Sparks fly when an artist decides to talk back to her Pakistani ‘uncles and aunties’

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Women in the World: April 18, 2016

When Maria Qamar was a child, her parents refused to support her decision to pursue art — even ripping the drawings from her bedroom walls on one occasion. Today, thousands pay to have her work on their walls. 

For many people of South Asian descent, there is a group in possession of the magic words that will instantly transport you to your most painful and rebellious teenage years — the uncles and aunties. Often unrelated to you, they are the cluster of your parent’s friends that have a word of advice (or disapproval) for everything from your weight and grades to your marriage prospects.

Maria Qamar, a Toronto-based artist and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who goes by the name Hatecopy, decided to talk back to the uncles and aunties. And very quickly, she had more than 46,000 followers on Instagram alone, listening in to the conversation and chiming in with their stories, both hilarious and heartbreaking.

When Qamar was a child, her parents refused to support her decision to pursue art — even ripping her drawings off the walls of her bedroom in one instance. Today, thousands pay to hang that art on the walls of their homes. Qamar spoke with Women in the World about this gratifying journey and why getting let go of her day job was the best thing that happened to her.

Full story here

 

 

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Going nowhere

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: December 22-28, 2013

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but my father might,” said the ghora gaari waala to Sarah Khan, when she asked him if he knew Ahmed Rushdi’s Bunder Road se Kemari. The artist met the young man’s father, who immediately recognised the song and took her on a ride in his tonga along the route Rushdi sang about in 1954.  “I took that route every day,” Khan says, “as my house was located in the area and I would visit Khori Garden for my art supplies.” Her trip on the tonga, however, allowed her to glimpse familiar sites anew, as she furiously sketched while perched in the carriage. The sketches form part of Khan’s contribution to Right to the City: Travel guide to Karachi, a collaborative project by four artists, a historian and a curator determined to challenge local and international perceptions of Karachi as ‘Pakistan’s dark heart’ (as characterised by Time Magazine in 2012) or a ‘sweltering gangland’ (Time Magazine in October 2013).

Link to full article in T Magazine

Home and away

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: November 24-30, 2013

“This is the first time that I’ve had to talk to CNN about one of our exhibits,” quips Sarah Bevan, curator of the Imperial War Museum’s (London) IWM Contemporary programme, which features 5,000 Feet Is The Best, a short film by artist Omer Fast exploring the subject of drone warfare.

“At 5,000 feet,” explains a drone operator interviewed by Fast in the film, “I can tell what type of shoes you’re wearing from a mile away.” The film is structured around segments of interviews with this former drone operator (now employed as a security guard) who claims to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a consequence of the missions he has been a part of in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The film, played on a loop, has no discernable opening or ending, and viewers are free to watch the narrative, comprised of a series of vignettes, unfold at any point.

Link to full article in T Magazine

Link to excerpt from Fast’s short film

Bollywood on the Streets of Bombay

Boat magazine: August 2012

Link to Boat

When he was eighteen, Ranjit Dahiya dropped out of school after failing his exams in the 11th grade. Against his parents’ wishes, he sought employment as a whitewasher in his village of Garhi Brahamanan in India’s Haryana state. Paid 40 Indian rupees for a day of labour, Ranjit graduated from daubing the walls of Garhi Brahamanan to the city of Sonipat. Here, after a day spent whitewashing the paan-stained and graffitied walls of Sonipat Railway Station, Ranjit was accused of stealing a paintbrush, worth 120 rupees. “I wasn’t paid for my labour that day,” he recalls, “and my father was very upset with me, he said I was casting a shadow on his respectability.”

The task of whitewashing a school’s walls led Ranjit back to his first love, painting, after he was asked to create a mural of the goddess Saraswati on one of the walls he had whitewashed. “I was always a good painter,” says Ranjit, a self-described “Bollywood freak”. “At the age of 13 or 14, I would come home from school and make portraits of film stars using photographs cut out from magazines and the newspapers.” Ranjit decided that he would return to school, in the hope of gaining admission to the Chandigarh Fine Arts College.

With a Bachelor in Fine Arts, he went on to study at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, and in 2008 found his calling: street art. Ranjit joined a collective of artists who, when faced with the city’s myriad blank canvases and stretches of grey concrete, felt that “something has to be done”. The Wall Project (it has since found homes in cities across India) invited residents of Mumbai to join street artists to bring colour to the city – their most notable collaboration took place on a 2.7 km stretch of wall along Tulsi Pipe Road, a highway that runs parallel to train tracks and is home to hundreds of homeless families. Here, 350 Mumbai’ites, including Ranjit, created a mélange of graffiti, social commentary and educational initiatives (one artist painted letters from the Hindi alphabet along the wall).

