Fall Art Festival-Quetta highlights Balochistan’s political and social situation as well as the religious restrictions
Many of the words we use often have several latent connotations, sometimes quite lethal. For instance, ‘left’ in Latin is sinister. Both left and sinister, signify a direction but are also loaded with negative notions, i.e., disruptive or villainous. Another word of the kind is ‘fall.’ It usually refers to the season of annual shedding of leaves. For many, however, fall represents a period of gloomy, beautiful yet suggestive of an impending end/ demise.
However, a ‘fall’ can also be an occasion of promise as witnessed at the exhibition held during the Fall Art Festival-Quetta. The two-day event (October 27, 28) was organised by the Department of Fine Arts, University of Balochistan, with a symposium on art and a show featuring visual artists mostly belonging to Balochistan. If the symposium and artists’ talks were beneficial for the students, the art exhibition was crucial to change perceptions about the works produced in a place far from the so-called centres of Pakistani art (Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad). It was not a provincial show by any means, because it included works of leading artists of the country besides two canvases by an Omani painter, Musa Omer, (a reminder of the past ties between Balochistan and the Sultanate of Oman).
Balochistan, the largest province of Pakistan and having geographical links to other territories also has deep historical roots, probably the deepest in the region. Mehrgarh, the neolithic archaeological site dating back to 7000 BCE, is located “between the modern-day Pakistani cities of Quetta, Kalat and Sibi”.
Looking at the art pieces in Quetta, one notices that the past is presented, but not projected. Here, the cultural and pictorial past is absorbed in multiple ways. Creative practitioners negotiate with history and heritage; not as dead objects decorating a house or displayed at an anthropological museum, but as an entity that communicates with its immediate as well as remote inhabitants. The pieces of pottery manufactured in distant pasts are still relevant because they address the basic human need to gather food and collect water.
Dolls were/ are another necessity; those playful items forged in Stone Age, as well as manufactured in the plastics era. A participant in the University of Balochistan’s exhibition, Durdana Naseer, has constructed sculptures derived from the dolls of Mehrgarh; stylised, simplified and covered in traditional textile from Balochistan. These enlarged figures placed on a bench, appear like girls chatting to one another, commenting on the latest bit of gossip, while waiting for a bus. Through her formal strategies, Naseer makes a viewer move back and forth in time and cultures.
Looking at the art pieces in Quetta, one notices that the past is presented, but not projected. Here, the cultural and pictorial past is absorbed in multiple ways. Creative practitioners negotiate with history and heritage, not as dead objects decorating a house or displayed at an anthropological museum, but as an entity that communicates with the immediate, the remote and other inhabitants.
There are also clues at the exhibition to other such journeys, dealing with the political situation, the social condition and the religious restrictions. Both Jamal Shah and Akram Dost – two of the high trinity of Balochistani art (Kaleem Khan is the third component), who established the Department of Fine Art at the University of Balochistan in 1984 – have addressed the prevalent fears and the sense of humiliation in their paintings. Their creations carry images showing power, exploitation and subjugation resulting in confinement and mutilation of the oppressed. Spotted dogs behind cages, as well as human limbs are visible in Shah’s canvases. Drops of rain in two of his canvases indicate hope, furthered with almost disappearing cage-bars. Dost draws a dark setting with human characters, predominantly females embedded in a horizontal composition, suggesting the state of being forcibly shut, silenced and blinded. Acts of repression associated with powerful organisations are also attributable to capitalist bodies that besides/ alongside the state, suppress voices of dissent.
A McDonald’s consumer is unlikely to be bothered by the news of forced displacement, disappearance or disruption of the status quo. Information about agitation/ protest demonstration is also unlikely to move a person about to select a dress at a Levi’s store.
Like the latest purchase from a fashion outlet, cultural products sometimes come in a package, labelled to claim authenticity, superiority and value. Mir Jabal, in his three mixed media paintings, comments on this practice. By presenting a jar from an ancient civilisation, and the gradual loss of its surface markings (a fish pattern, a horned tetra-pod – a goat) to disfigurement, diffusion and finally disappearance. Remarking on the disintegration of the past (recalling Ai Wei Wei, the heir to another old civilisation, who dipped traditional pots in industrial synthetic paints), Jabal has addressed how the past is perceived as a monolithic, sacred edifice by juxtaposing fragments of pottery from various sites in South Asia with segments of porcelain china (introduced in the Indian market by colonising powers).
The history probed and provoked by Mir Jabal, has another layer, seen through the eyes of women. In her work, Umbreen Hussain maps the circumstances of women in a conventional environment. A girl twisted and tied to two separate surfaces alludes gender roles in a patriarchal society. Hussain employs a technique associated with women so her story is an intimate history of craft practiced by them. Gender is remarkably represented in the art of Mubarak Shah as well. There are oval frames containing faces without an identity: tribal, sectarian or sexual. Shah, like Francis Bacon, excavates the essence of human condition.
The essence can vary. If it reaches harsh realities of existence, it can also be paved with pleasure and permanence. In two canvases by Kaleem Khan, sheep in a snowy landscape have been painted with such ease that animals and elements of nature merge with/ in the pleasure of paint. In the same lieu are two works on paper of Doda Baloch: a portrait of a turbaned old man and one of a pair of traditional musicians. Even if one doesn’t know the background, the works entice a viewer with their unavoidable beauty of mark making.
Hence, the question about the artist’s route to his roots arises. It can be an attempt to preserve the past, or to probe the past for passion and precision; and to reflect on the politics of his/ her milieu. Both these approaches were on show during this significant art event that began in fall 2021, but which, one hopes, will rise and rise in future.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore