“I used to ask Naqeeb what good would modelling be for him; the long hair…. the photographs. I told him he should do something else. He replied, ‘Only the people in this village know you; a time will come when the whole world will know about me’”. 1 – Muhammad Khan
Artistic expression has always leaned towards, and looked upon the world to draw a voice from. The world around us (and the realities coming from it) is the elemental and indispensable vehicle for creation. Art is not meant to be solipsistic, nor is the artist detached from the world. Its construal is compounded through context, often allegorical.
Political art, tantamount to critical art, upsets status quo by challenging overriding histories in order to confront systematic positioning of socio-political narratives. Rebelling against power structures and systems in play at state level, and in an effort to anticipate a moral and just world, it becomes precarious and treacherous if the construct divulges from vulnerabilities in order to assist a partisan or self-serving agenda.
State institutionalized bodies have a stronghold in deciding what is considered ‘fitting’ for public spaces. This inclination can also be one of the many reasons contributing significantly to underfunding all forms of arts in Pakistan— a form of censorship, if you will. Moreover, the employment of under-prepared government employees, and state retirees, in significant cultural positions has been a major cause of concern and central to the absence of progression and evolution of the arts and culture within the country.
The discernibility of political commentary through the highly charged installation, Killing Fields of Karachi2, warranted a double impact: state coercion and the regulated reaction of the art fraternity. The latter was divided in its sentiments and support, layered with confusions and sides to take. A short spell of synchronized public performances and show of support for Suleman took place at the site of destruction. Short lived, because the support seemed to be more for the artist whose work had been vandalized and creating an obstinate stance against the KB Trust rather than aiming the embodied reaction against censorship and state-led vandalism. The general public, oblivious and unconcerned, was busy posing to be photographed against the backdrop of the rubble, the colonial structure and the greenery.
Censorship takes many forms: demolished sculptures, removed, tampered or damaged paintings, photographs and video installations, sealed exhibition spaces, opinions muzzled and artists incarcerated. Clampdown of freedom of expression, through state intervention, social media platforms, government institutionalized religious groups, private individuals and more, constrains and vetoes critical thinking thereby enforcing the artist to involuntarily participate in self-censorship. Public sentiments, on the other hand, are true to the spirit of making. The artist engages with his/her own position and feelings towards the evolving idea and its manifestation, to correspondingly impact the sentiments of the spectator. 3 This should factor in as a dominant principle to take into consideration when the artist is conceptualizing a piece of art for public consumption.
The rights of artistic freedom of artists and activists especially those being critical of governments, and of governing ideologies, however, are often quashed— ones that resist overriding narratives—not by the public, but by the dominating institution; with no clear rationale against the censorship. In the case of Killing Fields of Karachi, to annihilate and eliminate attention over the unconstitutional extra-judicial killings highlighted through the installation which galvanized intimate spaces inside and outside of the Frere Hall building.
Art, Violence and the State in the Killing Fields of Karachi, a compendium of essays compiled by Adeela Suleman and Mariam Ali Baig, ascended and shaped itself as a response to the destruction4, and incarceration5, of the artist’s installation set in multiple spaces at Frere Hall. The essays respond not only to Suleman’s narrative and practice around the death of Naqeebullah Mehsud and the ‘444 other unnamed victims who came to a violent end allegedly at the same hands’6, but also challenges continual censorship and the Establishment. Artists, art critics, journalists and activists’ raised voices take shape in the form of this book. A significant part of Adeela Suleman’s artistic practice has focused on creating a forceful visual narrative around ‘violence and its effects on the country and on the minds of its people, and the scars it imprints on our memory and our soul’7. The contributors reflect on self-censorship people impose on themselves out of fear, as well as apparent and explicit pressure, from any individual party or establishments. The authors also follow the chronological trajectory of social and political history of censorship in Pakistan, and the disenchantment of it all, while also attributing the practice of censorship across the globe.
Khaled Ahmed’s Prologue, which takes us through the Killing Fields of Karachi — its plot, journey, and destruction— draws to a conclusion with a unique comment on Pakistan’s constitution and Al Qaeda’s interpretation of it, referring to the ‘incompleteness’ of it. Continuing on a similar note with tongue-in-cheek, he ends his essay with, ‘And art and its ‘sinful’ images deserve to be pulled down. The ‘idolatry’ of art is therefore punished by the ideological state.’ The chapter, Freedom of Expression and the Islamic State, reiterates the challenges posed by stubborn intrenchment and narrow mindedness, ‘A single identity is imposed by states on their populations…. Because states want internal unity, they also oppose multiple internal identities, which means they oppose freedom of cultural expression’8. On the other hand, Salima Hashmi, Quddus Mirza, Hasnain Nawab, Rosa Maria Falvo, Samina Iqbal address the socio-political aspect of an artist’s work— its resilience and resistance— in the face of censorship. Mohammad Hanif’s At Least We Agree Upon the Definition of ‘Non-Art’9, is a penetrating and critical piece of writing on cultural sensitivity and double standards. Approaching the topic through Suleman’s work (and its destruction thereof), puts into perspective the romantic notion of cultural identity that we garner, and the ‘vilest sins’ we commit under its garb.
