Akram Dost Baloch is a familiar enough name in Pakistani art circles. The Google covers the very obvious about him: his disadvantaged and marginalized Balochistan and Baloch people, his CV, the ‘Pride of Performance Award,’ he received.
The jigsaw of Akram Dost is made-up of layered artistic accomplishments and personal idiosyncracies. A jigsaw, that needs to be constructed, even if only to be deconstructed later by the readers for their own interest. In much the same way that Akram Dost paraphrases, in his art works, and yet holds together the layered realities of his land of Balochistan, Pakistan, and Baloch people. Balochistan; the majestic, whose difficult terrain puts unusually demanding physical hardships on its inhabitants, the Balochs, is a landscape dotted with Balochs’ extreme physical and political hardships, penchant for unusual solutions, and finally the remarkable historical triumphs. The Baloch culture is hard to comprehend, decipher and make sense of by an outsider. What is it to be living the tumultuous Balochistan every day? Akram Dost tells. Isn’t Akram Dost tired of looking and expressing the physical and emotional suffering of both the Balochistan landscape and the Baloch people that hardly ever changes? A cynic might ask. However, for Akram Dost, this is home he can never disengage from. So he marches on. Like the tough predestination of his land, his creative struggle might be an unending one. It might experience a meaningful closure and complement his resourceful life, but at another level could remain insignificantly and monotonously ongoing and uniform. His art works keep this suspense alive. And it is this drive and commitment to make insignificant momentous through fluctuating expectations that makes Akram Dost who he is.
His creativity hovers around this land and the people who inhabit this remarkably unusual land. But he and his universe of imagination is also his familial connections, tribal entities, academic and a different social exposure while at the National College of Arts, and in Lahore. Looking from an art-historical lens, one can say here is an artist who has lived Baloch history. In fact he is history himself. He has been an active participant in the history making process as a politically conscious artist. And that brings us to the bigger question of what art history really is. Does it exclude social history or a political history from its domain? Whenever one talks of art history, it is never without a context. Where does the stimulus come from for an artist? So art for Akram Dost is a complete life experience and not something coming out of a box put in the storehouse of life. He and his art have never been disconnected with the socio-political realities. He has kept engaging them through his art, his teaching and generally through his life. All this has coalesced to form a backdrop nurturing his ever evolving creativity. When seen from the perspective of Pakistani art history, Akram Dost’s art stands proudly at a junction of historical importance and exactly by virtue of who he is, a Pakistani and a Baloch.
Art Critics. Akram Dost’s work has always garnered favourable reviews by art critics. Many regard his art as a ‘living document of his reality, stating that there is not a single aspect of his work that doesn’t embody his land while almost everyone in the art world talks of Akram Dost’s canvases as beholders of tyranny and subjugation. “Tortured expressions, contorted features, piercing eyes and huddled bodies” is how Quddus Mirza explains his imagery in a review of one of his exhibitions. He further explains that Akram Dost “completes the ultimate idea of art, which converts a particular example into a universal experience.” Elsewhere a critic hints that his imagery depicts a resignation to fate, but is it really so? About another show, another critic states, “The manner of depicting his concept and content in the present exhibition is especially remarkable, because it marks a new phase in the aesthetic journey of a painter, who has been dealing with these issues since early eighties. From his works produced at NCA to his later canvases, Dost has developed a diction that was initially inspired from Egon Schiele and Kathe Kollwitz but now bears his distinct style”.
Reading these critiques is to find partial answers about Akram Dost’s art. Nevertheless, here I sum-up Akram Dost’s work as described by him, through his, or the artist’s eyes. What follows is what Akram Dost has to say about his work and life.
Pattern and Motif & Identity. The beginning of his artistic sojourn was formally inspired by a relative’s work who was already a student at the NCA. But even as a child, Baloch crafts had a major influence on him. That influence is still with him. It has always struck me as an anomaly that especially a Pakistani artist would employ decorative motifs and patterns in his artwork. I wonder, why is pattern so important to him? For me, a designer by training, this is intriguing. What is Akram dost, an artist, reading into these patterns? His treatment appears favourable bordering on respect. It is not demeaning as the art world’s stance predominantly is. It is evident that these motifs and patterns are and have always been equal players in his creative process. How do they make sense to him? Are these conveying to him a sense of belongingness? Or is he trying to read ideas of collective unconsciousness dating back many a millennia? One doesn’t know but wishes to find out. When I put this question to him as to why these motifs appear in his work over and over again, he quickly responds there was no Allah Bakhsh or Sadequain in Balochistan that one could look towards for inspiration. But there were weavers, embroiderers and dyers all around, involved in the creative process. He still dreams of them. He discusses crafts with a conviction stating that in Baloch society craft is a merit, a question, an art form. He is highly appreciative of the meticulousness of the Baloch tribal crafts. Artistic identity coming from crafts is genuine identity for him. This identity has been around for many millennia. He is highly critical that people living in the geography that is Pakistan are being forced to accept forged identities. The Pakistani nation is still being created with forced ideologies and in his mind it is a very valid question that artists through their practice must try to resolve.
