theft/disappearance of my “on belonging – community responses to home and the pandemic” project. . .

L: “On Belonging – community responses to home and the pandemic” at McDonald Park; photo by a Pasadena parks employee; R: The live oak tree after being stripped of the installation

Below is the letter I sent out to community members who are involved in my project:

Dear friends and community members –

Thank you for creating and collecting cards for my On Belonging – community responses to home and the pandemic project, my site-specific art installation in three Pasadena public parks (Memorial, McDonald, and Victory). The project has been meaningful because of your investment and participation. 

As many of you know, the launch was planned for this Friday at ArtNight Pasadena. What I did not expect was that after six months of work and community input, one of my installations would vanish a day after completion and that another would be damaged. 

Last weekend, I dedicated 24 hours to installing On Belonging – community responses to home and the pandemic on five trees in the parks. I had worked for almost a year to gain permission to exhibit the project (that was funded by Pasadena’s Cultural Affairs Division) in the parks. Thanks to the help of friends and family Shaista Parveen, Salma Qazi, Jamie Asaye Lahey FitzGerald, Lee-Roy Lahey, Zakia Sarwar, René Saldivar, and Minal Saldivar the tree wrapping, rope-tying, and card-hanging process went faster than I expected. 

By Sunday afternoon, we felt happy having completed almost all the installations. But some people did not approve of the work. At Memorial Park, a woman had complained to the Amory saying that the installation was disturbing the squirrels and birds she fed. I got an email about the situation and drove there a little before sunset  – to find that some of the fabric and cards had been vandalized and torn down. Not wanting to risk the remaining work, I collected most of it.

I then drove to check on my  installation at the low-branched live oak tree at McDonald Park. When I turned the corner on Mar Vista Avenue, I could not see any red ajrak. My installation was gone! The forty sheets of ajrak fabric that my mother had purchased in Karachi and shipped to Pasadena a year ago had melted away. The cards on which you had written and drawn personal notes had disappeared. The thirteen metal tent stakes dug deep in the ground by Shaista were gone. 

The entire installation – my months of planning and five hours of collective labor – had just vanished

Since then, I have filed a police report. I have informed the Cultural Affairs Division and Pasadena’s park representatives, who had generously offered me the space. But today, four days later, I have no answers about what happened. 

What I do know is that our temporary installation that caused no damage to the trees or the park was removed. While ajrak can be replaced at some cost, your voices are irreplaceable and those were stripped. Someone or some people saw the temporary public art installation as unnecessary or intrusive – in spite of a sign explaining the project and listing city funding – and felt entitled to remove the work. 

Here’s what I will do: Tomorrow, at ArtNight Pasadena between 6-10 pm, I will be at Memorial Park with family and friends. Please stop by to say hello and check out the installation on the avocado tree. I will reinstall the cards and fabric on that trunk just for the night. After ArtNight, I will have more time to process a deeper response to what happened to the temporary and harmless artwork that was removed (stolen).

After tomorrow night, the only installation available for viewing for two weeks will be on the southwest corner of Victory Park – even though I had received space for my installations to be up for two weeks in three parks. Many of the cards that are exhibited were created by art students at Pasadena High School. That installation is still intact. Even the rain hasn’t damaged it. Do check it out.

Again, thank you for supporting and participating in the project. I hope to see you online or in person, and I will keep you posted about how you can participate in a thoughtful response to the reaction against public art.

Love, Sehba

October 9: Please take a moment to fill out this google survey. I plan to collect and share your words with the parks department and the city.

On Belonging – community responses to home and the pandemic at Victory Park; photos by Minal Saldivar