An artist’s quest to highlight Sindh’s devastation | The Express Tribune

April 30, 2023


When Maqbool Jatoi was a child, the earth was his canvas; he would trace picturesque landscapes in the sand. Jatoi, who belongs to a village in the district of Khairpur Mirs in Sindh, did not give up his creative expression as he was growing up. After sand, he took up a ubiquitous and cheap tool: a ballpoint pen. During high school, he explored art further, scribbling away with pen in hand. He became more aware of his skill and recognised his passion for art. He began considering plans to pursue a degree in art.

Pakistan’s rural and underdeveloped regions offer limited scope to emerging artists. SO aspiring artists from these areas face more than a handful of challenges because they are bound by financial constraints, lack mobility and access to specialist institutes. Many talented and skilled individuals are compelled to forego their ambitions due to different reasons including the general perception that art is not a lucrative field.

Little surprise then that Jatoi’s academic plan was met with discouragement from his family and acquaintances, who urged him to pursue a traditional field, such as medicine, which could enhance his prospects. “I faced many difficulties from a young age,” Jatoi says. “Most people around me lacked awareness about art and thought it was a waste of time.” But Jatoi was determined nevertheless. In 2022, he completed his degree in Fine Art from the University of Sindh’s Institute of Art and Design.

After graduating, he moved to Karachi. “Initially, I found relocating tough in terms of finding residence in the city and connecting with people in Karachi’s art scene,” he shares. “I was lucky enough to stumble upon Sir Sundeep Kumar from the Atelier School of Art who graciously offered me his studio as a workspace.”

Jatoi has experimented with different mediums, including charcoal, but it is the ordinary ballpoint pen that stuck with him. The ballpoint remains a relatively unexplored and unconventional medium, perhaps, because of its challenging nature. There is little room for mistakes because each mark is permanent, and it requires intense concentration and unwavering patience. Jatoi says he often makes small mistakes but covers them up later through shading or utilising different lines. Either way, his finished work shows no signs of errors.

Unlike other pen artists, Jatoi has a minimalist approach. He does not use a lot of colours, mainly just black or blue. It is his precision and attention to detail that captures the viewer’s attention.

Jatoi’s work first caught people’s attention after his friend posted photos of his work on Twitter, which brought a flurry of appreciation. He was subsequently nominated for Pakistan Super League’s “Hamaray Heroes” and was featured during the recent PSL season. “My entire neighbourhood gathered to watch me on PSL and congratulated me for this feat,” he says. “It is only after this that my artistic pursuits are now being taken seriously by my family. This has been very motivating for me.”

Some young artists prefer not to toe the line and play it safe by circumventing the themes of social issues or politics. They wish to avoid unnecessary criticism at an early stage in their careers. However, Jatoi uses his art to raise awareness about socio-political issues, not just those that affect him and his community but woes that are shared by many others around the world. This is why he looks for inspiration in his daily life. “I often take photos on my phone, which I use as a reference to create my work. At times, I come up with visuals in my head and put those on paper,” he says.

Jatoi’s village is frequently affected by floods. “I witnessed the floods in 2010, 2015, and 2022. Seeing people repeatedly experience severe hardship compelled me to [draw].” Much of his work highlights the harrowing details of the humanitarian crisis that ensued in flood-affected regions across Pakistan. He brought unseen visuals from the flood-affected regions to the fore wherein women and children can be seen queued up for aid. One of his pieces shows a densely crowded scene of a temporary shelter that flood victims were forced to move into.

“The focal point of one of my artworks is a child in red who is standing amidst a crowd of people gathered for a ration distribution drive,” Jatoi explains. “What I wanted to show here was how the real haqdaar [deserving] do not receive their due share of things.”

Although Jatoi aimed to call attention to the sheer helplessness and desperation of the flood victims, many of these scenes are reflective of the daily lives of many destitute and vulnerable people across the country. His sketches reflect the power of art and its ability to depict many different situations through a single piece. But this would not have been possible without Jatoi’s incredible skill and dedication to his work. His art does not seem rushed or incomplete.

In Pakistan, there is a general disregard for arts and culture because of which young and emerging artists find it extremely challenging to enter the field and navigate their careers, especially without familial support and financial backing. Even though Jatoi has proved otherwise, he still requires resources to continue pursuing his passion. “Moving forward, I want to continue creating inspiring and valued art,” he says. “I hope to achieve enough success in my career to eventually establish an academy of my own where I can help emerging artists from rural and underprivileged regions of the country to develop their craft and skills and gain a footing in the industry.”

Pakistan’s art scene has evolved considerably with the emergence of many private galleries and non-governmental organisations that promote art and culture. This, coupled with the rise of digital media, has allowed young artists to market and promote their work online with little investment. However, these efforts are often limited to urban cities. There is a persistent gap at the national level. Jatoi suggests that art should be promoted widely and budding artists across the country should be facilitated through public institutes that can allow them to gain exposure and develop their craft.

Government-led initiatives are particularly important as they can have better outreach and coverage. Young artists like Jatoi in the far-flung areas of the country can avail support through such initiatives. Such endeavours will not only help convey important messages but will also provide Pakistan with an opportunity to showcase a population of the country that often goes ignored.

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