In times of friction and unrest, art disarms yet cavorts with the ingenious acts of creation allowing for moments of introspection. Adeela Suleman’s solo presentation titled Bashi Bazouk held at Canvas Gallery opened on March 9th 2021. Bashi Bazouk, the title of the show refers to ‘one who’s head is turned’— roughly translated from Turkish into leaderless/disorderly; these were the leaderless troops who had sprung up in times of war during the Ottoman Empire, notorious for their lack of discipline and brutality.
Suleman’s work is an astonishing parlance into the perils and petulance of death and mortality fraternized through a genteel awareness of mediums and exquisite craftsmanship. Walking into the gallery one senses a cataclysmic calm; a robust frenzy quelled with a thick impenetrable silence bathed in a warm light. The reds overtly dancing visibly, and the eye moves along enraptured. A decadent tapestry, titled Momento Mori: Remember That You Must Die, hangs on the left and captivatingly calls out. The calm pulsates as one moves toward it, striking hues emblazoned with rich embroidery. Motifs from Safavid, Ottoman, Mughal and other civilizations at the peak of their violent conquest, harmonize; radiating a rich red luxurious spill molded through thread. At the mercy of the sheer grandeur of the visual one doesn’t immediately falter at sight of the violence depicted. Disarming, yet stately! Suleman delves into the psychology of violence and the impetuous trials of mortality, simultaneously a narrative depicting the primal urge of self-preservation bound to the complexity of atrocity and lack of accountability is juxtaposed within the imagery. The birth and death of civilizations, the need to declare oneself the victor all piquantly tied to the precariousness of the human condition resonate through the work. Suleman weaves histories of oppression, and narratives of contemporary politics to examine death as the one persistent truth in life.
Self-preservation too functions on the paradox of inflicting death or resisting it. The victor and vanquished riddled into consort with agencies of the existing and non-existing, the vulnerability of human existence threatened as the price of human life is measured against victory. The rampage of violence inflicted upon civilians, marginalized communities, ethnic genocide, target killings, state-administered violence, gruesome acts of carnage, piquantly festooned under the urban tapestry we currently reside in, shapes into a stout underlying theme. The richly embroidered reds are a more scathing brown in reality. Vitriol and violence, a tale as old as man himself, made more precise by contemporary instruments and tools is woven corpulently into the fabric of the plot; the macabre and the magnanimous, a slippery act of morality and mortality curtailed by human admission.
The figures in Momento Mori: Remember That You Must Die are mostly adorned with soft turbans and crowns, the headgear becomes a departure point for locating the threads in the other works, which are robust and glacial; a befitting armor for a warrior. A collection of five fabrications also occupies the gallery space; created of metal and ready-mades of domestic utilitarian nature like drains, tongs, icing nozzles, shaped into warrior-like helmets. A nod to Suleman’s earlier works which were also headgears fashioned out of domestic utensils, however they were more subversive toward the notions of femininity, the evolution of the headgears as presented in Bashi Bazouk stand against the framing of war and death. More threateningly inauspicious than before.
Suleman’s work is layered with the primal urgency of self-preservation and the vulnerability of the human condition. The headgears become a scathing acknowledgement of the violence that resides within the social fabric and show-cases the act of resistance. Perhaps in the current climate, where protection gears and masks have become an active means of resisting the ongoing pandemic, this allows one to locate the myriad insurgencies that threaten the human condition.
While death owns all of humanity, the aspirations and fear that surround it vary across cultures and religions. An obvious implication of how notions of dying influences actions can be located through the phenomenon of suicide bombings. The voluntary act of ending one’s life for the pleasures one may seek by sacrificing themselves, in particular when viewing the act of Jihad tied to Islamic belief, it may be an interesting lens to view the artist’s work, particularly Momento Mori, which is a heavy affirmation of Muslim civilizations. Given the rise in Islamophobia, the visions of blood-sport become inevitably tied to faith. While violence is a universal transgression, this frames it within a particular religion. It is interesting to study the works in unison especially keeping in light the artists foray into the structures that inflict and erase violence, the head gears become the punctuation within the tapestry of violence, depicting resistance. Not only in the rudimentary sense of self-preservation but also an accolade towards the hierarchy that sustains violent acts. While grappling with the mortality of one’s self, it serves as a sepulcher toward strained morality; one that diminishes violence into an infantile view, allowing for pre-existing socio-political frames to distort and sustain a world-view.
Suleman’s work is delightfully sinister; it lulls the viewer into a latent admirer before it cripples with it’s astonishing depth, a nuance delicately crafted by the artist over two decades.