Reviewers of his work have mostly talked negatively about the inclusion of motifs and patterns in his work. They liken it to ‘political incorrectness’ and ‘decorativeness’ versus ‘high art’. The words above may be able to provide some clarification to their imagined narrative and discourse .I must say it even if it is risqué that most of the critiques of his art have been mere generalizations or at best have compartmentalized his artistic experience.
During my conversations with Akram Dost, I wanted to know of his years at the NCA (1978-83), and how it impacted his artistic growth. Besides the influence of formal training in the arts, I was intrigued because those were the draconian times under General Zia ul Haq’s martial law of the 1970s and 80s. It’s interesting to imagine, as a historian, how his art would look, if he had been at the NCA in another time! Since all the articles on his work talk about the miserable socio-political conditions in Balochistan and how his work is a response to these, I am all set to accept this narrative but as he starts talking about his student years at the NCA, I can sense there is more to his work than meets the eye. He did talk of the oppressive Zia years (most young readers will probably be unaware of this term. I suggest google it.), during his talk with me, and how the country generally and Balochistan and other marginalized areas specifically suffered in the Zia era. He spoke about the Afghan muhajreen/mujahideen being thrust onto Baluchistan and how it changed the socio-economic and socio-political culture in unforeseeable ways. Arms were introduced and the muhajreen/mujahideen started buying property in large numbers. The Afghans were able to get the Pakistani ID cards made too. Sitting in Punjab in 2018, it is difficult, though not impossible, to imagine the plight and misery of the youth of that era, whose pride was being shaken every day. Akram Dost was very bitter but not helpless. Being an active member of BSO, the Baloch Students Organisation, he took the front seat in the communication process with the military government and voiced the concerns fearlessly resulting in a sentence of putting him behind bars for more than three months, by a military court. This is something that he has never talked to the media before. Upon my insistence, he delved into some more details. Those three and a half months affirmed his belief in the strengthening of a democratic rule and helped him achieve a clearer direction in his art practice. Well-wishers smuggled art materials to his cell and he managed to do his own work alongside teaching the policemen on duty drawing and painting. He also read a lot of progressive literature inside the jail, and that brought more meaningfulness to his work.
Taking a cue from Jamal Shah’s speech on one of his exhibitions, (Jamal Shah, like Dost is from Balochistan, a class fellow and a comrade during NCA years), in which Jamal Shah talked about art being the best possibility and the safest means of communication towards transforming a society, I asked Akram Dost if art has been able to transform the Baloch society/community at large or even at margins? Or has he been successful in getting his message across to his audience?
He was not too pleased with this question and stated emphatically that art is not poetry, nor sloganeering. Art may be a response but it does not provide solutions and must not. In his view, art should pose questions and that’s it. Moreover, visual artist should be clear about his work and never in doubt, he insisted.
Akram Baloch finds his role as a teacher and a knowledge provider closest to his heart and soul. This role was a conscious choice and he never regretted it. The sense of belonging that emanates from being close to his ‘dharti’ is priceless. And he is trying to give back too. It gives him inner peace and greatest satisfaction when he sees Baloch youth encircled with paints, brushes, canvases, chisels. He believes art changes societies not instantaneously but slowly and subtly and we must have that patience.
In the light of some critics’ views of the various phases and inspirations in Dost’s aesthetic journey, since early 1980s, I checked what Akram Dost had to say. Despite the flattering comment of the French ambassador, Martine Dorance, who likened his art to Picasso’s phases and periods in art practice, Akram Dost does not see his art as such. In his assessment he is not the type of artist who sits in a closed box and follows systematic temporal and stylistic phases. Instead he observes things, which leads to deeper thinking and making sense of those things. A practice he equates with mesmerization by his surroundings. It is also a kind of quest that surfaces in the form of multiple questions and thought processes. Ultimately, all this collectively is a synthesis portrayed in Akram Dost’s various art works, and not separate and disconnected constituents.
Akram Dost is a treasure trove of authentic and solid creative experiences, and he continues to express these via an ongoing rich and pulsating art practice. His own being, his teaching, his thinking processes, all continue to amalgamate, and connect responsively and enthusiastically with his immediate surroundings. The kind of rare groundedness, which Akram Dost adheres to steadfastly in today’s commerce ridden world is unique.