In 2009, Dhaniya Pilo, one of the founders of the Wall Project, contacted Ranjit and asked if he would be interested in bringing his art to an exhibit in Paris. In February that year, Ranjit travelled to Paris’ Salon du Cinema exhibit with 31 canvases featuring his beloved film stars, particularly Amitabh Bachchan, Kishore Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. “The organisers gave me a 32×12 foot canvas and gave me four days to paint it, as part of a live demonstration of my technique of traditional hand-painting, which dates back at least 70 years,” he says. “They asked me what I wanted to paint, and I chose an image of Amitabh Bachchan from the 2008 film Sarkar Raj. Amitabh came to the show, saw my work, told me he loved it and signed my painting.” For Ranjit, there could be no higher praise. “I grew up on Bollywood,” he explains. “Our neighbour’s house had a television, and we were part of the VCR generation – we’d always be at our neighbour’s house watching the latest films. We didn’t go to the cinema in the village often, but every Sunday, we’d watch the movies screened on Doordarshan (*broadcaster) and I fell in love with Amitabh, Dev Anand, Sanjiv Kumar…”

Today, Ranjit spends his days dreaming of bringing Bollywood back to its original home in Mumbai (which he refers to by its old name, Bombay) – he creates striking cinemascapes on the city’s walls, paeans to some of the biggest stars that the industry has created. “I came to Bombay in 2008 and I really wanted to feel a connection to Bollywood – this is, after all, where Bollywood was born. I didn’t feel that connection though. There are lots of advertisements and hoardings for films, but that feeling of being in Bollywood was missing.” Ranjit subsequently teamed up with a friend, Tony Peter, to found the Bollywood Art Project in April this year, an urban art project celebrating 100 years of Bollywood (the film industry’s first feature-length film was the silent movie, Raja Harishchandra, which opened in Mumbai in 1913) and creating public works of art to rekindle this particular feeling that Ranjit seeks. Their first mural featured Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai, the two stars of the 1953 classic, Anarkali, which tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a courtesan and a prince. A 20×15 feet mural on Chapel Road in the city’s Bandra’s neighbourhood (home to many stars from the film industry) depicts the two in a loving, glorious technicolour embrace.

The tradition of hand-painting film posters and advertisements on cinema hoardings and billboards has yielded some iconographic images – original poster prints are avidly collected in India and Pakistan as this art faces certain death at the hands of computer-generated images – but Ranjit chooses to steer clear of re-creating these poster images in his murals. “I approach the film from the point of view of an artist and I look at what the film means to me, what its most potent visual is, an image or idea that has survived across decades,” he explains. Thus, the group’s second mural featured Amitabh Bachchan as the iconoclastic ‘Angry Young Man’ from the 1975 film Deewar (The Wall) – a film that redefined the identity of a generation of young men bristling against traditional values and norms. Dubbed ‘Deewar pe Deewar’ (‘The Wall on the wall’), the mural was created in ten days on the Bandra neighbourhood’s Bandstand Promenade by the sea.

Ranjit’s process is simple: while the 24 year old Tony handles the “production” side of the project by gaining permissions to paint on public property or seeking funding, Ranjit scouts locations for his next mural (he has plans to create at least 25 murals in Mumbai alone before moving on to Delhi or even international film hubs such as Los Angeles). “I do a lot of recce between murals,” explains Ranjit. “I look at areas which have maximum visibility and thoroughfare – the murals should be public and accessible to the maximum number of people.” Ranjit adds that he chooses his images carefully. “I don’t want to paint vulgar scenes or images that are not good for society, which will cause people to make a noise about what I’m doing.” Sometimes, however, Ranjit’s notion of ‘vulgarity’ is challenged. “I wanted to create a mural of Bollywood’s first ‘item girl’ (an actress who appears in a film for one song-and-dance sequence) Helen. But once I’d finalized a wall I wanted to use and gained permission, a woman from the neighbourhood absolutely refused and created a fuss. She said, ‘If you paint Helen here, log uss ko dekh ke pagal ho jayengay (people will see her image and go crazy).’”

