Printing across borders: the Aar-Paar Project.

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Printing across borders: the Aar-Paar Project.


Sambrani, Chaitanya.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Australia | India

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Printing across borders: the Aar-Paar Project

Printing across borders: the Aar-Paar Project.
by Chaitanya Sambrani


In this presentation, I want to introduce the work of a group of young artists who have made use of the potentials of print-media in the pursuit of a public project based on exchange between Karachi and Bombay, Pakistan and India.

The Aar-Paar project is a continuing series of artist-initiated activities focused on these two cities, coordinated by two young women artists, Shilpa Gupta in Bombay and Huma Mulji in Karachi. Once neighbouring port cities on the Arabian Sea with constant flows of money, merchandise, people and ideas, Karachi and Bombay now stare at each other in fear and revulsion across a blood stained border. In the current situation born of mutual isolation, ignorance and the history of more than half a century of troubles, the two cities know each other only by proxy, or through the memories of those elders who migrated from one to the other place during the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Karachi and Bombay occupy for each other the space of an absent twin, of an imaginary of vaguely remembered alter ego, the missing half of each other.

The first iteration of the project took place in the year 2000, and involved participating artists from both cities contributing on object each. These objects were then placed in public and semi-public places in the opposite city. They were in a sense, still unique art objects whose locations had been dispersed. Once, when they were removed from the pristine, elitist art space of the gallery, and then once more when they were inserted into the fabric of a strange yet strangely familiar city. The artists themselves did not travel; such travel between India and Pakistan still remains a dream for many of us, despite the recent thaw in relations and despite the bonhomie generated on both sides by the recent cricket tour. But back to the objects: they were unique, located (and therefore limited in their audience); they were incidental little surprises that the unintending viewer may have found lurking amongst displays in a shop window, camouflaged amongst merchandise in a cigarette-and-newspaper kiosk.

The project saw its second edition in 2002, soon after the war in Kargil, and the genocidal violence directed against the Muslim minority in Gujarat. This time, the organisers decided to create a less incidental, more directed intervention within the two cities. Artists from both countries were invited over email to contribute digitally-created artwork, or scans of photographic or graphic work. The condition was only that the work should be able to travel over the internet. Works from Bombay were emailed to Karachi and vice versa, and mass-produced in the destination city using cheap offset printing in black and white, or in one colour. What resulted was a more pervasive presence of visual material from across the border in each city. The prints were plastered on walls along street-sides in the manner of political posters and film hoardings. They were inserted within newspapers and distributed into households in the fashion of advertising leaflets. They were handed out as folded sheets to passers-by at train stations, bus shelters, shopping areas.

Art in our circumstances increasingly finds itself at the frontline in a reactive economy. The kind of cross-over between art and activism represented by the Open Circle and Aar-Paar projects constructs a new role for art practice as social praxis, a new identity for the artist as guerrilla. Apart from its somewhat more traditional functions as witness and mobiliser of public opinion, the work of art also features in this environment as agent provocateur, as subterfuge against political structures, as a subversive presence amongst a visual culture increasingly geared towards conformity. Art becomes the irruption of the unruly impulse, a local action that is targeted and small scale. Not pretending to make grandiose statements that have overarching implications for the world at large, these projects nevertheless manage to speak to a wider audience. Also, importantly, they harness the un-regulated sector of a common economy, slipping beneath the radar of state surveillance, or market control.

The chosen sites for these projects also deserve some attention. These are the spaces at the margin of the street in a third world megalopolis like Bombay. This is where the non-existent footpath meets the wall marking the end of public space and the beginning of authorised or unauthorised construction. The margin is characterised by an abundance of dirt, dust and refuse, with the odd suffering weed eking out an existence, dumped stale food and household garbage that crows, dogs and cows squabble over. A space occupied by all kinds of itinerants, animals as well as humans. A space where peddlers of aphrodisiacs and lighter fluid, educational charts and posters of movie idols, national heroes and scantily clad nubile nymphs from some imagined utopia (that this place once was!), mingle with sellers of food and drink, vegetables and meat, traditional medicine, fortune tellers, toys…the list is interminable. This is also the space where the wretched gather, making up rough shelters out of old blankets, crates, corrugated iron and cardboard. To pitch art practice into spaces such as these takes a lot of guts. It also necessitates taking off some of our familiar masks, our veneer gained at art school and in galleries, and engaging in frank conversation with the passer-by, the vendor of newspapers and the purveyor of small goods.

It is vital that we remember the nature of the street in such contexts: the street is not only a conduit for the smooth flow of people, machinery and materials. The street is all this, and yet much more. It is a densely fabricated structure of signs, a space of teeming populations, or unruly non-linear exchange, a place with multiple foci and sensory overload. The street is also the location of claims. This is where the establishment as well as those disenfranchised by the establishment make claim and counter-claim expressed through visual culture, claims to belonging, to a share in the immense wealth of the city.Political claims upon space are articulated here in the form of banners and hoardings declaring the ethnic, religious or electoral affiliations of residents. There are markers of identity and of identification through graffiti and religious imagery. Here is a no-man’s land made up in equal parts of defilement and exaltation, where walls carry religious images in a vain effort to prevent their use as public urinals.

Through projects executed by small-scale, poorly funded artists’ collectives such as Aar Paar, we have the possibility of reinventing the street-scape as art-scape. In that very process, these projects reinvent the meaning both of the public space, and of contemporary art practice.

© Chaitanya Sambrani, 2004.
Paper presented at The Fifth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2004.