July 10, 2022
By Asra Haque and Ahmed Saeed
Despite the heavy downpour, it does very little to tame the heat. On the phone, Yasir tells us he will be right out, and the next moment there he is.
It is a short little walk to his little apartment-cum-studio, where a young woman whom he introduced as a student stands at the door to usher us in. We leave our shoes at the car battery and UPS lying right next to the entrance and to our left we are immediately greeted with a wall adorned with framed miniature paintings.
To the right is a worktable, upon which sat a cutting mat, a well-used watercolour palette box, an assortment of brushes, pencils and other tools stuffed into two marge mugs, a laptop with the screen paused at Eleven donning make-shift blackout goggles, and a ziplock bag containing what appeared to be the blades of a small fan at first.
It is clean, cramped, and despite the whirring ceiling fan on full blast above our head, it is stuffy too.
“I will set it up for you as soon as you give me the go-ahead,” he said, pointing at the ziplock bag. “Oh and what language do you want me to speak in? See, some of the terminology they taught us is in English and… I tend to stumble on my words. The other day I was being interviewed by Indians and they asked me to stick to English… you can tell I’m mumbling a bit right now.”
Whatever you are comfortable with, we tell him.
“What are you going to interview me about?”
Your story, the themes apparent in your work, that sort of stuff.
The recording equipment had yet to be unpacked when Yasir begins narrating in detail the tale he has had to squeeze into a few measly lines in artist statements supplied to galleries and exhibits the world over. He has had plenty of practice from all those years of explaining what his works mean to curious art enthusiasts and potential buyers, beginning with his lived experience before transitioning to the themes and process behind his pieces.
Yasir Waqas was born to a Punjabi family settled in Quetta where his father worked as a mechanic at an airfield.
“He was very impressed by his superiors, particularly the pilots,” he said. “On the weekends he would tell us stories of a future where I would airdrop my family sweetmeats. And at that time, I believed in that future as well. I would dream of flying over to my aunt’s house and dropping a bomb on her whenever she reprimanded me.”
His childhood toys consisted of broken parts his father brought home, which Yasir would open up and see their inner workings. By the time he was a teen, he was working as an actual mechanic.
“My father managed to get me far enough to take a gliding pilot license (GPL) test, and soon enough I was flying a plane for real.”
He recalls the freedom, the thrill of being able to zoom through the skies and witness the world in a way that was not possible for humans prior to the invention of the first aircraft in 1903. Before him was a limitless, blue expanse, seen from the confines of a small cockpit.
“I quickly began feeling like I was caged,” he admitted. “I seriously questioned myself whether I had really wanted all this.”
Yasir always had an affinity for the arts since his childhood. Those broken parts his father brought home with the hopes of igniting a passion for flying in his son were also complicated designs he would replicate in sketches in an attempt to understand them.
Art was a language that he utilized to grasp hard concepts and realities, and to better attain a semblance of his self.
“One day, I packed up my bags and told my parents that I got into the National College of Arts. They questioned my decision, they demanded to know if I really wanted to hawk my paintings off a rickety bicycle in neighbourhoods for the rest of my life,” he said.
He related how, despite now being firmly planted on the surface, he felt more freedom than he ever did up in the sky. It was as if the boundaries of his imagination opened up, however he could not quite reach into this new expanse. The trauma of having shunned societal expectations imposed on him by his parents and by himself during his childhood and his career as a glider pilot shackled him.
That was when his tutor suggested he explore that trauma through art, through the language he understood and was fluent in most.
“I began showing the clash between the innate and the implanted. I am the innate, the id, and the implanted is what my father, what society expected of me as a pilot,” he explained, gesturing toward a painting of a spread-out Eurasian sparrow. Its right wing and breast is a jumble of mechanical parts – an aircraft engine. “You would think machines can make things better, efficient. But a bird, naturally built for flight, would never be able to get off the ground even if it is fitted with an engine that is supposed to lift an airplane into the sky.”
In the same painting, one can see an intricate circular pattern – something of a cross between mechanical locks and gears and a traditional mandela. When asked, he provided that he incorporates many Buddhist elements in his work, particularly the concept of inner peace and the journey of the religion’s founder.
Born to the chief of the powerful Shakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama (later known as Gautama Buddh)is raised a prince, living a life of comfort and expectations. His education is tailored to mold him into a strong and brilliant ruler, and he marries suitably to raise a worthy successor for the title Gautama is to inherit from his father.
However, he is eventually confronted with the reality that all of his life’s comforts are impeded by old age, disease and death. Seeking truth, he abandons his status and family, heading out in the world with nothing in his possession save a modest garb and a bowl to beg for alms and to eat and drink from.
In his journey, he meets and learns from many an ascetic, and leaves unsatisfied every time. Having amassed such knowledge, all of it so contradictory, he resolves to purify his thoughts and parse the truth by meditating under a fig tree. And that is where he attains enlightenment, where he discovers the reality that is suffering and the path to free oneself from that suffering.
“In a way, you could say I relate very much with this story,” he said.