Public art and ugly lies

Notwithstanding the clichéd composition of the sculpture, what stands out is the utter visual ugliness of the sculpted figures

If one wants to understand the Pakistani state, the above sculpture by the Governor House at Kashmir point in Murree, might be instructive. The sculpture has three horsemen in supposed Arab, Mughal and British colonial liveries, trotting towards the visual barrier with images of Mr MA Jinnah and Dr Muhammad Iqbal. In the visual field of progression, the interruption of Mr. Jinnah and Iqbal ushers the five men in the stereotypical regional garbs of Baloch, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtun and Gilgit-Baltistanimen. All of the men are evidently quite enthused about the Pakistani flag held by the Punjabi man. Of course, the entire composition is ring fenced with barbed wire, with the not so subliminal message — look but don’t touch. The local men, on the right side of the frame are coincidently, but quite expressively, not even looking.

What is happening in Pakistan today is not separate from the stories the state tells about itself through samples of public art

The clichéd composition of the sculpture notwithstanding, what stands out is the utter visual ugliness of every one of the sculpted figures. I am no art critic, nor do I have any claims to exceptional artistic sensibility. I know enough about art to be not intimidated by it. It is about allowing oneself to feel the sensibilities, aesthetics and emotions being conveyed by any art form. Therefore, despite formal ignorance, I do allow myself to revel in the joy of seeing or hearing something beautiful or, be repulsed by something ugly or grating. And this sculpture, without a doubt is one of the uglier ones of the comparable abominations littering the Pakistani urban landscape, especially in cantonments, such as the ones that can be found outside Ayub Park in Rawalpindi, domestic departure lounge of the Lahore Airport and outside the Governor House Peshawar, to name a few. The ubiquitous artillery pieces, fighter planes, missiles, and tanks at many road sides in urban Pakistan, are not even to be mentioned in polite company, so we will leave them alone for now.

Public art is always conservative, and to a greater extent than other art forms, toes the establishment line. Typically, it is expensive to create and hence the patronage of the rich, powerful, and the state almost becomes an economic necessity for its creation. So, the idea of a sculpture illustrating a historical narrative steeped in nationalist fantasy rather than any considered scholarship is hardly surprising. What is somewhat, surprising is the apparent lack of faith of the sculptor(s), or perhaps even antipathy towards that narrative. There is no way one could create something so ugly, unless one means to, or singularly lacks any skill or sensibility. I am reminded of Goya’s La familia de Carlos-IV (The Family Charles-IV), or Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin’s portrait of Napoleon-III. The two commissioned paintings portrayed the patrons as studies in stark malice and coldness, respectively, without compromising the overall artistic or aesthetic quality of the compositions. In this instance, I am not sure if the sculptor(s), if they are indeed artists, and not just technicians, meant to convey their hostile ennui through this monstrosity, or if it was the mandarin who administered the commission who, meant for it to be so repulsive.

What is happening in Pakistan today, from the atrocities committed against the weakest of the weak like Patras and Sajid Masih, to the glorification of crimes like forced conversions, disappearances and even murder, is not separate from the stories the state tells about itself through samples of public art, like the one under discussion. Human beings live their lives through stories. The mediums for telling those stories range from auditory to visual to other senses and, involve both human and non-human actors. The sheer cruelty of the stories that the Pakistani state and society enacts through its actions is well known, and is talked about often in this newspaper, and others. But the visual perversities that those very same stories spawn, is something that hasn’t been attended to. My best guess is that like so much of public art across Pakistan, there was probably a technician who did a good enough job, and a philistine of a bureaucrat, like his political or administrative masters, just signed off on the commission.

Why does it matter? It matters because radically different and definitely more humane, beautiful and — ahem, feminine stories exist in our society. I have witnessed and lived them myself, and many Pakistanis do in their everyday lives. If there weren’t, all of us would’ve been in psychiatric hospitals right now — and perhaps many of us should be. The challenge is to expand the public space for the telling, and enactment of those stories. Tapping into the feminine part of our collective spirits and population might be a start. As for the official version, the overwhelming feeling from the likes of the one I am talking about, is that of witnessing a forced and ugly lie.

The writer is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror

Published in Daily Times, March 9th 2018.