(I contributed an essay titled ‘Slivers of Hope’ to a small publication titled Clear Hold Build, which accompanied the group exhibition ‘Clear-Hold-Build’ at the Twelve Gates Arts gallery in Philadelphia, USA. The show was on between September 6 and October 23, 2019.
I was invited into this collaborative project by curator Shimrit Lee on behalf of New York-based HEKLER, “an artist-run interdisciplinary platform that fosters the critical examination of hospitality and conflict through collaborative programming and community archiving.” The show featured works by artists who employ a variety of media such as painting, video, audio, installation, and performance to engage with the history of counter-insurgency in Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan, Vietnam, and former Yugoslavia.
My essay offers a political context to read the work of Shabir Ahmed Baloch, an artist who lives in Pakistan. You can read it below the image.)
Slivers of hope
The spoils of war are shared unequally. Those who lose most, regardless of which side wins, are the ones who did not sign up to fight in the first place. Their stories too would be lost to oblivion if the act of bearing witness was unknown to humankind, and to artists in particular.
Shabir Ahmed Baloch, who grew up in Balochistan, has built his artistic practice around this sacred act of remembering those who have suffered, and those who are continuing to live until they break or break free. He has trained his eye to focus on the children who have to put up with the mess that adults have created. They encounter the everyday threat of physical violence in addition to poverty and malnutrition. He is based in Lahore, a city in the Punjabi heartland that has given Balochistan nothing but decades of economic neglect, cultural imperialism and ethnic persecution.
On July 2, 2019, the website of the U.S. Department of State published a media note identifying the Balochistan Liberation Army as ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ under Executive Order 13224. The timing was particularly interesting since Prime Minister Imran Khan was scheduled to meet President Donald Trump just two weeks later. They were joined at the White House by Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Jawed Bajwa, and the director-general of Pakistan’s notorious spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Faiz Hameed.
The note stated, “BLA is an armed separatist group that targets security forces and civilians, mainly in ethnic Baloch areas of Pakistan. BLA has carried out several terrorist attacks in the past year, including a suicide attack in August 2018 that targeted Chinese engineers in Balochistan, a November 2018 attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, and a May 2019 attack against a luxury hotel in Gwadar, Balochistan.”
What was omitted was the backstory of military occupation and counter-insurgency in Balochistan, carried out by the Pakistani state and funded by American dollars. The BLA’s use of violence cannot be condoned for, alongside attacks on military personnel, it has spilled much civilian blood. Yet a geopolitical context is crucial in order to build any nuanced understanding of the Baloch struggle for self-determination.
Pakistan has been using Islamist groups to attack Baloch nationalists, who want to secede from the Islamic Republic. China, which has previously financed Pakistan’s nuclear program, is now making heavy investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to exploit Balochistan’s natural resources. This equation allows Pakistan to consolidate and legitimize its power in the region but the Baloch have little to gain because China is bringing its own workers.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a journalist from Balochistan now living in Washington DC, explained the situation in an insightful op-ed for The New York Times last year: “After Sept. 11, Pakistan utilized the resources Washington had provided it to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban to crush Baloch separatists. Since 2004, Pakistan has disappeared, tortured and assassinated thousands of young Baloch students, activists and rebels, as the Americans weren’t concerned about Baloch aspirations and needed the military.”
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the homegrown Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have documented several human rights violations in Balochistan. These include arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, custodial torture, extra-judicial killings and mass graves, but Islamabad’s media blackout and refusal of access to the United Nations and international aid agencies make it extremely difficult for the Baloch people to make their voices heard.
It is in this context that the art of Shabir Ahmed Baloch needs to be seen, appreciated and understood. His work is an antidote to cynicism. The images of childhood he paints are a fervent appeal for a return to joy, play, leisure, even innocence. They are quiet and withdrawn but they hold themselves together with slivers of hope while things threaten to fall apart. They are reminiscent of these lines from Pakistani historian Hamida Khuhro’s 2014 book A Children’s History of Balochistan:
“You see, child, Balochistan is not such a desolate place. It has had Sindhi princesses, Macedonian conquerors, Hindu deities, Buddhist kingdoms, British colonists, even your grandfather trudging through the boiling heat after his plane crash! This land has seen much and its history continues. We are all part of that history — I am, your parents are, and you are. And we all get to decide what happens next.”