September 3, 2010, as the month of Ramadan walked into its final week, the Al Quds Day (a procession expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people) took its first steps : an estimated 2,500 people, expressing political and soteriological sentiments, opened an annual march on the tumultuous streets of Quetta, the provincial capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan’s province.
During this period, Pakistan was experiencing a dangerous ebb and flow.
The climate was, at the very least, volatile.
Besides the fact that Quetta was notorious for civil unrest and shambolic security buffers, the entire country was in a critical condition, bleeding profusely from the triple blasts on similar processions during the week. And this wound was in the background of the manic floods that devastated the country.
Unfortunately, it did not take long for more devastation to erupt. As the procession gathered at its final terminal, an egregious explosion screamed over 50 people to death.
Naila Khan heard this scream. Her uncle, Mohammad Javed, died in the blast.
Naila, a third year Fine Arts student at York University, recalls a phone call her family received at their Toronto residence, “ We heard about the blast prior to the call : what we did not know was about my uncle.”
Naila’s uncle was caught at the epicenter of the blast. His only remains were the memories he had left behind.
Angered at the mendacity of the security officials, Naila and her family felt as though the officials had reneged on their promise to prevent any unfortunate circumstance.
And rightfully so. After three blasts in one week, Naila’s family was right to assume that the security teams would protect the people through their acute intelligence.
Weeks stumbled by and Naila’s family, in Quetta and Toronto, collected their strength through prayer and protest. Naila, however, could not find the muscle to move on and she spoke to me about the weakness she felt shackled in.
Her hair neatly parked in a headscarf, Naila’s sharp eyes cut me with a rare sweetness. Her eyes do not wander. As I spoke to her, I could tell that she had critically studied the event in Quetta but was cognizant of not passing judgment. Her speech had a forgiving fragrance to it. She struck me as a rare flower that forgives but does not forget. I was attracted to this element almost instantly.
As we spoke, she explained how she turned her prayers into a protest, “ I wanted justice from Allah yet I was not sure of how I wanted it : at many moments I found myself wondering what I could do to further this call for justice?”
Naila explained that her situation was also inimical to her academic progress and, at the start of her third year, the loss of her uncle had disrupted her concentration severely.
Searching for a way into some sanity, Naila then realized her own artwork as a way to find her self back.
She decided to dedicate a photographic essay to those killed in Quetta and her work, The Waiting Room”, was featured in a December exhibit at York University.
“This work is not about my uncle alone…it is about anyone who has lost a loved one,” she said.
I was fortunate to meet with Naila’s work during its formative stages. Much before she hosted her exhibit, Naila granted me an opportunity to experience how, through visual art, she brought death back to life.
At first, Naila provided me with acrid accounts of the carnage in Quetta. Then, she unveiled a series of framed photographs of the aftermath of the blast. The images were intoxicated with blood. Drunk with death. Quetta had lost its control.
But for a second, I wondered of how different was her work from any of the photographic reports residing in the media. The frames, I felt, brought a measure to the pain and explained how people suffered through the explosion. This was not new knowledge to me.
However, as Naila proceeded to disrupt the frames ( refer the photographs ), I felt her pulse. The photographs were mostly, if not all, of men who had suffered. It measured the amount of wounds and blood of men. The pain of the unseen, invisible women could not be contained in this frame, could not be measured.
Naila’s essay was aimed at documenting the hidden pains of such events. While the blood certainly achieved some physical contact with the viewer, Naila was focused on bringing people to meet with those absent from the frame.
“When these men die, we forget that, given the patriarchal regime of our society, women have lost breadwinners and supporters…the women and children, who you do not see, are dying a slow death,” Naila explained. And, perhaps, she too was experiencing this loss of life and the art was providing her a means of therapy and support.
The Waiting Room collapses a variety of frames into an uncontained narrative. During her exhibit, Naila allowed for visitors to be cut by the piercing images but she did not stop there. She provided her own verbal commentary to explain her absent presence from the images.
“People were curious about my work and I knew I had a responsibility to converse with them : at the end of it, I think I realized how important my art can be if I realize the importance of my own history, my own blood,” Naila said.
Naila’s work, as I watched it come together, asks us to see what we do not see. And, perhaps, we do not see our blood until it is too late.
Naila hopes her work will continue in this manner.
Naila plans to pursue art therapy as a career and has the full support of her family and friends. She, furthermore, is interested in renewing the local arts scene by going beyond the cannon. She takes inspiration from Persian artist Abbas Sherazi and hopes that her difference can ignite curiosity and establish common grounds.
After all, have we not all lost a loved one? And don’t we all bleed red?