World’s tallest mural is an ode to Karachi’s marine life and mangroves

The Italian muralist, Giuseppe Percivati, who has painted the highest mural in the world in Karachi, talks to Zofeen T. Ebrahim, about his inspiration, work, and engagement with Pakistan
<p>The Rising Blue mural [image by: Waleed Khan / I Am Karachi]</p>

The Rising Blue mural [image by: Waleed Khan / I Am Karachi]

Artist, author and educator, Rumana Hussain says Karachi’s 287 feet (87 meter) tall mural, ‘Rising Blue’ depicts the city’s unique mangroves, striking coastline and alludes to the rising ocean.

The “world’s tallest mural” has been painted at Centrepoint, a building located on Shaheed-e-Millat Expressway, by 32-year old Giuseppe Percivati. He is popularly known as Pepe Gaka — a celebrated Italian muralist who completed it in just nine days this January. “It is an awakening of the conscience to climate change,” Hussain, the founding executive member of I Am Karachi, tells thethirdpole.net.

Hussain shared how, during casual conversations, she realised how few of Karachi’s residents have actually visited its mangrove swamps. Recently, she recalled that during a gallery show about the mangroves, where the photographer and architect Tariq Qaiser was walking the audience through the exhibit with a talk, “it seemed like 90% of the people present there had never visited the mangroves.”

“It is an awakening of the conscience to climate change.”
Rumana Hussain

She added, “It is a pity that many people living in Karachi have never seen the mangrove forests. Even though Karachi has very little green cover, it does have lush mangrove forests on its 70-kilometre long coastline stretching from Cape Monze in the west to Port Qasim in the east. These mangrove forests are in danger as they are being chopped away for firewood and other uses.”

The mural was created in just 9 days in January [image courtesy: I Am Karachi]

Neglect, deforestation and a lack of freshwater have contributed to the degradation of these shrubs and trees situated along Sindh’s coastal line. Pakistan has approximately 600,000 hectares of mangrove cover with four different species, a majority of which are found in the Indus delta. The Sindh government has been awarded the Guinness World Records in the years 2009, 2013 and 2018 for planting the largest number of mangroves sapling in a day.

According to Rafi ul Haq, an ecologist and natural resource management expert, mangroves provide a “biological protection” for a maritime city like Karachi. “They play a pivotal role in protecting the city from storms and also contribute to livelihoods — especially in the fisheries sector — by playing a role as fish nursery. They are high carbon-sequestering agents.”

Gaka’s mural

Describing the mural, Hussain said that it does not cover the entire facade of the building, but is instead painted vertically on the right side of the wall. ‘Rising Blue’ is dominated by shades of blue which depict the water and coastline extending from Karachi in the south and moving up to the Indian coast. The artist has made a few mangrove leaves at the bottom to symbolise the mangrove forests that exist in Karachi, and placed these in a circle and half-circles to accentuate their importance. The land is painted in ochre and a large single bird — a kite — is shown in flight and commands the gaze upwards, its shadow creating an interesting three-dimensional effect. At the top, the mural has a large red circle that could either be the sun or the moon.

Giuseppe Percivati at NED campus [image by: Zofeen T. Ebrahim]

Gaka, the artist brought on board by the Italian Consulate which is collaborating on this venture, is known in many countries for his colourful street murals. An Italian street artist based in the U.S. and the Philippines, Gaka comes from a family of artists — his uncle and grandfather were painters, and father and sister musicians. His work can be seen in Italy, the UK, Japan, Pakistan, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

“I can’t call myself a climate activist,” he said, possibly because the term means little to him.

“There is a lot of hypocrisy attached to climate change activism in rich countries, where they expect poorer countries to make changes like giving up use of fossil fuels without a plan for how it is going to affect their livelihood. Do they want them to go back to life as it was 300 years ago? The greater part of people that call themselves climate activists don’t renounce their cars, don’t give up going on holiday, fly all over the world, make constant use of disposable technology, and fully live a consumeristic existence,” he says.

He said that it was “just not realistic” to say that Africa or South America, as whole continents, or countries like China, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia should stop using fossil fuel within five to ten years. “In Sweden, it may be achievable. I think they should start focusing more on finding a doable solution, rather than just finger pointing,” he added.

With the mural, Gaka simply wants “to give the onlooker pleasure just by looking at it through the use of colours”.

Interestingly, despite the theme being climate change, the colour green is missing. The three colours he has used are different tones of blue, yellow and red. “Green is a tricky colour, it is hard on the eye and many colours do not get along well with green,” said Gaka.

Hussain explained that, “Artists don’t see the world and colours as others do; and that’s the beauty of it — conveying the message without being too literal.”

The pony-tailed artist with incredibly clean fingernails describes his work as “simple and complicated with a lot of detail, all at the same time,”

And that is what draws Hussain to it. “I also love the bird and its shadow, as it gives so much depth to the painting,” she added.

The logistics of doing the painting presented a set of challenges. “Apart from the very tight time schedule, height was a challenge,” Gaka says. “I would be up on the cradle from 7 in the morning and be there, with a few short ten minutes breaks, until the daylight stopped me from working,” he said.

The large mural presented specific challenges [image courtesy: I Am Karachi]

But the bigger challenge was “getting the right idea” based on the brief.

“They asked me to focus on mangroves, the coastline, the contamination of sea and preservation of wildlife. After researching the topic, and watching some documentaries on the mangrove forest in Sindh, slowly the idea started to take form. I did a lot of sketches but somehow nothing fit well for the building in that area.”

It was only after many months of feverish sketching that he was finally satisfied and shared it with his sponsors, the Consulate General of Italy, TPL Corp and Berger Paints. Prior to that, he had visited Karachi in July 2019 to search for the right location.

The highest mural Gaka has ever painted before is 50 feet, which was in the US. With over two dozen big murals under his belt, his work is displayed not just in Italy but the UK, the US, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Pakistan.

Why a foreigner?

Many in the city have wondered why a muralist from Italy (or any foreign artist for that matter) was invited to do the job when there is no dearth of artists here. “We have absolutely amazing Pakistani artists,” agrees Hussain, and clarified, “But none who with any past experience of such a huge mural which had to be executed in a short time.”

Gaka first visited Pakistan in 2009 when he travelled alone from Quetta to Lahore. “There is a beauty in this country that draws me back to it,” he said, despite the “confusion, the breaking of traffic laws and the short-cuts people like to take to get work done”. He also finds beauty in the chaos of Karachi, “a city that never sleeps”.

Percivati’s half-finished painting of Karachi’s Metropole Hotel roundabout [image by: Zofeen T. Ebrahim]

But he admits with candour that coming from a small village in the Italian mountains, to live permanently in Karachi, would not be so easy.

For the mural he has not charged any fee but the travel cost and stay has been borne by the organiser and sponsors. “I’m happy to give my time and my work to this country; I hope to inspire young Pakistani artists this way,” he said. He is confident the painting will stand the test of time and weather. “It should stay good for the next 15 to 20 years. After that time, the colours may start to lose their vibrancy, but that can easily be fixed by applying a new layer of colours. It can be re-touched in 20 years or so if needed. The good thing is the surface is flat and not facing south so not much dust or sun will get to it and wind is not an issue either,” he says.