Adeela Suleman's Karachi Biennale exhibit destroyed: Questions abound over shocking vandalism

  • For her exhibit titled The Killing Fields of Karachi, artist Adeela Suleman had installed 444 concrete pillars.

  • The pillars symbolised the number of extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out between 2011 and 2018 by senior superintendent of Sindh police, Rao Anwar.

  • The installation was part of the ongoing Karachi Biennale 2019.

"To me it looked like someone had created a gora kabristan (Christian graveyard) with a neat row of tombstones," said 50-something Munna, who has been selling cold drinks at Karachi's iconic Frere Hall for the last 40 years. He was referring to Adeela Suleman's artwork — The Killing Fields of Karachi — that now lay in heaps of rubble after "some men came and started destroying these stones late last night," which Munna witnessed.

Suleman’s was one of the artworks included in the second Karachi Art Biennale that began on 27 October and will continue till 12 November, with some 97 artists from over 16 countries displaying their work at seven venues across Karachi.

The seven venues where artworks will be put up are Bagh Ibne Qasim, Karachi Zoo, Alliance Francaise, Indus Valley School gallery, Frere Hall, NED University city campus and VM Art Gallery.

Suleman had installed 444 concrete pillars symbolising the number of extrajudicial killings allegedly carried out between 2011 and 2018  by senior superintendent of Sindh police, Rao Anwar, infamously known as “encounter specialist”. Now suspended, he is undergoing a trial for the 2018 murder of 27-year-old Naqeebullah Mehsud; Anwar had declared Mehsud a militant, but the latter was found to have been an innocent aspiring model.

Among the men who carried out the destruction of Suleman's installation was Mohammed Rashid, who headed a team of city wardens from the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC). "We were merely carrying out orders to destroy these columns and load the rubble into trucks. I don't even know where they were taken," he said, when asked why they could not have loaded the columns instead of breaking them up first.

 Adeela Sulemans Karachi Biennale exhibit destroyed: Questions abound over shocking vandalism

Seen here, in images 1-5: Adeela Suleman's installation The Killing Fields of Karachi, at the Karachi Biennale. Photos courtesy Adeela Suleman

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Even before that, just two hours after her art exhibit opened to public on 27 October, men in plain clothes told the Frere Hall authorities that they had orders to seal a part of Suleman’s exhibition which had a video showing an interview with Mehsud's father.

Karachi's mayor, Wasim Akhtar, head of the KMC and guest of honour at the opening of the Biennale, refused to take any responsibility for the destroyed artwork. Instead, he pointed to the Guardians Board (GB), with whom the KMC had earlier signed a memorandum of understanding, whereby the "former had relinquished Frere Hall's management and maintenance in favour of the GB".

Shahid Abdullah, one of Karachi's eminent architects, is a member of the GB. When contacted, he said GB was not involved in the vandalism, and in fact, he found nothing wrong with the "artist’s expression of what happened in Karachi in the past" for it to be censored.

For now, nobody is claiming responsibility for destroying Suleman’s work, nor offering a reason as to why it was carried out.

Suleman, who heads the Department of Fine Art at Karachi's Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, said her first reaction towards the "backlash" to her art installation was of "shock", specially because this violence apparently came from someone in authority. She added, "This case was between State and Rao Anwar and all the information was public. There was nothing (in my artwork) which was not in the public domain."

Earlier this year, Naziha Syed Ali, assistant editor at the English daily Dawn, had co-authored an investigative piece with Fahima Zaman, titled ‘Rao Anwar and the killing fields of Karachi’. There was no opposition to it at the time. "I can't recall adverse reactions from any quarter at the time of doing the story. I think the authorities were on the back foot at the time because there was so much public outrage surrounding the Naqeebullah case and the 444 murders that, according to the police record, Rao Anwar had committed," she told Firstpost.

But now, she said, those "same authorities are clearly back in the saddle, controlling the narrative".

Writer, artist and educator Rumana Hussain was among the lucky few who saw the entire work by Suleman. "The installation and video made a very strong statement that deeply impacted all who saw it, including myself. Poignant, heart wrenching… it’s a shame that it was censored," she said.

Speaking with Firstpost, Suleman reiterated that she had been “re-narrating a story that was in the public domain". Violence, she said, had been a recurring theme in her work since 9/11. "It's not new; it's my artistic response to violence taking place anywhere in the country, especially Karachi," Suleman said.

"This is an example of the impunity that the powerful military enjoys in Pakistan today. After suppressing voices of civil society and media they are now moving to curb dissent in any form, be it art or music," said Mubashir Zaidi, a journalist, who was the first to break the news of Suleman's artwork coming into the crosshairs of the "military intelligence agency" on Twitter, after which the news went viral.

Only then did it dawn on Suleman that "art has the power" but there are people who "want to control how we interact with the public".

Noted writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif was also astounded by the destruction of Suleman’s installation. "As far as I know, our law enforcers usually leave our visual artists alone as it is such a small circle of people."

The closing down and demolition of Suleman’s installation has elicited a strong reaction from the artists’ community.

"I went with my group to stand in protest against the attempt to censor Adeela's art installation," said social activist and classical dancer Sheema Kermani.

They helped prop up and restore the exhibition and then lay against the tombstones. "The act of lying down there was a symbolic act of ‘dying in’, meaning that this is what is happening to us, we are all dying!" explained Kermani, also the founder of Tehrik-e-Niswan, an organisation working for women's rights.

The activist believed art was "for the public" and for it to be meaningful "it is inherently political".

