‘My work is not decorative. It’s a political statement’

June 7, 2020

Artist Akram Dost Baloch speaks about his values and his struggles

Akram Dost Baloch, known in the art world for his spell-binding weaves and sculptures and the recipient of the President of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance award in 2004, the Excellence Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award in Karachi Biennale (2019), talks about his values and struggles in an exclusive interview with The News on Sunday

The News on Sunday (TNS): Your work has been described as unique. How do you react to that?

Akram Dost Baloch (ADB): I come from a region where art often gets overlooked. There were no art schools there when I chose art as a career. My inspiration initially came from nearby craftsmen, weavers and women artisans. I used to work with them during my childhood. Their use of colours inspired me. My initiation came at a very young age. Inevitably, the socio-political situation in Balochistan is reflected in my work and informs it. I have lived with pain and grief. Turning a painful story into a work of art is as much a responsibility as it is a challenge. I believe that one should remain faithful to the native expression and not shy away from dealing with the pain of the society.

My connection to my people has always been intact and that is a big source of satisfaction for me. I believe that the artist’s original dialogue with his chosen art form and his perspective should be transparent. I feel that in my work spanning over five decades I have been fairly consistent.

TNS: Did at any point in your life you feel like moving away from the art and doing something else?

ADB: I had my doubts early in my career. Today I have greater confidence in what I do. At one point, while I was doing mostly figurative work, I found the pain unbearable, and did quit for a few days. However, I soon realised that I could not abandon my relationship with my land and its people, and turned to wash work.

TNS: What is your assessment of Balochistan University’s contribution to the local art scene?

ADB: The graduates have proved themselves. Ghulam Muhammad, Jamil Baloch and Suleman Khilji, among others, who all hail from Balochistan, are doing extraordinarily well. Some of the students have collaborated with various organisations and art schools. Many BU students are working abroad and producing brilliant work. Balochistan is in no way lagging behind other provinces. Students from Panjgur and Makran are studying art at Balochistan University. There are problems like a shortage of studios and the absence of art galleries and museums but the students are honing their skills nonetheless. They are great artists in the making.

TNS: Do you feel that artists are free in the way they work and their choices?

ADB: This is a very serious question. There can be no room in the arts for dictation. If some galleries try to dictate artists, it is wrong. However, commercialism is an undeniable fact and there are monopolies and lobbies and sometimes they become a hindrance. Some people tell you that their art is inspired by revolution and by love, but you can detect a specific projection. There are young artists raising slogans and arranging big events but you realise that they have yet to decide the direction their work will take. There is a race for festivals and biennales and sometimes there is blatant favouritism.

Balochistan is in no way lagging behind other provinces. Students from Panjgur and Makran are studying art at Balochistan University. There are problems like a shortage of studios and the absence of art galleries and museums but the students are honing their skills nonetheless.

The biggest ‘push’ element is getting one’s work sold. My experience suggests that art has become something of an industry. Some people cite the example of Picasso and refuse to meet the real people.

Some of the biennales are not projecting artists but other things.

It is a sin to copy someone else’s work. Even students should produce their own signature work. That is how they will grow.

TNS: What can the art fraternity do to alleviate the situation prevailing on account of coronavirus? How do you think are artists going to exhibit their work now?

ADB: One should not be afraid of exposure to hardship; it can only make you stronger. Also, the discrimination and rejection a lot of people worldwide are suffering is, to my mind, worse than the horror of the pandemic.

TNS: Some critics have not approved of your use of motifs and patterns in your work. How do you react to that?

ADB: I used to weave carpets and rugs. The motifs come from my collection. I see them as a form of art. I recall my mother making clay sculptures when it rained. They resembled the Mehergarh artifacts. My work is not decorative; it’s a political statement. I refer to my land in every piece of my work.

TNS: You were once sent to a jail. How did that affect your art?

ADB: I was in the third year at the NCA and visiting my hometown in Balochistan during summer vacations. Some of the Afghan refugees were disturbing the peace in the area, so I protested against it. For that, I was arrested and remained behind bars for more than three months. This contributed to solidifying my political views.

I used to sketch the policemen and the prison guards. Soon they would come with requests. In return, I asked for paper. Some of them smuggled charcoal and pencils for me. Some of them used to draw themselves and I would tutor them. I really enjoyed my time in prison. Life is a prison anyway.

TNS: Is it true that you see art as a response, but not as a solution to the society’s problems?

ADB: Art is a reflection and presentation of life. If government officials can’t see children employed in road construction, the artist has to portray this. If my work has raised concerns among people, I can be satisfied.

TNS: Karachi is a hub for artists. Don’t you think there should be more art galleries in Balochistan as well?

ADB: That is essential. Art galleries and museums are important. My work never gets sold in Balochistan because there are no buyers. Art lovers and businessmen should come forward and do the job.

As for Karachi, I love the city. It allows ownership to its citizens. Most Pakistani artists sell more work in Karachi than in their own provinces. I wish that all of Pakistan becomes more like Karachi in this respect. Of course, these things take time.

TNS: How difficult was it to make a name for yourself in the art world?

ADB: It’s a long story. I think art is not a brand that one can be an ambassador for. If one is determined, the grind will triumph.

TNS: Name one weakness and one strength of the art fraternity of Pakistan?

ADB: I have seen art turning artists into cowards; I have also seen it empowering them.

The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at [email protected]

‘My work is not decorative. It’s a political statement’: Akram Dost Baloch