Fine-tuning and fine arts: Realism and escape at central jail

By Maheen Ghani

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The sound of music wafted through the grounds, as I walked underneath the shade of Neem trees. There, on the walls, were soothing murals of the night sky and of pelicans bathing themselves in the river. I was outside the Central Jail School of Fine Arts and Music.

The school is located in the back of the Central Jail, Karachi. As you pass through the security checks, past the heavy gate chained by a padlock and manned by a constable, past the superintendent’s office, in the outdoor grounds led by the long corridor.

I walked inside to find a small group of prisoners playing instruments like the keyboard and harmonium. As I walked into the adjoining room, I found more prisoners scattered around the room. There were students sitting on stools painting canvases placed on easels and others sat cross-legged on the floor, sketching.

There were paintings and sculptures hanging on the walls, placed on the floor next to the walls, and set atop shelves and tables all around the room.

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Samar Abbas, a senior student of the fine arts programme, stood at the front of the class. In a green polo shirt and khaki pants, as he assisted the others, Abbas resembled a teacher more than a prisoner. He showed me a detailed charcoal sketch of a bird sitting on top of a lantern that he had just finished. Having been part of the programme right from the start — when it first began six years ago — he had sold over a hundred paintings.

I turned to another prisoner who stood chatting with other classmates. Abdul Aziz Bugti had been in the programme since his sentencing four years ago. Convicted for his involvement in a bomb blast and sentenced to four life terms which roughly adds up to 210 years, Bugti was in Central Jail to stay. He wanted to spend the rest of his years widening the gap between his previous life and his current one. Bugti has made friends in the art class.

Clad in an expensive-looking kurta and shalwar, his hair a neat mop of salt and pepper curls, there was a man lounging in the seat behind the teacher’s desk. I asked him, “You’re not making anything?” He responded in an accent that sounded faintly American. “I’m merely a patron of the arts. I come here simply to show support.”

The school was launched through the efforts of the then superintendent Nusrat Hussain Mangan, who had hoped that his own love for the arts would also inspire his prisoners to achieve a positive outlook on life. Fine Arts School teacher Sikander Jogi was approached by Mangan and together, they came up with the school that now runs classes six days a week from 9am to 1pm.

Senior superintendent of prisons, Kazi Nazir Ahmed said, “Yeh chotta sa poda tha jo ab darakht ban gaya hai [It was a small plant that has now grown into a tree].” Jogi and Ahmed are now trying to get the programme affiliated though the Sindh Technical Board.

This article was originally published in The Express Tribune on May 3, 2014.

 

Painting with a purpose: Prisoners use art to escape

By Maheen Ghani

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Wild brush strokes in crimson and black hues covered the length of canvas, and in the far right hand corner there stood the silhouettes of a father and daughter holding hands and standing together.

The portrait was by Kazim Shah, who has been an inmate at Central Prison Karachi for the past six years. He was arrested for carrying out illegal intimidation and other notorious activities for a local political party. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.But Shah is just one of the many prisoners to have recently taken to expressing their pain and anguish by using art as a medium.  Alliance Française de Karachi on Friday hosted a ‘Karachi Inmates’ exhibition displaying over 50 works by inmates who are part of the Fine Art School’s inmates programme.

IG prisons Nusrat Hussain said, “Art is one of the mediums by which we can make a difference.” The money from the sale of the paintings goes straight back to the prisoners themselves which enables them to send money to their family or helps motivate them to keep working and save up for the day when they can leave. This was the seventh exhibition organised by the programme. The proceeds from the last exhibition were over Rs200,000.

While for prisoners like Shah the programme serves as a form of escape where they can fantasise about a better life, other prisoners chose their past as their muse. Samar Abbas who was sentenced for smuggling narcotics painted a hand grabbing onto a flag and rejecting drugs. The painting could perhaps be interpreted as his way of attempting to rewrite his past or maybe even expressing that if he was given a second chance he would choose life and freedom over drugs.

While some of the art was more on the nose, other artists chose an entirely different inspiration altogether. Abdul Aziz, who is one of the most senior citizens of the programme and has been training since it first kicked off displayed a portrait of a Baloch man.

Ashfaq, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in a bomb blast that killed a prominent member of a minority group, displayed a series of calligraphic paintings.

Consul General of France Francois Dall’Orso who was also present on the occasion said, “Art can provide one with peace of mind and respite.” The inmates programme began in 2008 at Karachi’s central jail and has since helped improve the lives of several prisoners by enabling them to channel their energy into something productive. After witnessing the success of the programme there, it has now kicked off in other prisons of Karachi and is currently training female prisoners as well.

This article was originally published in The Express Tribune on April 13, 2014.

Constructive deconstruction: Artists display works inspired by their life in the city

By Maheen Ghani

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It seemed that there was one underlying theme that appeared to be on the minds of several of the artists — the daily struggles for survival in this city.

Several young artists displayed their works at the Full Circle Gallery’s exhibit ‘Deconstruct’ on Saturday. A graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Marium Kamal’s works included a gargantuan canvas in shades of ochre with messages, such as ‘Karachi, my beauty you are just misunderstood’ and ‘Deep down inside it’s just another city’. Another curious piece by Kamal titled ‘It’s just an explosion’ comprised a large plain canvas — stained with the help of coffee — with huge patches of it burnt off. Behind those burnt patches, were other similar messages.

