A Pakhtun Memory

Artist: Tentative Collective
Shirin Jinnah Colony/Sikanderabad, Karachi, Pakistan
Year of completion: 2011

Researcher: Gregory Door

In December of 2011, artists associated with the Tentative Collective recruited musicians to perform—illegally—in a public square near a squatters’ colony in Karachi City, Pakistan. They played a song that derived from Pakhtun, the rural home-place from which many of the local squatters had migrated. The flash event turned into a spontaneous, joyful gathering that included impromptu dance performances by squatters. Members of the local police force, after initially trying to break up the illegal gathering, gave the meeting their tacit approval.

Like most of the world, Pakistan is experiencing a population migration from rural to urban areas. In particular, Pakhtun migrants make up one of the largest communities in Karachi, where they serve in the domestic and physical labor force. The cultural disruption resulting from this migration is reflected in cell phone videos of village life that are passed from one person to the next as mementos of the countryside left behind. One such video, depicting Pakhtun villagers performing a folk song and dance, served as the inspiration for this public intervention by artists Rasheed Khan, Mohammad Saddique Khan, and Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri, working in collaboration as the Tentative Collective.

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The music/dance intervention in public space, which is captured on video (http://vimeo.com/35740223), had a profound impact on those gathered. Young squatters came and joined the performance, contributing traditional dance, while numerous people gathered to share the experience. The spontaneous event was planned without official permission, and initially set up a conflict between the artists and squatter/spectators and local authorities. Police at first tell the crowd to cease. Participants insist that the gathering is just for fun. One man complained that Pakistan had become a country “where even displays of happiness are forbidden.” At this, the event takes a turn, with the police agreeing with the comment and allowing the performance to continue.

Interventions such as this one may be fleeting in duration, but their lasting impact can be profound. In the case of Karachi, where peaceable assemblies, even to share laughter or music, are prohibited, simply orchestrating such a gathering carries a risk. The Tentative Collective briefly shifted the power dynamics in favor of the displaced migrant workers of Pakhtun, who face the cultural dislocation and political disenfranchisement common among economic refugees. By enacting such a shift, however briefly, the collective opens the possibility of a deeper and more permanent shift.

From an aesthetic/artistic standpoint, the project represents a fascinating set of overlapping cultural norms and changes—and calls into question numerous assumptions. For instance, smart phones are frequently disdained as an enemy of “real” culture; yet in the case of Pakhtun migrants, they enable not only the sharing of traditional folk dances, but their preservation and perpetuation. In preserving the songs, the Tentative Collective, in turn, helps perpetuate traditional culture in the face of crushing population shifts.

The film of the event won the juror’s prize award at the Mohawk Hudson Regional Exhibition, University Art Museum, UAlbany, 2012 and was selected for screening at the Syracuse International Film Festival of 2012.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency