It has become relatively rare these days to confront more than a dozen works of art by a single artist at a show, even if it is a solo show. Artists have become terse, or perhaps succinct, having learned, or having pretended to learn, to say more with less. So it was a little confounding to be greeted by more than fifty works by Akram Dost Baloch at Zulfi’s Art Gallery in Lahore, constituting his latest exhibition. I have only ever fleetingly seen Baloch’s works before and many of his earlier paintings recur to me now as half-chiselled people and indeterminate shadows being cracked by heat or consumed by flames, often boxed neatly – despite the crumbling order of things around them – within decoratively painted frames. If it were simple but angry paintings of this vein decking the walls of Zulfi’s Art Gallery in a multitude so great, they would have perhaps lost some of their individual effects to plurality. Baloch’s new paintings, however, not only reveal a joyous engagement with design, texture, and the act of painting, but are also inhabited by people who run the gamut of expressions for you.
Ascetic figures with thin, planar faces who may have appeared to be tropes of Baloch’s paintings before here become characters. In spite of being liberally stylised, they are dramatis personae; they have distinct personalities. Some are scared, some Machiavellian, some lustful, some acquiescent. Some crane their necks in curiosity, some sneer, some frown, some look away with resignation. Some are partially veiled with pattern, some are made of pattern, some are turbaned in black and weatherworn, mysterious, like travellers of old. But they are all unequivocally human. And here is one of Baloch’s strengths as a painter – he makes many marks when he paints but he knows which ones count the most. So with a few but sure scrapes and strokes, with subtle manipulations of the eyebrows and lips, these restive, silent creatures are born, all agog with the excitement of untold stories.
The worlds they are born to are equally rich. Baloch has drawn and doodled, wiped, swiped, poured, scrubbed, stencilled, touched – with and on paint – to fashion landscapes that evoke, all at once, gauze patches and trelliswork, mosaics, leaf veins, the earth after rain, dried mud stains, fierce dust storms, and in the midst of these the intensely alive characters that appear completely at ease in the scalding or biting or obliterating rawness of the elements. A memorable story is one in which the atmosphere lends the characterisation or action a hand. What makes Macbeth an arresting drama, for instance, is the active collaboration of atmospheric effect and plot. The palette and disposition of the skies and the earth, the behaviour of light and shade fatten the sense of evil and foreboding and deviant ambition the play feeds on. The atmosphere and characters are one. The workings of their minds, the burgeonings of their desires and dreams find immediate and all-around reflection in the environment. So too with Baloch’s paintings. No matter how harsh their surroundings, his people look as if they would waste away if wrenched from their terrain.
Baloch is one of the most prominent artists to have emerged from Pakistan’s shamefully neglected province of Balochistan. In many ways, this vast and intriguing land has become a red planet of sorts for so many of us who have no personal ties to the place or its people. Over the years, Baloch’s practice has been about symbolising the struggles of his people as much as it has been about exploring materiality and forms of local visual culture – Balochi embroidery, woodwork, and antiquities, for example. His new works, however, are psychologically more compelling because they are not turbulent but anxious; they do not speak so much of acts of violence and oppression as they do of the machinations that precede them or the realisations that follow. If his earlier works are battlefields, these are the birds of prey that converge upon them in anticipation. In these works, form and content are unified by the kind of emotional and psychical energy that made Klimt’s Judith a study in barely-contained hysteria.