Upon entering Saud Baloch’s solo show at Sanat Gallery, a sense of stillness ensued. The stillness did not evoke a sense of calm, rather, the realization that the works stem from chaos and destruction, frozen in time.
Almost immediately, one could grasp the natural, almost archeological feel of the exposition. In consonance with the white walls of the gallery space, the muddy colour of clay, fragments of black and, sporadically, gold, created an earthy atmosphere. The materials, too, ranged from (what looked like) clay, putty and stone to archival ink on paper, which, when tied with the title of the show- ‘Under the Dust’ (tah-e- khaak)- immediately helped the audience gain perspective as to what its theme was.
‘Tum se pahle vo jo ik shakhs yahan takht-nashin tha,
Us ko bhi apne khuda hone pe itna hi yaqin tha … aj soye hain tah-e-khaak na jaane yahan kitne’
(The one before you who graced this throne, Also believed himself an infallible god … Who knows how many of them sleep under the dust here today)
These are the words of Habib Jalib, the Pakistani revolutionary poet, left-wing activist and politician, whose writings inspired Baloch’s works. Jalib’s verses speak of those who once took pride in their accumulations, achievements and statuses that eventually disintegrated into nothing. That’s because everyone’s eventual fate in this world is identical; every soul must have a taste of death. And death, when overtakes, leaves every human being a heap of what he was possibly created from: Khaak, or dust.
While these ideas may seem morbid, they convey some real lessons to the viewers. These lessons are especially all-too-familiar for Baloch who hails from Nushki, a conflicted territory of Balochistan, riddled with violence. The artist dedicated the show to his cousin who he lost in the recent Quetta blast- a loss too close to home, and thus, felt too deep, bringing in a personal layer to the show. Baloch, thus, responded directly to an unfortunate loss stemming from a condemnable political event, and in the process, uncovered the enduring communal failings of human beings and their repetitive missteps that cause others, and themselves, pain.
One of my favourite pieces in the show, perhaps also due to the fact that it showcased Baloch’s impeccable sculptural skill, was Golden Age, a well-defined male torso hanging from the ceiling, suffocated by a gold cloth. The tension in the subject’s body was apparent as his arms flexed in agony, his shoulder muscles contracted and his feet aimed to defy gravity. On the contrary, one did not see the man struggling enough to break free; there was some sort of resistance to liberty. It was almost as if he wanted the golden appendage to remain on his head because, despite the fact that it suffocated him, it elevated him (literally and metaphorically) above others. It is this internal struggle between power and freedom, revealed via the sculpture’s physical posture, that Baloch seems to have beautifully depicted in this piece. And while the audience wondered how such a meticulously sculpted piece in unbaked, wet clay would endure, the realization that Baloch had painted over fiberglass to give that effect greatly was surprising. This ‘deception’ made one question the trust people place in appearances. (While marveling at this work, I was reminded of having seen a similar sculpture by Baloch in progress at the NCA in 2012, a year before he graduated).
Sculpted out of the same materials as Golden Age, Badshah depicted a lone, nude boy sporting a golden crown, looking down at his feet. This little boy seemed to be carrying a heavy responsibility (crown) on his head, looking down despondently, while the dents and niches in his face, torso and leg, left rawly sculpted and clawed out by Baloch, revealed a sense of torture and decay. What is this harrowing weight this boy is carrying? Perhaps Baloch was commenting on the expectations of society that drown people from a very young age, or perhaps he was revealing the violence-riddled world we live in, which slowly eats us up physically and mentally.
Curator Madeline Amelia Clements transformed the gallery-space into what looked like a natural history museum, with the human body as an artifact on display, hanging from the ceiling, placed on plinths or showcased on the walls. Apart from life-sized sculptures, one could see three small statuettes made of putty and stone. While resembling fossils, the pieces, namely Dreamer, Bandok and Glory (supposedly) depicted three stages of the synthesis of human being and stone: a baby head, shiny and gold in its untainted glory, a face gradually being merged in stone with slight traces of gold, and a face consumed by stone completely, only faintly visible. Despite their small sizes, the helpless human faces in the pieces reminded one of the terrifying remains of the inhabitants of ancient Pompeii who were buried under volcanic ash. The gradual progression from gold to stone displayed how a baby’s innocence is tainted with time (due to external factors or his own choices), leading to hard-heartedness and self-destruction.
Baloch’s drawings also impressed the viewer. While noticing the tiny intricate circles drawn in black pen to weave together a larger image, I stepped back to perceive faces and limbs emerging from what looked like gunny sacks or boris. With large gaping holes constituting tattered forms, resonating with the stone and putty pieces, these works cleverly tied emotional fragility and injury with physical decay and destruction; a pertinent take on today’s troubled times.
Saud Baloch’s pieces remind us of what ‘was’ rather than what ‘is’, and that nothing is really permanent. Perhaps, since we are in a constant state of becoming and developing physically, we are always ‘newer’ versions of ourselves, and so our ‘old’ versions become the past. Similarly, on a larger scale, life is in constant motion, change is inevitable and, if one gets too attached to certain memories or ways of being, regression is guaranteed. Thus, while still living, being ‘under the dust’ is entirely our choice.