Writing on the wall

In the world of communication, advertising through mass media is an expensive affair. The corporate world uses the print, electronic and digital media for selling their products to the masses. To eulogise political their leadership, the political parties use high end corporate advertising as well as low paid graffiti on the walls.

Eye catching electronic bill boards advertising the latest globalised products for elite consumption adorn the cityscapes of Pakistan’s sprawling urban centres. The city administration jealously guards the designated urban spaces for paid communication by the private business.

The walls of the city form a contested urban landscape, which resists the regime of legal and financial control, imposed by the municipal authorities. The city walls are open to diverse audience from a broad spectrum of society for political, social, cultural and religious communication. Given the hegemonic control of public spaces by the state, the city walls also become the sites of dissent and resistance.

Most educated residents of cities abhor the sight of the decorated walls as corruption of the beauty of the city. Clean walls are believed to be the signs of a “civilised” society. In the name of public art, young modern art school educated artists are employed to reclaim the wall space by painting them with patriotic themes in bright colours.

Writing on walls without permission, known as graffiti, is a very old practice, which has become a universal urban phenomenon, an almost ubiquitous feature of towns and cities across the world. A wide range of graffiti is found on the walls of the cities in Pakistan, which takes many forms.

The walls of the city form a contested urban landscape, which resists the regime of legal and financial control, imposed by the municipal authorities. The city walls are open to diverse audience from a broad spectrum of society for political, social, cultural and religious communication. Given the hegemonic control of public spaces by the state, the city walls also become sites of dissent and resistance

From wall chalking in text, spray painted images, graphically designed posters, cheaply produced pamphlets, and to photocopied hand written paper messages adorn the walls of the cities. Though legally banned by the act of parliament in 1992, the wall chalking by political parties remained the most popular and effective form of political communication, which also served as the pulse of the society. It functioned perhaps like a modern day community twitter, where short crisp statements are allowed for mass communication, such as party slogans, threats and demands for political and religious rights, hate speech etc.

City walls are also the places for defecation, given the minuscule number of public toilets in the cities. Given the pervasive misuse of city walls, a variety of warning messages are posted there, which range from police threats, offensive abuses to the warnings of divine retribution.

The consumers of advertising on the city walls are middle and low income groups, who respond to the free advertising that sell solutions for everything an average consumer might need. The photograph of city wall of Islamabad’s rural town, Shah Allah Ditta, is painted with graffiti texts, in English and Urdu language, advertising three commercially successful urban economic ventures of today’s Pakistan: food business, radical Islamic enterprises and private education system.

The statements defying the established political and religious order often appear on the walls of the cities in Pakistan. The photograph of the over used surface of the city wall of Rawalpindi’s Murree Road depicts the fragments of a cheaply produced religious poster, a poster celebrating the martyrdom of Kashmiri freedom fighters and the wall chalking comprising of religious hate speech. The multi-lingual graffiti amid the ghost signs is a visual manifestation of the political and ideological grid of the conflicts in the society, which is playing out on the walls of the cities.

Among the list of most conspicuous and lavishly produced posters found on the walls of cities are for religious congregations. They are intricately designed and aesthetically calligraphic and are intended to advertise the religious events and their leading lights. The following is one such photograph, which adorns the corridors of the commercial buildings of Rawalpindi, which announce the details of the community meetings to mark the religious genealogies.

The ubiquitous feature of writings on the walls, as the most potent form of urban communication in Pakistan, is proven by the fact that at times the state authorities are obliged to use it for public information. The photograph of graffiti on the wall of Swat city, which was then recovering from the political unrest, announces the government offer for terrorist to surrender by phoning up the authorities!

The walls of Pakistani cities are visibly invisible public galleries, which are only open to those who watch for them and care for them. They are more like an ephemeral but living canvass on which everyday life and practices inscribe new meanings, values, signs and symbols.

Nadeem Omar Tarar is anthropologist based in Islamabad and serves as an advisor to the Centre for Culture and Development. The writer can be reached at notarar@gmail.com

 

 

Published in Daily Times, September 20th 2017.