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.