(This article was first published on the now-defunct website of The Bayside Journal in September 2016. It was subsequently reproduced in a book titled The First 50 published by Sanat Gallery in Karachi later that year .)
What happens when precious human lives are used as pawns in a political game? Ask Saud Baloch, a young artist from Pakistan whose sculptures can tell you more than a human rights dossier. He hails from Balochistan, a province known for its breathtaking beauty, abundant natural resources, and a rich cultural history — all of which are now under siege from state brutality, sectarian violence, unsustainable development, and terrorism.
Saud’s most recent work was exhibited at the Sanat Gallery in Karachi this August, and it earned glowing reviews in the Pakistani press for its stark manner and emotional appeal. The show, ‘Under The Dust’, was dedicated to Saud’s cousin Sangat Jamaldini, and “to Sangat’s friends and colleagues who died alongside him in the bombing of Civil Hospital in Quetta, Pakistan on August 8, 2016 (while) they were paying their respects to the President of the Balochistan Bar Association, Bilal Anwar Kasi, who had strongly condemned target killings in Quetta.”
The show’s title came from a poem by Habib Jalib translated from Urdu into English, while Saud was discussing with the show’s curator, Madeline Amelia Clements (also his wife), the idea of dust as metaphor, and the relationship of his sculptures to the earth of which they are made.
“For me, earth also stands for land. In Balochistan, people’s homes, also created out of mud, are built on land which has belonged to the families for many generations. While it belongs to them, they also feel that they belong to and are made of it. However, this assumption is now being undermined, with building and mining projects in places such as Gwadar and Rek-o-diq. It seems the sea, the land, and its gold and mineral wealth no longer belong to us.”
Saud grew up in a place called Nushki, “which lies close to the Afghan border, and hence has been affected by the various conflicts taking place in that region between Pakistan, America and the Soviets, and also as a result of the insurgency and Baloch attempts to gain greater rights for the people.”
Saud lives in the United Kingdom but continues to visit Nushki twice a year. The family home is located there, and it holds the memory of a childhood spent playing with friends; going on picnics to the desert and mountains. “Things changed most rapidly after 2001 — around the time I left Nushki to live in Quetta. (Now) when I return, I notice a resignation and kind of paralysis amongst many people, who worry constantly about how they can look after their families in the current climate, and about what the future holds,” he says.
A report by Human Rights Watch, titled We Can Torture, Kill or Keep You for Years: Enforced Disappearances by Pakistani Security Forces in Balochistan, published in 2011, describes the case of a Baloch nationalist named Abdul Ghaffar Lango who was picked up by a truck in Karachi just as he was leaving a hospital in December 2009. His wife reported that “10 men in plain clothes approached the couple and started beating Lango with the butt of an AK47 assault rifle until he lost consciousness.” He was dragged and driven away. When his family went to the police to register this abduction, they were told that he was detained for his political activities. The police refused to furnish information on Lango’s location or any specific charges against him. Eventually, in July 2011, his corpse was discovered at a hotel in Lasbela, Balochistan. The dead body bore multiple marks of brutal torture.
“The repercussions of conflict in the region seem to have crept into our homes, resulting in the apprehension and disappearance of loved ones who are thought to have connections with political groups,” says Saud.
There is a strong feeling of being under attack, and its effects are visible on the human bodies Saud recreated through sculptures cast out of clay, fibreglass, brass and wood.
“It is a very natural thing to feel a connection with the human body — or with human bodies…But bodies are fallible: they can easily be broken,” says Saud.
Making these sculptures was a visceral, even cathartic, process for him. “I feel almost as if I am embodying the figures and faces I create. I feel their postures and contortions in my own body, and use this as a reference point for the work,” he says.
When he went to the UK in 2012, and saw people and the surroundings “so full of life,” he felt frustrated thinking about how his own people in Balochistan do not have the same freedoms or the same relationship to their environment.
Thankfully, this frustration has not crystallized into hopelessness. Jalib’s poem reminds Saud that the pride of rulers too will come crashing down someday, for they too need to return to the same dust.