very definition, aims to highlight a social issue and start public discourse, and Fix It meets these requirements wonderfully – even if rather unsophisticatedly. The best kind of activism is one that is intelligent yet subtle and manages to hit the mark in an unobtrusive fashion. The direct mockery aimed at Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, while effective in its measures, leads one to wonder about the thought process behind the campaign.

Coupled with Alamgir Khan’s statement of being against the idea of wall chalking and his repeated insistence at this being a purely apolitical campaign – contradicting the very essence of public art – one can’t help but question the movement’s validity and reliability. Is this another episode of the blame game?

Our history and present is dotted with people pointing fingers at others, all the while shirking responsibilities assigned to them – a phenomenon that is directly proportional to the amount of power one has.

As hard as these questions are, we need to stop evading the hard facts. In times when we desperately need to initiate action and conversation about the ills and failures of society and our leaders at large, one can only hope against all odds that campaigns like these are a start of a much-needed revolution, rather than a pissing contest.

Sara Nisar

Sara Nisar

The author is a graphic design student of the Department of Visual Studies, University of Karachi and a collaborator of Girls at Dhabas. Her interests vary from activism to art management and hopping across the city in rickshaws.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://hammadsiddiquiblog.com/ Hammad Siddiqui

    I think this is a great movement to make elected people accountable by common citizens. More people must join and identify problems in their communities.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Its simple…… Alamgir Khan is trying to shame the shameless……..he is bold, he is brave……and lets be honest he hasn’t managed to shame them ( because that is impossible ) but he has shaken them up.Recommend

  • hamayal nadeem

    awesome work sirRecommend

  • Bibloo

    Qaim, the CM of Sindh, is in the top echelon of super corruption. He is only
    interested in his own welfare. He comes first. His immediate family comes
    next. His supporting cabal comes third. The citizens of Karachi are, a non
    entity. The residents of Sindh do not exist for him. He was not elected. He
    was appointed by his master, Zardari, of Garhi Khuda Baksh Graveyard. Sindh.[currently hiding in Dubai]. No, make that an absconder, currently in Dubai.
    None of this will have any effect on Qaim, because he is shameless. He need to
    be brought to justice, along with his off shore accounts.Recommend

  • Sane

    Alamgir Khan is doing a great job. We all must join or at least support him.Recommend

  • Pro Truth

    its constructive activism and its right of people to demand from elected representatives! They are not elected to rule but to serve people!Recommend

  • guest

    It’s good to see somebody’s trying to wake up the CM…….the civic sense among karachites!Recommend

  • Lotus

    @Bibloo,further to your comments his achievements include three marriages,the latest not so long ago! On TV interviews he expresses his surprise why people are not praising,instead criticizing him for his abysmal performance.These PPP leaders are a curse upon this province of Sindh and particularly Karachi.Wonder,Qaim will take some action on these missing manhole covers,as he at this age of 90 finds solace in Bhang,sort of Happy go Lucky! Action from this Govt which we Tax Payers demand is like Moving Mountains.They only know how to fill their pockets without caring anything for the Public.Recommend