In her essay, Close Encounters of the Illegal Kind, Zohra Yusuf questions the preference for extra-judicial killings10 and staged police encounters over due process of the law. Quoting from the annual State of Human Rights report11 for 1995 and her direct interaction with senior police officials she pens down the alarming number of deaths that take place through staged encounters— one political party in Karachi being a clear target of such encounters. Yousuf, Gibran Nasir and Faisal Siddiqi create an extensive commentary on the political, ethnic and sectarian violence that besets and torments the city of Karachi since the mid-eighties.
Art, Violence and the State in the Killing Fields of Karachi was published in 2022 by Topical Printers, Lahore. Comprising of 19 essays including the preface, prologue and epilogue the hardcover is 347pages thick with writings accompanied by a rich visual collection of plates comprising the artist’s paintings, photographs of Mehsud’s family, of the installation before its destruction, the aftermath of destruction, protests against the destruction, Suleman in her studio, artworks by Pakistani artists challenging the state and censorship over the years. 4 appendences are printed: Appendix I catalogues, in detail, the works of art by Adeela Suleman which are published in the book. Appendix II is a compilation of artists and academics responses to the censorship and destruction of Suleman’s work. Appendix III is a compilation of poems, as protests (both in English and Urdu), by Anis Haroon, Fahim Zaman Khan, Ahfaz Rehman. Appendix IV publishes the media’s reaction to the destruction of Suleman’s work. These were originally published in DAWN, The Express Tribune, Wall Street Journal, BBC News, The Friday Times, The Guardian, The News on Sunday and The Wire. The book concludes with a detailed list and bio of the contributors, followed by acknowledgements and an index. The authors who contributed to the book include Salima Hashmi, Mohammad Jibran Nasir, Zohra Yousuf, Quddus Mirza, Dr Samina Iqbal, Julian Stallabrass, Asma Mundrawala in conversation with Suleman, Rosa Maria Falvo, Fahim Zaman Khan, Hasnain Nawab, Khaled Ahmed, Mariam Ali Baig, Mohammad Hanif, Adeela Suleman and Faisal Siddiqi
Art, Violence and the State in the Killing Fields of Karachi can be purchased from Canvas Gallery and Liberty Book Store in Karachi, or Readings, Lahore.
Title Image: ‘In Memoriam’ (Endpapers), 2022, Acrylic on sheet, handpainted with enamel paint and lacquered. 11×19 inches
Codell, J. F. (1992). Sentiment, the Highest Attribute of Art: The Socio-Poetics of Feeling. Dickens Studies Annual, 233-252.
Hencz, A. (n.d.). The Fear Of Art: Contemporary Art Censorship . Artland Magazine (online).
Nazzal, R. (2018). Critical Art, Censorship, And Freedom Of Expression (online).
- Towards Mayhem, Adeela Suleman in conversation with Naqeebullah Mehsud’s father, Muhammad Khan. Art, Violence and the State in the Killing Fields of Karachi. pg 28.
- Installation was produced for the Karachi Biennale in 2019 (KB19) with the intention of paying homage to and serving as a memorial for those who died in encounters staged by the police. The installation was destroyed on the morning of the public opening of KB19.
- Thus, creating what Martin Meisel has termed as ‘affective symbolism’. Dickens Studies Annual, Volume 21, pg. 233
- The installation set on the ground terrace adjoining Frere Hall’s back entrance were hammered and broken in the morning around 10am, the first day of public opening.
- The artwork installed within a large hall on the ground floor was locked, with no one allowed to enter right after the destruction of the work on the outside premises.
- Book jacket copy, Art, Violence and the State in the Killing Fields of Karachi, 2022.
- Suleman, pg 28.
- Ahmed, pg. 202
- Pgs. 259-262
- Sheikh Rashid Ahmed confessed at a press meeting that he would have preferred to have Noor Mukadam’s killer eliminated in a police encounter, and that he regrets it won’t be possible due to the hue and cry the media and civil society will make.
- Prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP)