“There is nothing like looking things in the face, believe me.” Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line in ‘The Wall’ seems to underpin Sarmad Khoosat’s 24-hour ‘performance art,’ titled No Time To Sleep.
At 12 midnight on Tuesday last, one of the longest continuous pieces of performance art in Pakistan — and the only one of its kind to date — commenced at the historic Evernew Studios in Lahore. As I was (quietly) let in the door to the third hall of the giant studio, Khoosat, in his orange shalwar kameez (prison clothes), was already present inside a white-brick solitary cell that had been set up for his performance in the middle of the hall under bright lights, making it seem like a movie set.
The audience could not make a sound, they could not reach him, nor could they hear him; they could just observe this massive embodiment of grief and anguish from afar, behind a mesh screen. It was frustratingly dark and gloomy; almost death-like, as if we were there to witness a real prisoner in the last 24 hours of his life.
No Time To Sleep, an ambitious and powerful performance that took place on the World Day against Death Penalty, was a collaboration between Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), Highlight Arts, and Olomopolo Media. It saw Khoosat portray Prisoner ‘Z’ aka Master Jee, locked in isolation, for the last hours before his execution. A 24-hour live stream made it possible for people all around the world to witness the show without actually being there. The performance was inspired by the actual case of an inmate named Zulfiqar Ali Khan, who had spent 17 years on death row before he was hanged in 2015.
Directed by Kanwal Khoosat, No Time To Sleep could be described as a brutally honest depiction of despondency, of a man who is completely aware of the fact that he has run the course of his life. With elements of serious art, reflection and therapy, all rolled into one, it made you forget about the outside world, if only for a brief moment.
Joining Prisoner ‘Z’, or Master Jee, were a bunch of characters — if you may call them that; but in a nutshell, it was a solo show by Khoosat. There were on-duty guards that he had frequent heart-to heart talks with; doctors who visited him every second hour to check whether he was fit (for execution) or not; his father, his brother, and daughters who visited him hours before his imminent execution; and then there were some police officers.
The performance forced the audience to juggle with a wide range of emotions, ranging from indifference to fear, anxiety, depression, even denial. We got to witness an increasingly perturbed Master Jee pacing his room with resigned agitation. We saw him quietly embrace the fact that he would never really be checked by the jail doctor who visited him every two hours to falsely report that he was all hale and hearty: “Sab achhay ki report!”
A series of breathtaking scenarios pulled us in as we watched Master Jee indulge in poetry, or do maths on the prison floor. He wrote verses from Robert Frost’s famous poem, ‘Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ on the floor, and instead of stopping at that, he underlined a few words to write their translation in Urdu. It was a choking but deeply stimulating ride as Master Jee reiterated the importance of education, art, and literature through his many conversations with the guards on duty — and indirectly inspired the audience to do the same. We witnessed the indifference of the guard on duty who was only concerned about his duty to finish whereas for the prisoner it was his entire life squished into just a few hours.
Towards the end, as the performance began to warp and darken, Master Jee got to meet his family for one last time as he struggled to keep his emotions in check while the world and his doubts pushed back against him. The banality of existence was too obvious here.
The audience felt the emotional force in the last scene when the prison guards came to escort him to the gallows. Master Jee, in that scene, seemed immensely weary, and that immeasurable strength that he continuously displayed over the last 23 hours, finally seemed to falter. But even in that moment of finality, he seemed sensitive to the drama of the occasion.
We almost grew fond of this man silently awaiting death. We could feel his pain, his anguish, his regret and frustration about his life that was about to end in vain. In this experience we became one with Master Jee.
In Pakistan, since the year 2004, about 4,500 people have been sentenced to death, according to JPP statistics. It’s a time period that includes a six-year moratorium on executions, which was controversially lifted shortly after the bloody attack on APS in Peshawar in 2014. Since then, Pakistan has hanged some 496 people, according to JPP.
The idea for the performance did not come out of thin air, says the concept creator, Ryan Van Winkle. “We initially thought of doing something in real time on the social media. But then Sarah Belal, JPP director and the lawyer for Zulfiqar Ali Khan, dropped the idea.
“At that time it seemed ambitious and rather dangerous. We originally thought about doing it for three days but eventually reduced it to one 24-hour performance,” he continues. “The basic idea was to try and do something big and international that would bring people into the life of a prisoner, to put a human face on capital punishment.”
Winkle further says that the performance was inspired by elements of various global art pieces of similar nature, for example Marina Abramovic’s ‘The Artist Is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2010, where she sat on a chair for seven days and people just came and looked into her eyes. “I think there is something very powerful about looking into somebody’s eyes for a prolonged period.
“There is also an act of protest in giving up your time and body for a cause. In some ways it is a very dramatic sit-in,” he adds. “We consider this as much a dramatic/creative piece as a political statement.”
Rimmel Mohydin, Head of Communications, JPP, says that with this performance they want to start a conversation on the issue of death penalty. “Instead of lecturing people, it seemed much more effective for us to show the last few hours of a person who has spent years awaiting death.”
On particularly choosing Zulfiqar Ali Khan’s case, Mohydin says, “Nobody wants to see an innocent person hanged. It was a deliberate choice to use a case where there was a fatality because the intention of the project was to show the humanity of those on death row, despite the crime that they may have committed.
“You are always more than the worst thing you have done and that is precisely what the death penalty ignores.”
No Time To Sleep confirms Khoosat as an artist of exceptional integrity, compassion, imagination and stamina and his performance forces people to ponder over the absolute conclusiveness of a death sentence, that is often executed in the dark of the night behind the closed prison walls.
“I cannot think of any other person who could have pulled this off in a better manner than Sarmad,” Mohydin comments. “In him [Khoosat], we have a national treasure.”
No Time to Sleep ought to be appreciated for trying the genre of ‘performance art’ for the first time in Pakistan, and for raising a pertinent question in a manner that would be remembered by people for a long time to come. Here was a performance that had both style and substance.