Meeting the new artists in Karachi Central Prison
By Varda Nisar
I met Wahid Khari (or as I prefer to call him, Wahid Sahab) while I was working at an art gallery. He is a photographer by profession, but at the time he was also involved in some interesting work inside the prison system. Back in 2007, he and a colleague started the Karachi Central Prison’s Fine Art School. The idea to start the school came from Nusrat Hussain Mangan, a former senior superintendent of prisons who had been inspired by an artist friend. The goal was simple: to use art as a medium to inspire change by encouraging prisoners to pursue a creative outlet. The thinking was that this would allow them to channel their energy and develop their skills. The changes that were predicted back in 2007 were becoming apparent when I visited the school.
A visit to the prison was in order, to experience and see these positive changes firsthand. Karachi Central Prison doesn’t inspire much confidence in anyone, no matter how noble their intentions may be. Naturally, the idea of being in a confined space with convicted criminals (murderers, rapists, arsonists — you name it) was not one of the most reassuring thoughts, so I made sure to take every preventive measure I could. I was dressed in attire that would have been more suitable for a funeral, covering myself from head to toe and taking along a shawl for extra measure.
Karachi Central Prison is one of the main prison houses in Karachi city proper. The men’s, women’s and juvenile’s sections are all within the same compound, each separated by walking distance. The jailer led our small group, which included Wahid Sahab, his colleague and myself, to the children’s section first, just a short drive from the main entrance. We were taken into a small stuffy room that was trying to accommodate more than its capacity. What was taking place inside was something that you would never expect to happen in a prison, especially in Pakistan. About ten kids of different ages ranging from 11 to 18 were seated around a table in the middle of the room. These kids who had been arrested and sentenced, most of them for petty crimes, held paper and colored pencils, wax crayons and markers in their hands. There were books with illustrations opened in front of them to draw inspiration from. They were getting a chance to do something that should have been a prerogative of theirs from the beginning. At their age, they should have been allowed to escape into a world of innocent fun, fantasy and color long before their stint in prison, instead of being burdened with the harsh realities of life. In these kid’s struggle for survival, life had ultimately taken a turn for the worst. But there in that room I saw amazing illustrations emerging from their pencils. Even though they were inexperienced with art tools and materials, they were producing some pretty good work! Earlier this year at the Karachi Children’s Art Fest, the students’ work was put on sale and the money earned was distributed to the children at a small ceremony that same day. This may have been the first small step in realizing their own potential.
Our next stop was the women’s section. The art department was newly established in the women’s section at the time, and it was clear that the idea had yet to take off with the majority of the women inmates. The classroom was all but empty. Only two women wanted to show and talk about their work. The rest preferred to stay away or keep their work private. Wahid Sahab explained to me that art was still an alien concept for them. The concept of art as an integral part of society is overlooked here. For many it remains a luxury, an elitist indulgence. For the “common” man art seems like a waste of time when basic necessities are hard to come by. In a country where the minimum wage is somewhere in the region of $5 per day, it makes sense that each and every member of a family has to worry about his or her next meal — money is not to be taken lightly and spent on luxuries like art. In the case of this prison, even a meal is a luxury. There is also a psycho-spiritual conflict rooted in art’s relationship to and place in religion, including art’s legitimacy within a religious framework. People may question what is acceptable as art. Can one draw faces? Or maybe just draw it in 2D form? What if we don’t give it a shadow or a 3D quality? Would that work? In a country where religion shrouds our national narrative, and is the theme of every conversation in every drawing room in the country, it is hard to break free from its dogmatic constraints. For a developing country like Pakistan, art doesn’t hold the same value as health, education and livelihood, so it is often neglected.
Our final stop was the Men’s prison and its art class was the highlight of our trip. It was the first one to be established and had been in existence for almost five years by then. The place could have easily been confused for any regular art workshop. Wearing their dress pants and shirts, or Shalwar Kameez, some of the students sat on benches with their paints and brushes concentrating on their work, while the new comers were gathered around a subject and drew in their sketchbooks, much like I used to do as a first year student in art school. From my point of view, their experience with art had changed them, made them softer and more confident; it had given them the awareness and confidence to face their past and recover from it. With their painting they had found a way to give words to their sins, to be able to talk about it and move on. Perhaps it has also allowed them to see the beauty that exists around them, whether it’s found in the curve of a letter or in nature, or in a memory of a ordinary village scene. Art made them look beyond their own surroundings. I imagine this must have offered them hope.
There were also men there who were holding a brush for the first time. These men, convicted of heinous crimes, with a life and a past already behind them, were building something new for themselves with a few strokes of their paintbrushes. Within those walls one could sense their nostalgia for their villages, for the homes that they have left behind, for the kids whose pictures they carry with them, sometimes along with small images of Picasso’s famous works. They seemed to carry in them an acute understanding of the real world — a world that is unjust and has failed them. Some of their works offer a kind of social commentary and a great understanding of how to portray their views on society visually. On one of the canvases, a turtle that represented justice continued on its slow pace towards a prison, an evocative image about how the inmates were waiting and wasting away as justice made its sluggish journey. So far, the inmates of this institution have had their works exhibited in a number of shows. It’s ironic that the probability of that happening in the professional art world would have been unlikely. Now that they had taken a wrong turn in their life, their amateur work was being exhibited. There is a famine of such opportunities for a large portion of the population in this country; especially when reaching the top of the corporate ladder or simply getting enough money to put food on the table takes priority. The time to pursue creative endeavours is a luxury not available to many. Therefore, for this prison art school to exist, and for individuals like Wahib Sahab to exist, is most definitely a blessing.
Varda Nisar is assistant art editor for the magazine.