An exhibition on the creative industries of Pakistan has opened at the British Council’s headquarters in London. The exhibition brings together traditional artisanal craft products from five lesser known cities in Pakistan – Multan, Peshawar, Gilgit, Hyderabad and Quetta – and explores the cultural heritage of their craft industries.
The exhibition has come out of a British Council research study which celebrates the rich historical legacies of these cities, but also highlights that many of their traditional, mostly cottage, arts and crafts industries – which provide livelihoods to some of Pakistan’s poorer communities – are at risk. The report goes onto make various recommendations on how best to support the creative sector, and you can read it in its entirety here.
As for the exhibition, as you step off London’s Trafalgar Square and enter the courtyard of the British Council, you’re greeted with strikingly illuminated, larger than life photographs of Pakistani craftsmen and women displaying their works.
Once in, there are neatly divided sections, on for each of the cities. Attending as part of the opening launch, I was lucky to be taken around by a member of the British Council team. Starting with the section on Quetta, the capital of the province of Baluchistan, he explained how the British Council Pakistan team had visited the city, and met with and photographed craftsmen at work. The exhibition features stunning examples of vibrant Baluchi embroidered mirror work wall hangings and a traditional Baluchi wool carpet.
Our next stop was Hyderabad – located north of Karachi in the province of Sindh, and the fourth largest city in Pakistan. Hyderabad has a strong arts and crafts industry, which the British Council’s research assessed to be strongest of the five in terms of overall cultural production. I loved seeing a mound of candy-coloured glass bangles that are ubiquitous on the wrists of women and girls at Eid and wedding celebrations. Almost all of Pakistan’s bangles are made in Hyderabad, mostly by women.
The significant section on Gilgit-Hunza features photography of famous landmarks, including the Hunza valley’s wondrous Baltit Fort. There are handmade sitars made from locally sourced mulberry wood and jali (wooden screen), many sourced and borrowed from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
And then Multan – otherwise known as the City of Saints, and also the birthplace of renowned Sufi Punjabi poet Baba Farid. The report evokes a sense of a city “blanketed with bazaars, mosques, shrines, and ornate tombs”. The exhibition draws attention to the city’s beautiful blue and white clay pottery.
Finally – the ancient city of Peshawar – which dates from at least 539 BC making it one of South Asia’s, and Pakistan’s oldest city. Its artistic community’s struggle with ongoing militancy and religious conservatism is no secret. Still its thriving underground music scene has produced various rock, folk and pop music groups, including the band Khumariyaan who Funoon will be presenting at this year’s Alchemy Festival (find out more here). The exhibition features Peshawar’s ornate copper metalwork, displayed alongside the humble (and famously appropriated) leather Peshwari chappal.
Speaking at the opening, Kamran Lashari, Director General of the Lahore Walled City Project said “Pakistan has so much to offer to the world. It’s undoubtedly amongst the top ten most beautiful countries of this world, but it lacks marketing and packaging expertise. We need to improve the livelihood of local artisans by enhancing their skills and arranging a network of support systems which can make their traditional skills sustainable.’’
There was also much talk at the opening about the opportunities Pakistan’s arts and crafts provide to improve the country’s image. Maybe that’s true, although I do think it rather overstates the capacity of the arts to defy the international media and community’s quite active insistence on presenting and understanding the country in a particular way.
What Creative Cities does certainly do is remind how much of everyday Pakistani culture – which we even in the diaspora take for granted – is rooted in centuries of tradition, and comes from the labour of generations of artisans. Also that Pakistan’s creativity doesn’t begin and end with Karachi and Lahore – there is artistry, mastery and beauty beyond along paths less travelled.
Special thanks to Hassan ‘Moyo’ Mohyeddin who performed his beautiful tabla pieces at the opening.
When: Wednesday 5 April – Saturday 27 May 2017
Where: British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN
More info: British Council Creative Cities exhibition
By Farida Mohamedali.
Posted on 4 May 2017
Photos courtesy of the British Council