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.

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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. 

Down to a science: Because learning is doing

KARACHI: You can make water explode if you put Vitamin C in it. That’s what eight-year-old Hamza Humayun taught me at the Scientist Factory (SF).

Scientist Factory is a Norwegian social enterprise created with the philosophy that the best way to learn science is by doing. SF’s Pakistan Project began last year when they conducted a science workshop for the students of the educational organisation, The Garage School. Expanding on their initiative from last year, this year SF is conducting three different workshops. One of them is a two-week workshop at the Haque Academy for children aged between eight and 12.

Humayun, who lives in Lahore and is visiting his grandparents in Karachi for the summer, is attending the course during his holidays. Humayun’s mother came across the summer course while searching online for an activity to keep her son occupied during the hot months.

According to his grandmother Shahnaz Jillani, Humayun is obsessed with TV shows that depict mad scientists carrying out wild and outrageous scientific experiments. When asked whether he’d like to pursue a career in science when he grows up, Humayun responded, “I’ll think about it.”

Project manager for the Norwegian venture and incharge of their Pakistani project, Lalah Rukh conducts the workshops. During one of the sessions at the Haque Academy, she laid out six glasses with numerous household liquids at the bottom of each glass. She then brandished a sixth glass containing a ‘mystery’ purple liquid. She explained to the eager students that the liquid would change the colour of each of the numerous liquids present in the glasses. As she poured the liquid, some of the liquids changed to a bluish-green whereas the others turned to a pinkish hue. She then proceeded to explain to the awed students that the purplish liquid was red cabbage extract dissolved in water and it was a helpful indicator in judging whether a chemical was acidic, basic or neutral.

The children, while being carefully supervised, proceeded to experiment themselves with the red cabbage extract. “We’re doing this for proof of concept,” she said. “We feel children learn best when they experiment themselves.”

Science camps are conducted across the world for students, who have shown extraordinary promise in the field. The SF, however, operates with a different philosophy. “We don’t want to discriminate that way. Our courses are for everyone,” added Rukh.

Along with the course at Haque Academy, SF is also conducting another workshop at The 2nd Floor in the upcoming weeks. Moreover, SF has also arranged a separate one-week course for the children of Aman Foundation’s low income staff and the students of Kiran School, Lyari for underprivileged children.

This articles was first published in The Express Tribune on June 16, 2014.