In the streets of Kashmir

A graffiti in Srinagar's downtown area. Photograph by David Laumann
A graffiti in Srinagar's downtown area. Photograph by David Laumann
A graffiti in Srinagar’s downtown area. Photograph by David Laumann

The summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Srinagar, early this year had got its first art gallery. Worthy of its name, Gallerie One, unlatched its door to the public on 12 January 2015, creating a space where art and culture could have existed and flourished. But in a place where the unstable political atmosphere dictates the options, nothing is ever sure to last.

Around a month after the Gallerie One was opened, on 23 February, it was shutdown by the government. Previously, the government had given the go ahead for its opening, through providing funds and location. The gallery was run by Kashmir Art Quest – an art organization working to revive the art scene in the region, and its management accused the government’s tourism department of vandalizing the art works. The officials denied that and claimed that the gallery space was given for only two months to organize an exhibition. In reaction to the closure of the gallery, the artist community mobilized to show that art is more than ever wanted in the Valley.

The government should have promoted such an initiative like any other initiatives that attract attention to Kashmir’s history and culture. The newly opened gallery could have assisted the preservation of the threatened Kashmiri cultural identity as well as securing a physical space where anyone would have been able to exercise his/her creativity and develop an artistic awareness. However, in conflict zones, art and culture are part of the many casualties.

From 1947 to this day, the appropriation of Kashmir by India, Pakistan and China drastically influences the identity of the inhabitants of the Valley. It has now been almost thirty years that the armed resistance has erupted against the occupation. As a result, a few places have emerged or even remained to help maintain the uniqueness of the Kashmiri identity. Whether we talk about the nearly abandoned fine art college, the the army-occupied cinemas and stadiums, and a museum, one can understand the difficulty for youngsters of the Valley to occupy and cultivate their minds.

Before the tragic destiny of the gallery, there was, and still is, another place where art could find shelter, in one of its roughest forms. The streets of Srinagar are sprinkled and dotted with graffiti, highly loaded with political discourse. From “Go India Go” or “Go Pakistan,” to “Save Gaza” along with “Welcome Taliban” and of course “Free Kashmir.”

Graffiti in Kashmir are a blunt manner to pass on a message visible to all, without engaging with physical violence, even if such activities are not risk-free. Indeed, brutal repercussions can be expected if a youngster encounters one of the 500, 000 Indian soldiers permanently deployed in the region while doing it. However, this is not discouraging enough as graffiti are sprouting all around Srinagar, as I saw. These are all highly politically connoted and it makes a lot of sense when one knows that such opinions rarely have the possibility to be voiced through any mainstream institutions in Kashmir.

Having grown up in the suburbs of Paris, I have always been exposed to what is nowadays called ‘street art’. Therefore, I was sensible to the pieces visible in the streets of Kashmir’s summer capital. I tried to understand why were they blunt and straight to the point. In Paris, and its suburbs, some street art pieces also demonstrate explicit political claims but it is not the case for all.

For a great majority, they are ‘tags’. In other words, a personal signature, crew names, or district associated with the artists. By illegally inserting them on walls, trains or anywhere in the city, artists are making their names visible to those that would usually simply ignore or avoid them. In the history of early graffiti since New York, such pieces are symptomatic for marginalized minorities, socially ignored by the mainstream society, reminding and highlighting its defectiveness. Therefore, by vandalizing public spaces, street artists wish to express the individual’s societal deceptions littering the lives of their own marginalized groups.

By writing their names on walls and making themselves visible, they voice their weariness and channel their anger for being abandoned by institutions which should be contributing to better their lives.

In some European countries where there is now economical unrest affecting all, one can mostly observe an increase in politicized graffiti, affiliated with Anarchist, Communist, and also Neo-Nazi groups as is the case in Spain, Italy or Greece.

Due to the unmissable impact of the conflict in daily life, Kashmir subscribes to this second group. There is a collective claim for freedom and emancipation from Indian and Pakistani domination. This is why there are no tags in the streets of Srinagar, but instead, only highly explicit politicized graffiti. The roughness of the Kashmir’s daily life does not push graffiti artists toward individual claims. It drives them towards voicing the ignored and oppressed political claims of ‘Azadi’ (means freedom in Kashmiri).

One could have hoped that the recent opening of Gallerie One would have remedied to that by bringing new creative perspectives to young aspiring artists, and that maybe one day, such graffiti pieces will cover the walls of Srinagar. This dream is now on hold. In the Valley, the struggle for creativity continues. If not in Gallerie One, then even more so in the streets.

Raphael Godechot is a writer at The Kashmir Walla, based in London.

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