‘A Refuge for Free Thinkers’: Pakistani Creatives Mourn Loss of Progressive Art Space | Human rights

reanial Shah turned to Sabeen Mahmud for help with his first photo exhibition when all other organizations refused to show his work. Shah’s photographs cover political and cultural issues, such as local elections and women’s rights. Some refused to work with him for political reasons, while others did not respond at all.

After meeting at the Mahmud community space, T2F, in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, she agreed to host her exhibition. But Mahmud, a 40-year-old human rights activist who oversaw a progressive art program at T2F, was unable to see Shah’s first exhibition. She was murdered a few months after they met.

“If it hadn’t been for T2F, I wouldn’t have been sure I could be a photographer and teach photography,” Shah said. “The event introduced me to photographers, artists and fans. The space was for everyone. I also conducted my first workshop there.

A fresco by Sabeen Mahmud in front of T2F. Urdu reads: ‘You are my hero.’ Photography: Shah Meer

The pioneering community venue, originally known as The Second Floor from its location in an office building, was founded in 2007 by Mahmud. But now T2F’s board has decided to shut it down, in a move that has been called “more than a tragedy”.

Mahmud wrote in Innovations magazine when it opened: “I wondered if I could create a tiny, postmodern hippie outpost, a safe haven for artists, musicians, writers, poets, activists and thinkers, basically anyone. who wanted to escape the city’s relentless tyranny for a little while.

There is hardly anything like it in Karachi. It’s more than a colorful cafe and bookstore, whose walls are often lined with paintings or photographs. Often filled with artists, activists and writers, it became a haven for free thinkers, just as Mahmud hoped, and survived after his assassination.

Shakil Jafri, Director of T2F, said: “Due to the pandemic, T2F has not been able to generate income to cover its expenses, so we have decided to suspend its services. The board of directors will decide on the future of T2F in a few months.

Marvi Mazhar, who ran T2F after Mahmud’s murder, told The Guardian: “Suspending T2F’s services is more than a tragedy. Our society is already damaged and filled with extremism and intolerance. In these difficult times, we need such spaces and alternatives more than ever. “

On the evening of April 24, 2015, after hosting a lecture on Balochistan, the troubled southwestern province of Pakistan, Mahmud was on her way home when she was shot and killed by two men. Her mother, whom she was preparing to drive home, was also shot but survived. Mahmud’s friends told The Guardian she had received death threats for holding talks on various issues, including the latest, which are being censored elsewhere in Pakistan. Two men, Saad Aziz and Aliur Rehman, were convicted of his murder and sentenced to death. Authorities have linked the men to Islamist terrorism, although many of Mahmud’s friends believe the country’s military “deep state” is responsible.

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, activist and guest writer as guest speaker for the Balochistan event, said: “Whatever the reasons for the closures, without spaces like T2F, the speechless, the unheard and the marginalized will be poorer and deprived of a space to record their woes and dissent.

Growing restrictions on freedom of expression, growing attacks on journalists and the closure of public and community spaces have given rise to the term “hybrid regime” in Pakistan, to capture the democratic setback that is occurring in the country.

In 2019, an exhibition at the Karachi Biennale by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman titled The Killing Fields of Karachi, which dealt with the extrajudicial deaths of 444 people at the hands of police, was raided by authorities and forced to close.

Jibran Nasir, also a friend of Mahmud’s, criticized security agencies for shutting down the exhibit and said: “We see censorship and restriction of free speech all over Pakistan. I don’t know if this regime is worse than that of the former dictator Zia, who brought Islamization and extremism to the country. But I know the current regime is doing its best to shut down even online spaces after shutting down most public and community spaces. “

Sheema Kermani, who works in the performing arts and is the founder of Tehrik-e-Niswan – or women’s movement – said there were few community spaces for artists and that in recent years the decline of the many places had accelerated. Kermani said: “At the moment, I rarely see space.”

Sabeen Mahmud's sandals lie on the floor of the car after she was shot.
Sabeen Mahmud’s sandals lie on the floor of the car after she was shot. Photograph: Shakil Adil / AP

The PIA Arts Academy was established in 1966 by Pakistan International Airlines and later became the National Performing Arts Group. She said: “This beautiful space was recently closed. We are wasting all our space.

While public spaces in Pakistan are close to artists and activists, in their place a culture of censorship and accusations of blasphemy grows.

Pakistani cinema Zindagi Tamasha, or Circus of Life, has been tipped for an Oscar nomination, but most Pakistanis can’t see it. He was accused of having blasphemous content, but the film was cleared by the censorship committee and by a group of senators. However, it was not screened after Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist political party, staged protests against the film and the director, Sarmad Khoosat, was harassed by death threats.

In March, Sindhi writer Amar Jaleel was accused of blasphemy and harassed on social media by threats of violence for a literary festival that read a short story about the plight of political dissidents.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has been criticized for defending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to gain support from the religious right ahead of his election in 2018, with activists and writers claiming Khan was making Pakistan a more conservative and intolerant place and restricted freedom of expression. and the media.

Author Fatima Bhutto, of the Bhutto political dynasty, said: “What is sad is that this is a time when the country should support its youth, encourage and condescend the arts and use the soft power to present a new face of Pakistan. in the world. It is a disastrous miscalculation on the part of Imran Khan’s government to fight against the arts.

Corina C. Butler

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