Bari Studios in Lahore could be called the birthplace of acting in Pakistan but never has the now dilapidated building been used for performance art for a cause.
On World Day against the Death Penalty – which falls on October 10 – in the dimly lit grounds, people wandered around and came alive with 11 compelling performances and installations. Each of the artists explored themes of capital punishment, ideas of control, detention, confinement and isolation.
Justice Peace Project was behind the project whose key areas of work are highlighting human rights violations through public engagement campaigns including documentary films, theatre and public art exhibitions. We’ve Been Waiting for You was orchestrated by their team in collaboration with Natasha Jozi of The House and Ryan Van Winkle of Highlight Arts, who came on board to design and curate these performances with the artists.
Last year, Justice Peace Project had Sarmad Khoosat in a ground breaking 24-hour live stream, No Time to Sleep that portrayed the last 24 hours of a death row prisoner’s life. While last year’s performance was a glimpse into one person’s last moments, thoughts, actions and behavior, this year’s performance had performance art that was more open to interpretation.
When one entered the surreal setting of Bari Studios, there were corners and rooms lit up in several different ways for the artists performing inside them. The first performance, ‘Bare, Barren, Barbed’ had a girl sit smack in the center of a pile of bricks, wrapping and unwrapping loose cloth on her body. It was a depiction of how in those final moments, the prisoner keeps themselves busy with inconsequential, mundane things because the concept of time is so warped for them.
‘Stuck in the Middle’ set out to explore the physical and mental experience of violent institutions. The artist stood facing a corner for a while and then slowly walked into a small box with bars. He stayed inside it for the length of time I was there, looking chillingly stone eyed to the observer. The artist did a successful job of portraying how dehumanizing and cruel these institutions can be. The cameras and people surrounding him in that moment – the press and the media – added another layer of commentary on how a third party is so far removed from the experience of such prisoners. ‘The Birth of Debris’ was one of the most haunting ones yet with the artist Baqir, washing, cleaning and cutting a pile of flesh and bones.
He tried to (successfully) portray how an executioner performs the same task every day, to the point that it becomes mechanic and he has no feelings associated with his actions. The strong stench of the meat he worked with stayed with me as I walked away from his performance. Apparently, he alternated between an executioner and a prisoner but as it was an ongoing performance I didn’t catch that part of it.
Art is an impactful way to hold a mirror to a society crippled by a flawed criminal justice system that has repeatedly allowed people to slip through the cracks of Pakistan’s legal landscape. The curated show explored the different aspects associated with death row and how fate can be highly unpredictable for those in custody.
Justice Peace Project’s efforts, two years in a row, should be lauded and we hope it adds to the conversation about the scope of the death penalty in Pakistan and the human impact of a flawed justice system that occurs in the case of wrongful executions.