During the creation of the Anarkali mural, which took eleven days, Ranjit was approached by curious passersby who would inevitably ask him the same question – “Who is paying you to do this?” “When you tell people that you’re doing this work for free, they’re amazed,” says Ranjit. “They can’t believe I don’t have a motive other than to celebrate this film culture, but it always makes them very happy.” With an average cost of 35,000-50,000 Indian Rupees, the murals are a pricey passion to maintain. Ranjit finances his passion project through freelance design work (he churns out mobile applications and brand identities through Digital Moustache, a graphic design company he founded in 2009) and chooses to work alone, thus cutting out additional labour costs. Following the completion of the mural, BAP held an open-air screening of Anarkali on Chapel Road, bringing Bollywood back onto the streets of the city and away from the enclaves of publicly inaccessible studios and glitzy premieres in London or Dubai.

On the 18th of July, the film icon Rajesh Khanna – the man who inspired female fans to ‘marry’ his photograph and write letters in blood professing their love for him – passed away. Two days later, Ranjit started work on his third mural, paying homage to the star in a 17×26 feet mural at Bandstand. The work cost an estimated 37,000 rupees – entirely worth it for Ranjit, who was approached by a grateful and happy Rajesh Khanna-fan who brought his entire family to see the mural once it was complete. As the project grows, however, Ranjit has had to learn to be prudent. “My first plan right now is to look for funding,” he explains. “I cannot keep paying for these murals and while people really appreciate the work, they’re not willing to help finance it.” His goal is to take his art to “wherever Bollywood-lovers are” and to create his own team of painters. And while he has gained attention in the media, following the creation of the Rajesh Khanna mural, he says his parents remain cautiously optimistic about his chosen path. “My father is a little upset that I’m 33 years old and I spend so much time outside the house, and my mother wants me to get married, to settle down and to have a stable monthly income,” he explains. But at the end of the day, he says “they believe in me and when they see me on television or in the newspapers, they feels proud – they think, hamara larka kuch toh kar raha hai (at least our boy is doing something).” Ranjit’s next plan? To win over his mother by painting her favourite film star, the actress Hema Malini.

Making a mark

The Herald: Cover story, December 2011

Making a mark

Defacement or censorship in international publications

British GQ’s September issue features a portfolio of images by photographer Mario Testino, including portrait of supermodel Gisele Bündchen. You are denied a comparatively innocuous glimpse of the curve of Bündchen’s breast – it has been scribbled over with black marker.

The director of distributor Liberty Books’ magazine division, Jamil Hussain, explains that this process, which the company refers to as “defacing”, is carried out by buyers in the U.S. and U.K.. Liberty, who supplies an estimated 95% of the market in Pakistan, is responsible for the purchase and distribution of 250 titles ranging from GQ, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health and Esquire to Harvard Business Review, Time, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest and The Economist across Pakistan. With magazines such as Maxim, which promises “scantily clad cover models and plenty of revealing photo layouts,” Liberty has what Hussain refers to as a “standing order” from the Pakistani Press Information Department (PID) and Customs to ensure that “nothing sexually explicit and anti-Islamic” makes its way into the local market. International buyers approach publishers such as Conde Nast on behalf of Liberty Books, acquiring magazines that are subsequently checked for images that would not pass the litmus test of the market’s sensibilities – Pakistan or the Middle East, for instance. In warehouses in London and New York, black marker-wielding employees restore the modesty of the scantily clad models.

Link to PDF of full article

Link to full article on Herald site

“We are examining the relationship between faith and society”

The Herald: September 2011

“We are examining the relationship between faith and society”: Venetia Porter, curator of the British Museum’s Hajj exhibit

London’s British Museum announced this August that a new exhibition entitled Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam will open at the museum in January 2012, bringing together historic and contemporary objects – including contemporary art, video, pilgrims’ testimonies, manuscripts, textiles, archaeological items and photography – to explore the experience and importance of the annual pilgrimage. Visitors to the exhibition can also expect sound-cones emitting the labbaik prayer, extracts from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (he went on Hajj in 1964), the Kiswah (the cloth covering the Kaaba) and the bottle that explorer Richard Burton filled with water from the Zamzam well in 1853. The show is scheduled to run from January 26 – April 15, 2012.

Venetia Porter, responsible for the British Museum’s collection of Islamic and modern Middle Eastern art and also chief curator for the exhibition, spoke to the Herald on how this exhibition will focus on the history of Islam and the region, while looking at the material culture surrounding the religion.