Adeela Suleman's artwork, The Killing Fields of Karachi. Image courtesy Soch

Image 6: Adeela Suleman's artwork, The Killing Fields of Karachi. Photo courtesy Soch

Suleman's take on ecology

With ‘ecology’ declared as the 2019 Karachi Biennale's (KB19) theme, the organisers had invited artists "to challenge mythologies of development cast in concrete and measured in extinct species, wasted bodies, sterile lands and poisoned waters."

But, pointed out Kermani, for art to be meaningful "it has to be inherently political".

Suleman noted that art and politics go hand-in-hand, and ecology is political too. "My theme was ecology of violence and how it pollutes the brain and soul, leaving a mark on us. I give a human face to ecology and for me it is not just polluted air, water and land," she said.

But more than anything, Suleman felt "ditched" by the organisers when her exhibition was being vandalised.

"I believe that KB19 should have stood by Adeela and her work. If they did not think this work was within their remit, they should have refused to include it earlier, like they did with others. But once they had accepted, then as curators they must own it and support the artist," said Kermani.

The "abject surrender" by the KB19 team surprised Hanif. "I am sure the curators knew what Adeela's project was. In fact, it was one of the centre pieces and she is one of the best artists around, so to pretend that they were unaware of what she was doing or she went beyond her brief, is not only cowardly but also stupid. They have clearly stabbed her in the back when they should have stood united," he said, adding, "I still hope that some of the artists participating in this will stand up for her."

Niilofur Farrukh, CEO of KB19 and managing trustee of the Karachi Biennale Trust, told Firstpost that her organisation was "not responsible for locking the work or others at the venue".

"The Frere Hall is under the Metropolitan Government that has locked the entire venue, because according to them, KB19 had violated the agreement that Frere Hall would only be used to exhibit art on ecology and there would be no other activity like the press conference that took place there," she said.

"Since the said work had nothing to do with ecology and only with a case that is still in the courts, KB19 could not do anything to keep the Frere Hall authorities from exercising its right to close the venue," Farrukh said, expressing regret that Suleman’s work was vandalised, whist adding that the KB19 team had no access to the venue once it was closed.

Farrukh also said that the artist did not inform the curator or the organisers when her exhibition room was locked.

"This was very surprising as the first thing when something like this happens at an exhibition is to inform the organisers," said Farrukh, adding that the KB19 team found out via social media.

They requested Suleman to brief them about the facts and assured her that the KB19 team stood by her and needed to find out more before taking action. The team also requested her not to talk to the press so any statement could be made collectively.

The next the organisers heard was that Suleman had called a press conference at the Frere Hall "without the organisers of KB19 or representatives of artists on the panel" explained Farrukh.

The authorities complained to KB19 that it was a violation of the agreement that the latter signed with them, stating that the venue would only be used for art exhibits. "With the result that it led to the shutting down of the entire venue where, besides Adeela, three other artists are exhibiting," said Farrukh.

Images 6-8: What was left of the destroyed artwork. Photos courtesy Zofeen Ebahim

Images 7-9: What was left of the destroyed artwork. Photos courtesy Zofeen T Ebrahim

The aftermath by Zofeen T. Ebrahim-min

What was left of the artwork by Zofeen T. Ebrahim-min

But many from the artist community believe the organisers could not have been in the dark about Suleman's work.

"All artists signed a contract in which they were given a clear understanding that the KB19 theme is ‘ecology’ and they are invited to focus on various dimensions of this in their work," agreed Farrukh, saying the participating artists had created work on climate change, coastal degradation, threat to animals species etc.

The KB19 CEO said the curator, Muhammad Zeeshan, told the organisers that he did not receive a detailed proposal from Suleman and that she only submitted a general statement with no reference to the killings. "The title submitted was ‘The Killing Fields of Karachi’, but since the lens was ‘ecology’, it was understood in that context as reports on deaths caused by temperature hikes, polluted drinking water and toxins are not uncommon. The video shown to Zeeshan was of a man looking out at the sea, the other parts in the video shown at KB19 were added later. She had only submitted the drawing of a brick with a wilted rose that could easily relate to the concrete bricks used in buildings that marginalise nature."

Farrukh further said, "KB19 has many provocative statements under the rubric of ecology, so clearly making a statement within the curatorial framework of the Biennale is not the problem here."

Meanwhile, Adeela Suleman refused to let her spirts be dampened by the destruction of her artwork. "The city (Karachi) trains you to be resilient and to survive the madness," she said. "News of what happened to my work, which otherwise would have been witnessed by a few hundred, has now spread hundred-fold more."

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Below is a brief statement from Sarah Dara, who works at Soch, a multilingual news community:

Adeela Suleman walked through her installation, the gravestones overturned and crushed. The destroyed artwork now symbolised something more than the deaths of 444 individuals; it depicted the state’s disownment of those lives as well as its tightening noose on art, creativity and freedom of speech.

As the sky turned darker, members of the civil society, including rights activists Jibran Nasir and Sheema Kirmani, appeared at the site. Though the crowd was small, they came with impassioned sentiments. Shouts of 'shame' echoed as people took turns emphasising how disgraceful it was that "they" were more concerned with stones rather than human lives.

Suleman mocked the state institutions for being obsessed with showing a "positive image of Pakistan" — the reason given for the sealing of her exhibit — asking what image does the vandalism show. There was a sense of resilience in the crowd, many spoke about the power of the people and had a drive to fight back against the continued censorship. A sense of owning public spaces for themselves and their art was on everyone's mind; pieces of Suleman's exhibit were put together and Sheema Kirmani's shout of art and politics being interlinked rang loudly at the beginning of the die-in.

The silence accompanying the surviving graves and activists' bodies lying still on the ground was fitting, portraying the problematic layers left behind by the censorship.

Updated Date: Nov 02, 2019 16:23:00 IST