Oct 31 2019

Work About Extrajudicial Killings Destroyed at Karachi Biennale

by Lauren Long

ADEELA SULEMAN‘s contribution to the 2019 Karachi Biennale, Killing Fields of Karachi (2019), has been destroyed and removed from the event. Image via Nazish Brohi’s Twitter.

On October 27, plainclothes police stormed the 2019 Karachi Biennale and demanded that the event’s organizers remove an installation by Pakistani artist and academic Adeela Suleman, titled Killing Fields of Karachi (2019). The work comprises 444 headstone-like sculptures commemorating the victims of the violent raids in Karachi between 2011 and 2018, allegedly led by Rao Anwar, a former police superintendent, whose trial for the extrajudicial killings is ongoing. The piece was accompanied by a video on one of the victims, Naqeebullah Mehsud, whose death had set off protests across the country in 2018. The police officers reportedly attempted to smash Suleman’s sculptures before stating that they would be returning to remove the work for good. 

To protest the police’s demands, and to protect the exhibit, members of the Karachi art community lay between the sculptures on October 28. That same day, the Biennale issued a statement on Facebook, appearing to walk back on their decision to include the installation: “We are against censorship of art and believe that expression is very subjective to the viewers interpretation of the artwork. With regards to the exhibit in question, we feel that despite the artist’s perspective, it is not compatible with the ethos of #KB19, the theme of which is ‘Ecology and the Environment,’ and we feel that politicizing the platform will go against our efforts of bringing art to the public and drawing artists from the fringe to the mainstream cultural discourse.” 

The work was destroyed by unidentified men before the morning of October 29. At a press conference, Suleman claimed that her work reflects what is already public knowledge, saying: “My work was just a story of incidents that took place in Karachi around a year ago . . . We artists express our emotions. We speak about things that leave a mark on our souls.” She later told ARTnews that the Biennale “has completely ditched me as an artist and abandoned my work.”

An open letter began to circulate on the internet, decrying the events: “[The Biennale’s] stance sets a very dangerous precedent for future art events. Over the past few decades, we have already witnessed a systematic depoliticization of the art school and the art gallery in Pakistan, sustained by a comfortable understanding between the military establishment and the cultural elite . . . The censorship of Suleman’s work has made it clear to us that our public spaces are anything but free.” As of October 29, more than 100 curators and artists have signed the letter, among them Zahra Khan, Chitra Ganesh, Naeem Mohaiemen, and Jaishri Abichandani. The full statement can be read here.

Lauren Long is ArtAsiaPacific’s news and web editor.

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