close
Advertisement
Can't connect right now! retry

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

add The News to homescreen

tap to bring up your browser menu and select 'Add to homescreen' to pin the The News web app

Got it!

September 27, 2019

Soft power

Opinion

September 27, 2019

The Arts and Humanities play an important role in shaping societies. Generally classified within the ‘softer’ side of knowledge, they are often disregarded as a luxury in emerging economies, fields only to be invested in when science and technology have sufficiently uplifted us to be able to afford the finer things in life.

However, governments in many countries, even those at the lower end of the economic spectrum, have begun to see the power of art beyond its aesthetic value; as a powerful vehicle for social equity and economic uplift, and even as a means of ‘soft diplomacy’ that is often far more effective than traditional diplomacy.

The social value of art, public art in particular, in fostering balanced societies is well- documented and recognized. After all, the Arts and Humanities is what makes us humane, and in their absence we turn into angry and intolerant societies – a phenomenon witnessed almost on a daily basis in our region.

Art in public spaces instils a powerful sense of ownership and belonging among a city’s inhabitants. The cultural expression ‘Lahore Lahore hai’ for example, becomes much more than an empty slogan when backed by investment in arts and culture – it becomes an engine for urban renewal, restoration of the city’s heritage and a re-rooting of its identity, and equally importantly, a powerful tool for economic growth. Cultural tourism generates trillions of dollars in revenues globally, and can transform the economies of cities and countries.

In the US, the ‘creative economy’ alone generates $763 billion, or 4.2 percent of the country’s GDP, more than the agriculture, transportation and warehousing sectors. It provides employment to nearly five million people, and outpaces growth in almost every other sector of the economy. Closer to home, India and Bangladesh have begun to reap the benefits of investing in the creative economy. Home to two of the more established public art events, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the Dhaka Art Summit (both established in 2012), revenues from art sales in these two countries exceeded $223 million in 2017, and continue to grow in double digits.

Elsewhere in the region, the UAE has invested heavily in arts and culture, to the extent of establishing a separate ministry for public and cultural diplomacy. This ministry has helped the UAE redefine its image beyond oil and commerce to a centre for arts, culture and innovation in the Middle East. Art Dubai, a three-day annual event held in March, last year generated 27,500 hotel nights from visiting guests in Dubai, with 51 percent of its attendees coming from outside Dubai and raised millions in art sales.

Biennales are large-scale public art events that are entirely free and open to the public. They are largely supported by city, provincial or national governments as a means of celebrating a city’s cultural heritage and fueling art tourism. In its true essence, a biennale transforms a city into a living art gallery, allowing it to showcase its uniqueness and creativity.

The Venice Biennale, the oldest biennale in the world, was first held in 1895 and remains to date the most visited art event in the world, and a major source of tourism for Italy and the city of Venice. In our region, events like the Sharjah Biennial have done much to further establish the cultural muscle and tourism revenues of the UAE. The Sharjah Biennial, first organized by the Sharjah Art Foundation in 1993, is today one of the most respected biennales in the world.

In Pakistan, although a one-off biennale was organized by the ministries of culture and foreign affairs in 1987 under the military rule of General Ziaul Haq, the space for the arts in the public domain has since this period largely ceded to extremist forces. Cities like Lahore and Karachi, once international centres for arts and culture, have lost out to other competing cities in the region.

In more recent years, biennales in Pakistan have been private-sector efforts held with the support of provincial governments, thus representing a renewed effort by these cities to reclaim their own narratives. In Lahore alone, the inaugural Lahore Biennale (LB 01), held in March last year, attracted an unprecedented 1.5 million visitors in just a fortnight. That is no wonder as Lahore is home to many prominent living artists, cultural practitioners, music gharanas and art institutions, as well as the considerable legacies of literary and artistic heavyweights.

The second edition of LB 02 is planned for early 2020, and is being curated by Sheikha Hoor-al Qasimi, the driving force behind the Sharjah Biennial. Lahore this time plans to play host to over three million visitors, including art tourists, critics and museum curators over a 5-week period. For the city that was once the cultural capital of the Mughal Empire, efforts like the biennale are not just a fitting tribute to its past, but a powerful engine for the city’s future growth.

The writer heads Ferozsons Laboratories Limited.