Pakistan can trace its cultural history back throughout the millennia – from the Indus Civilisation of 8000BC through the Gandhara, Sikh and British periods right up to our Independence and beyond. We are a country blessed with breath-taking natural beauty, a rich, vibrant culture and a warm, welcoming people.

Unfortunately, ask somebody what comes to mind when they think of Pakistan — and more often than not, apart from cricket you’ll hear Taliban, terrorism, corruption and a slew of other such words, none of them particularly flattering.

In 2007, CNN published an article entitled ‘Branding Pakistan: In Need of an Extreme Makeover?’ This article highlighted Pakistan in the news for all the wrong reasons — violent demonstrations, declarations of a state of emergency, troops on the street, terror training camps, violence against women, religious division and insurgency flare-ups, the list goes on. It is now 2012 and Pakistan is still in the news, and for all the wrong reasons; a Karachi suicide bombing, Malala Yusufzai’s shooting ordered by the Taliban, and an acid attack by parents on a daughter who looked at a boy. Then there was the Christian pastor who was jailed for blaspheming and a Lahore school attacked by a mob.

While they are not necessarily inaccurate, they do not do paint a complete picture of the country — so why is it, then, that this negative perception of Pakistan has come to dominate any positive ones? And more importantly, what can we do to change this? How can we, as a country, work on our public relations as it were, and start to change stubborn and deep-ingrained (and often pre-determined) negative perceptions of Pakistan?

For those who have not visited Pakistan and experienced the unparalleled hospitality and warmth of its people, perceptions are largely fuelled by negative stories in the press. This has a catastrophic effect on tourism, trade, direct foreign investment, revenue streams and infrastructure investment. Potential tourists are too scared to step foot in Pakistan and spend much-needed tourist dollars, while investors who have seen investment potential (ie textiles, natural resources) consider the country high risk.

Meanwhile, Pakistani arts and cultural exports are struggling to stand on the world stage with an equal footing to their contemporaries. There is currently no cohesive government-backed strategy to support them on a large-scale. Out of 118 countries, this year’s FutureBrand Index, based on global perceptions, ranked Pakistan at 117, down four positions from its place last year, coming in just above Afghanistan. The declining ‘brand’ of Pakistan is something we can no longer afford to ignore.

Let us start with arts and culture. These two elements are often a country’s strongest ambassadors and go a long way to starting intercultural dialogue, promoting Pakistan’s positive aspects. Pakistan has a wealth of artists, musicians, designers and more, but for the purpose of this article let us focus on the visual arts. In addition to Modern Masters, Pakistan has produced top-tier contemporary artists — think Faiza Butt, Shazia Sikander, Rashid Rana and Shezad Dawood — so how can we use our cultural assets to negate what damage has been done to our image by years of political wrangling and religious conflict?

“Unfortunately, the Pakistani Contemporary art scene is more recognised and appreciated outside Pakistan than it is in the country itself,” says Nadia Samdani, Founder and Director of the Dhaka Art Summit in Bangladesh. “Pakistani art deals with a wide range of themes — from political feminist statements to post-colonial neuroses and societal change.”

Surely art this complex and sophisticated should be nurtured and supported within Pakistan. The issue is not that Pakistan doesn’t have arts and culture — it most definitely does. Nor is the issue that we do not have successful artists — we do. Rather, artists seem to receive better representation and support from international galleries, and, without a cohesive strategy to promote our arts and culture, we are not making the most of opportunities that would allow us to leverage our cultural scene to combat the negative press swirling around Pakistan.

Cultural diplomacy is a powerful tool. It allows us to exchange and understand ideas, and foster a better understanding of each other’s cultures. Indeed, many countries have successfully used arts and culture as a soft power initiative to promote understanding and dialogue. The Ukraine and India have both launched inaugural art biennales — in May 2012 and this December respectively — such initiatives go a long way towards changing perceptions. Bangladesh also has such events, with the Asian Biennale in Dhaka running since 1981, and the inaugural Dhaka Art Summit held earlier this year.

“Art has a universal language and Pakistan can communicate its intellectual side, its creativity, long history of culture and the fact that there is a progressive and educated community in our country — all of this through its art,” says art consultant Mehreen Rizvi Khursheed.

If we are to ‘rebrand’ Pakistan, then branding starts at home. If India and Bangladesh are hosting major art events, opening up their cultural scene to the international art circuit, why not Pakistan? “A major cultural event would open up possibilities for Pakistani artists to converse with their contemporaries in an equal and shared vocabulary,” agrees artist, critic and curator Quddus Mirza. “It would also focus international attention away from sensationalism and the cliché-oriented representation of Pakistan that currently dominates.”

The question, of course, is whether Pakistan can support a biennale or an event of this size. “The viability of an art fair or biennale, of which international participants and viewers are an important component, depends on factors such as security and stability,” says Abha Housego of Indian auction house Saffronart, which regularly holds Pakistani art auctions.

Security is, unfortunately, an issue, when it comes to holding large-scale events such as biennales and art fairs. “With no government support and a major lack of corporate and private funds, art events take a backseat,” says Khursheed. “I guess with the situation as it is in education and healthcare, not to mention lack of basic amenities such as electricity, art is not deemed a necessity or a priority.”

But what about top galleries and museums? We need to be encouraging their establishment so that there is a platform within Pakistan for artists to grow. “Pakistan, despite having no international events of its own so far, has already gained recognition internationally,” says Samdani. “It is high time that they host an international art event in Pakistan, and I strongly believe it will attract art lovers from all over the world and definitely create a positive view towards Pakistan. Local patrons should also come forward to support this initiative.”

So, what can we do to help? Supporting arts and culture requires a long term vision — while security issues and infrastructure will relegate large-scale initiatives such as an art fair on the backburner for the near future, there are several things we can do to begin to lay down the foundations that will support cultural diplomacy. The majority of our charities are focused on basic needs such as healthcare and education — all important, but we cannot focus all of our energy on fire fighting, we need to be able to set aside resources to support the arts as well.

The Diaspora can do its part by supporting our artists, and, in the absence of governmental funding, help to build galleries and museums, sponsoring institutions and much-needed artistic exchanges that would allow our artists to widen their scope, whilst simultaneously introducing their talent to new audiences.

Corporations can sponsor art events, and a cohesive strategy to use Pakistani arts and culture overseas can be applied by our diplomatic missions overseas. By working together for a common goal, we can maximise all of our hard work and efforts into slowly changing public opinion.

It is time to unleash creative Pakistan. We need to free arts from stifling judgement and censorship and show the world that we have a vibrant arts scene on par with any in the world. If art patrons and philanthropists unite to fund a platform to promote Pakistan’s arts and crafts, we can begin investing in creating a positive brand for Pakistan.

The question arises as to why we should channel resources into arts and culture when basic poverty needs have not been met within the country — a valid point and one which cannot be ignored. However, by investing in our ‘brand’, we can reap the rewards in the future and boost trade, foreign direct investment, tourism and educational partnerships. Let’s change the narrative — let’s invest, promote and celebrate Pakistan. Let’s support its galleries, museums and institutions, let’s create international commercial platforms and allow them to flourish and educate the world on the diversity and true faces of Pakistan.

Originally featured in The News/Jang, December, 2012.