Jamming in Karachi

International Artist Residency

October 26 – December 6, 2019

with Carolijn Terwindt, Berlin

“Jamming in Karachi”

A reflection on the politics of joy in a world dominated by the politics of experts

Carolijn Terwindt

I always thought art was useless. Now I think that is the whole point of it…

My Vasl residency has taken me to places of human encounter and the shared joy of feeling music, ranging from listening to the musicians during a Qavali, dancing with women at a shrine in Sehwan, playing violin on the streets in Lyari and during tea in a home in Orangi Town, being part of a band during a church service in Christian Town, improvising during a Rag performance at the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), a jazz jam session in a Clifton café, and teaching NAPA students how to play violin. These musical encounters were complemented by explorations with color and the expression of emotions through simple paintings as well as a writing project capturing my experiences in Pakistan in a daily whimsical instruction á la Grapefruit from Yoko Ono.

I moved into the Vasl artist residency after quitting my job as a human rights lawyer. Even though I had wanted to be an expert and sought the influence that comes with it to contribute to a better world, the price of maneuvering in the world of experts was a sense of loss of humanity. My values of generosity, trust, sharing and humbleness suffered in the face of realism, efficiency, self-congratulation and competitiveness. In two distinct artistic explorations I have sought to regain my humanity.

Behind the Expert’s Veil, Beyond Victimhood

I had visited Karachi six times between 2014 and 2019 to meet with the Baldia families who had been injured or lost their children or spouses in a devastating factory fire on 11 September 2012. During those years, together with my colleagues, I assisted the families and their association to bring a lawsuit in Europe against the clothing company that sourced from the factory. The legal battle contributed to negotiations and the payment of pensions to the injured and the families of the deceased. Always short and professional, the meetings that we had – necessarily mediated through translations – were characterized by discussing strategy, legal advice and obtaining affidavits. In their testimonies, victimized families would share their vulnerability with us. The gaze was directed from me and my colleagues – and behind us the judges and European media – towards the affected families.

My connection to the people and the case was professional and voluntary (indeed, I was replaceable), while the families’ involvement was highly personal and involuntary. As is often the case in such international solidarity relationships, this came on top of basic differences such as that I am white, upper class, highly educated, from the Global North, working in a high-status position, whereas the Baldia families belong to a working class community with limited educational opportunities. Of course, already during the past six years, as we got to know each other and despite the brevity of the visits and the language barrier, connections were made thatwent beyond the initial roles (such as “injured worker” and “lawyer”) in which each started out on this journey of our transnational solidarity relationship.

During my Vasl residency, I explored how these relationship patterns can be further transformed as roles change and I visited the families in their homes in Orangi Town. In our meetings over lunch and tea, their victimhood was not the central reason for our encounter and I invited the families to move their gaze towards me, the western – former  professional. In particular, by sharing my violin music and opening myself up to their candid questions about my private life and decision to take a break, I explored what happens when vulnerability is shifted. A photo project documents the encounters in these meetings. The women from Orangi Town who were present during these meetings took and selected the pictures and the captions they have chosen highlight the lens through which they view our relationship.

Art as Play: Playing Paint, Violin, and Words

My second exploration is concerned with art as play and self-expression and consists of a number of pieces including performance, paint, music and writing. In a city rife with poverty and violence, this concern with the joy of play may seem weirdly un-political, particularly given my prior concern with exploitation and injustice. There may be political relevance to claiming the right to enjoy in the face of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism, especially when talking about a woman’s right to enjoy things like a cigarette, sex, or even an XTC trip. My explorations during the Vasl residency, though, speak about a more fundamental challenge to claim our right to joy in the face of insecurity about our own worthiness to enjoy without having to earn our right to live. My work as a human rights lawyer consisted of what John Stuart Mill would call “activities of ameliorative value.” He contrasts these to activities of existential value which are only done for their own sake. After a personal crisis, I realized that a life too heavy on ameliorative and too low on existential value can feel empty. The Vasl residency allowed me to spend time on music, painting and writing for the pure pleasure of the brush stroke, the passion for tunes and jamming, the joy of the jokes and rhythm of words. Being a beginner in painting was particularly liberating as I was free from the expectations and standards that come with expert knowledge. If the act of painting is creating a painting (the result), I was not even painting. I was merely playing with colors, seeking my ow sense of beauty and enjoying myself, leading to the piece “A painting a day keeps the psychiatrist away.”

I am not painting…

I am

… playing paint

… dancing paint

… crying paint

… laughing paint

Riding on the road of music to the heart of Karachi, I jammed in various constellations with inspiringly dedicated NAPA students. Particularly enriching for me was the delving into the world of South-Asian classical music with the pentatonic scale and different approach to melodies as expressed, for example, in Ragas. Jamming is like reaching out a hand, and then a handshake. It celebrates the now and the here and the – if only temporary – relationship between the musicians. Jamming together means recognizing the humanity, passion and talents in the other person. A workshop conducted by a NAPA student and me titled “Seen Music. Music Talks” allowed a swift deepening of conversation as participants shared their feelings evoked by the music and their imagined landscapes while listening. As one of the workshop participants said, “Music is attachment of the soul.” A series of audio recordings capture the joy of joint improvisation and rehearsal of songs.

A performance piece revived my interest in violin improvisation in city streets. In particular, a trip to Paris in the late 1990s in which I loved to perform and touch people with my music in Montmartre and the Centre Pompidou prompted me to wonder how Karachiites and their lively street culture and Chaiwallas across the city would respond to a spontaneous – female, white – street musician. A video documents these encounters as the public spaces were briefly transformed by a musical intervention calling attention to a shared experience, and – possibly – communal joy.

My playful written instructions in the special edition publication “My Jackfruit,” while ostensibly documenting travel through Karachi and Pakistan, as much reveal a journey inside, which always is a deeply human journey, highlighting the universality of themes, as wherever you go, you take yourself with you.

Regaining, Expressing and Sharing Humanity

The two artistic explorations share a concern with vulnerability, self expression and joy as a gateway towards deepening human connections. I decided to explore the arts in order to find a new voice as I have so much to say that cannot be expressed in either academic writing or the language of the law. While I am highly sensitive, being professional in my previous academic and lawyering life often meant managing away my feelings in order to function. During my Vasl residency I could be holistically un-professional in a positive sense and fully present to my feelings in my conversations with the women in Orangi Town, during my rooftop painting and interactive and performative violin jamming. Against the strategic instrumentalization often characteristic of political and legal activism, the politics of joy reclaims the existential value of “frivolous activities” like painting and music. Testimony of the way in which receiving and giving in our relationship was transformed, a day after the meeting in Orangi Town one of the women wrote to tell me “Life is like ice. It needs to be enjoyed before it melts.”