Another artist, Syed Kashif Ali Mohsin created his own graphic novel and for the exhibition he took some of the extracts from the novel to create four different water colours. The first one is a plain water colour painting of a man. The next three are water colours of the same man except these paintings have messages of bomb explosions and killings written in charcoal and pastel.

The paintings are created as a series that aim to tell the story of his novel; each painting develops the tale of the man in the first painting. “These are the kind of messages of sectarian violence and other killings that you receive from your friends,” he said. “The paintings describe the day of anyone who lives in this city.”

The last painting of the story is a particularly grotesque yet intriguing image of just the protagonist’s head on the body of an insect. According to Mohsin, the painting is a hallucination that he has in the story where he sees himself as nothing more than an insect.

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Sikander Butt displayed a series of digitally painted photographic manipulations. His picture, ‘Islam mein darri hai, darri mein Islam nahi’ displays men prostrating on the floor in a mosque. “The message behind this picture is freedom of thought. We are fed what to think and how to act by our elders,” said Butt. “We need to be reminded that we do not necessarily always know what is true but in fact we are taught what to believe or consider right and true.”

Another image by him at first glance appears to be just another ordinary image of the national flag, however, upon a closer examination one can see bar codes printed along the star and the moon as well as the white section of the flag. “Pakistan has been sold,” states Butt simply.

On the lighter side were the pieces by Mahmil Masood, who is also a graduate of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. For her collection, Masood used materials such as newspapers and plastic, and stitched it together. Her works include abstract art pieces that portray themes such as materialism in today’s world.

This article was originally published in The Express Tribune on May 18, 2014.

Qandeel Baloch And The Dangers Of The ‘Honour Killing’ Rhetoric

By Maheen Ghani

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A young girl from a modest background plummets to social media stardom on the simple yet effective formula of controversy and consistency to climb up the fame ladder. Qandeel Baloch, whose real name is Fauzia Azeem, first made news when she auditioned for singing talent show Pakistan Idol. The audition video went viral on Facebook due to her reaction at being rejected by the panel of judges. Social media users began mocking her but in the digital age, this only helped her gain publicity. Qandeel Baloch leveraged the incident and became a social media sensation who posted risque images and videos of herself.

Although the scandalous nature and the shock value that Baloch brought to social media in Pakistan earned her a huge following, she also attracted a lot of criticism, was called names, ridiculed, managed to offend a lot of people and was considered blasphemous due to openly displaying her sexuality.

Last week, she was killed by her brother in an incident that would be termed anywhere else in the world as an incident of ‘domestic violence’. However, since the incident, Pakistani media – and now the media across the globe – have been debating honour killings as well as reporting other such incidents of murder.

Qandeel, who was a frequent favourite on the Pakistani social media sphere for a few years now, had recently sparked a new controversy by posting pictures with clergyman Mufti Abdul Qavi. Baloch claimed she had received several death threats, including threats from Qavi himself.

Her brother Waseem Baloch, who has been arrested for her murder, admits to not feeling any guilt for having killed her as it was in an attempt to save the family’s honour. In a statement to the press, Waseem claimed that Qandeel had been causing a lot of controversy recently especially in regards to the incident with Qavi.

Qavi, whose membership was suspended from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee as well as Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf after the scandalous pictures were posted online, had also chimed in after her death and while he says he has forgiven her, he also stated that this incident should serve as an example to anyone who attempts to bring shame to the name of the clergy.

Qandeel’s murder has divided opinion in conservative Pakistan. Not just the Pakistan media, but media around the world has been following the development with her name and images published across the news. Her controversial image has ensured the news of her murder is gaining the attention of people worldwide, with Qandeel gaining more prominence in death as compared to what she sought in life.

In her mind, she was taking a stand for women by being the way she was.

The recent controversy involving Qandeel and her estranged husband was another scandal that could have possibly led to her murder. She claimed she was forcefully married off at the age of 17 to a much older man with whom she had a son. However, she had to walk out of the marriage as a result of the torture and abuse she faced at the hands of her former husband.

Other incidents honour killings have also been reported in Pakistan so much so to have inspired the ever-so-elusive Prime Minister earlier this year to make a statement emphasising that there is after all “‘no honour’ in honour killings”. The incident however poses the danger of sparking off a harmful and right-wing rhetoric that may reinforce the belief that such murders are justified.

Earlier this year, the Council of Islamic Ideology in an attempt to override a women’s protection law, produced a Bill that recommend among other things the rendering of law for men to ‘lightly beat women’. The recommendations faced severe backlash, including a press release from Human Rights Commission of Pakistan which Chairperson Zohra Yusuf refered to it as  “payback for the women protection Bill” and stated that it “exposes the mindset of the zealots occupying the CII, who should be removed from their posts immediately”.

While Waseem has been arrested and Qavi himself is also under investigation for the murder, the bigger question remains of the harmful consequences of ‘honour killing’ of such nature. Right-wing statements claiming that it was “only a matter of time” before Qandeel was murdered may exacerbate the debate on honour killings and may inadvertently spark off a dangerous trend with irrevocable and permanent damage, similar to the nuclear-like blasphemy law matter.

The article was first published in Narada News on July 20, 2016.