Link to PDF of full article

Stories we need to tell

The Friday Times: August 27- September 2, 2010

Stories we need to tell

Sanam Maher takes a tour through the bittersweet memories of Pakistan’s birth

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When Asif Noorani was a young boy in Bombay in 1947, a number of bullies in his school dared him to raise the slogan, “Down with the Union Jack!” The young Asif obliged, chanting the slogan in his school. When asked if he knew what the slogan meant or what the Union Jack was, he recited, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water…” Mr. Noorani related this incident to a packed room of children this Independence Day at the Mohatta Palace Museum at an event organized by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), in collaboration with Radio 1 FM 91 and Kifayat Academy. “I was 5 years old when Pakistan was created,” Mr. Noorani, a well-known author, told the children, drawing them in closer to narrate the story of his two-day journey to Karachi from Bombay by ship. While some of these children (aged 6 to 11 years) may have been held hostage by grandparents with similar tales, none complained or fidgeted as I had been expecting. Radio 1 FM 91’s RJ Rabiah Ahmed had spent the previous hour entertaining them with stories from a number of Suntra magazine issues (a children’s magazine published by Kifayat Academy), jokes, poetry recitals and raucous bursts of ‘Dil, Dil Pakistan’ and other songs.

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a not-for-profit education and heritage institute, organized the event in tandem with their interactive exhibition for children, ‘The Birth of Pakistan’. The event promised to ‘bring stories of sacrifice from 1947 to children’ and ‘to make history come alive for them in a unique way’. Featuring Kahani Corner, ‘a unique and interactive story-telling session’ with Rabiah Ahmed and Meri Kahani Meri Zabani, a highlight from past CAP events such as the bi-annual Shanaakht Festival, whereby members of Pakistan’s Partition Generation recount their memories of Pakistan’s early years.

Held at the Mohatta Palace Museum, ‘The Birth of Pakistan’ explores the struggle for an independent Pakistan and the challenges the fledgling state faced in its early years – while parents can enjoy hundreds of archival photographs, documents and oral histories that are part of the exhibition, their children are invited to hop on board a train to experience a refugee family’s harrowing journey to Pakistan, explore the lives of migrants who sought shelter in tents and even pick up their copy of Pakistan’s first passport from a passport office. The exhibition opened on March 23rd earlier this year and has welcomed at least 9,000 school children from across Karachi. Parents are encouraged to discuss facets of Pakistan’s history and identity through the exhibition with their children – during Kahani Corner as Rabiah entertained the children with stories, she asked parents in the room to read aloud with her to their children and subsequently explore the exhibition. A face-painting booth situated near exhibits about migration and settlements in Pakistan in 1947 was added incentive for the younger or more hesitant children to dive into the exhibition. Children were encouraged to approach the day as ‘Pakistan’s Birthday’ – green and white balloons crowded the ceiling of the room and every child was given party favours, including several issues of Suntra magazine.

Despite the festive atmosphere, the organisers acknowledged that ‘this year 14th August will be celebrated differently in the country – with so many displaced…and others mourning, many will wonder what there is to celebrate.’ Rabiah made sure to address the recent crisis facing Pakistan due to the floods. “Even though you’re young,” she said, “you can affect change.” She reminded children to donate toys or clothes or encourage their parents to donate to victims of the flood. “Remember what its like when you’re fasting?” she said to a sea of somber faces. “Imagine if you didn’t have access to food or clean water even though you were that hungry.”

As Rabiah left the children pondering their role as Pakistanis, Asif Noorani asked, “What does the white line on the Pakistani flag represent?” Mr. Noorani explained to the children that they must always be cognizant of the fact that though the country was made for the Muslims, “it was not only for the Muslims” but for thousands of members of other religious groups as well. Discussing violence that occurred at the time of Partition, he mentioned that “the killing was not one-sided”, a fact that perhaps mystified several children in the room. “Tell the children what Karachi used to be like!” called out one mother. “The first thing I saw in Pakistan,” Mr. Noorani replied, “was the Manora lighthouse in Karachi, when my ship from Bombay arrived in the city.” He fondly described the camels he saw at the port, the call of bus conductors and the web of trams in Karachi.

As far as I can remember, 14th August has been marked by the sputter of gunfire at midnight, sleepy school mornings spent singing the national anthem and hundreds of crescents and stars. But it was a silent night at midnight this 13th August, and Independence Day celebrations were muted by the stories of thousands who have lost their homes and families in one fell swoop. The sadness was eased as I stood with a room full of children, as a bust of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Gandhi arm in arm looked on, as we sang the Pakistani national anthem.

The Birth of Pakistan exhibition continues at The Mohatta Palace Museum until September