Over 400 concrete tombstones set up at Frere Hall for the Karachi Biennale, a citywide art exhibit, have been removed by the authorities, who are calling it “vandalism”. But on Monday evening, a group of art students restored the piece.
Artist Adeela Suleman used the tombstones to represent the human cost of police brutality as part of her art installation ‘Karachi’s Killing Fields’. It was made as a memorial for the 444 people killed in ‘encounters’ by former Malir SSP Rao Anwar.
Anwar is a former police officer who gained notoriety for extrajudicial killings that were disguised as police ‘encounters’. The “encounter specialist”, as he was known, has been indicted for the murder of at least four men but there is little proof that the hundreds of others he killed were actually criminals.
The artwork focuses on one of Anwar’s most high profile victims, Naqeebullah Mehsud, who is also the subject of a lengthy court case against him.
“It opened for the public yesterday [Sunday] at Frere Hall,” Suleman told SAMAA Digital the day after her exhibition was shut down by men she said were from an intelligence agency. Her exhibit was on the ground floor of Frere Hall and in the courtyard across its library.
On Monday morning, the door to the ground floor room was sealed with a padlock and the outdoor part of the exhibit had been knocked down. It was not clear who sealed the installation. On Sunday night, the director-general of the KMC’s parks division, Afaq Mirza, spoke on behalf of the authorities.
According to him, Suleman’s exhibition was ‘vandalism’, not art. Her offence: putting up 444 concrete grave markers in the courtyard to represent the people Rao Anwar is accused of killing.
Inside Frere Hall, she set up five painted stone pillars topped with mourning roses, and a video of Naqeebullah Mehsud’s father. The video had music and text but no narration. It showed aerial shots of the farmhouse where Naqeebullah Mehsud was tortured to death by the police. The video also features his father staring into the camera.
On Monday evening, a group of young art students began righting the fallen tombstones.
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“[It was] based on violence as a part of society and the local landscape,” she said. “Is he [Naqeebullah’s father] looking at us, because we didn’t do anything, at Rao Anwar, or at his son?”
While she was setting up the exhibition Sunday morning, people came and asked whose work it was, which she said was entirely normal at events like the Biennale. A man came and called me upstairs, she said. “He said he was from an intelligence agency and that his boss was on the phone and wanted to speak to me.” He spoke to his boss on the phone and I stood there for half a minute before I went back downstairs without speaking to anyone, she said.
People were coming to the exhibit, said Suleman, adding that it left some people in tears. But her exhibit wasn’t sensational, “not like a TV channel”, she clarified. “Naqeebullah was not in the video, just his father’s face, and the location.”
Then, two men in shalwar kameez came and asked everyone to stop. They told the organisers, not me directly, to put an end to the exhibition and had the room where the video was playing sealed, she said.
They said that we need to move the ‘tombstones’ or else they would, but we didn’t and I don’t think they came back, she said. No one spoke to Suleman directly.
I was narrating the story from court proceedings, news clippings and what his father said, she explained. “It starts when they picked him up and had drone shots from the farmhouse where he was killed.”
But her installation touched a nerve in some people, most notably Parks Director Malik. Activist Jibran Nasir addressed the media outside Frere Hall Sunday night, slamming the authorities for trying to censor Suleman but Malik turned up and snatched the mic from him.
“I gave them permission but for art,” he said, calling the ‘graveyard’ and ‘corpses’ the artists had made “vandalism”. This is presenting the wrong picture of Pakistan, he said. “What are you even telling people? Aap apne pet khol kar bata rahey ho [you are airing your dirty laundry],” he said. Repeatedly calling Frere Hall a “sensitive area”, he said the artists are presenting a bad image of Pakistan and Karachi and should instead show people a “good picture” of the city.
When asked whether he had shut the exhibition down, he demurred, saying it was “personnel from the V Corps” not his administration. The V Corps is the Pakistan Army’s division stationed in Karachi.
When he spoke to SAMAA Digital on Monday, Malik said his office removed the installation from the courtyard but objected to the term ‘knocked down’. Some were broken, yes, but that may have happened yesterday, there were so many people there, he said. We’re going to remove them but I don’t have any issues if they (the organisers) want to pick them up, he said.
He connected his outrage to the ‘black day’ being observed for Kashmir. “It was a black day for Kashmir. We are all ready to die for it, are we not,” he said, adding that the Biennale organisers had taken permission for “art and culture”.
Malik said he “reacted in the heat of the moment” but his reaction didn’t seem to have changed 12 hours later. “Upstairs there were bodies and downstairs graves,” he said, reiterating that this wasn’t art.
“I’m not saying Rao Anwar is a good man, he’s a number one murderer. He’s nobody to me,” he said. “But on Kashmir day, permission was given to depict artwork and culture. Instead, they took it as an opportunity to educate people about Rao Anwar and Naqeebullah and said so many people have been killed by him [Anwar].”
But the number of people ‘educated’ about Rao Anwar’s victims seems to be limited to the few who actually visited the exhibit, and perhaps already knew about them. The Biennale aims to bring art to the public by hosting exhibitions in public spaces but the public sitting around Frere Hall had no idea what the exhibition was about. Few even knew it was an exhibition.
“Some goras came and put up these things. I’m not sure, but I think they look sort of like graves,” said a schoolboy lounging outside Frere Hall. An off-duty guard sitting on a park bench said some “naughty passersby” may have knocked down the exhibit.
In an official statement posted on its Facebook page, the Karachi Biennale disassociated itself from Suleman’s piece. “With regards to the exhibit in question, we feel that despite the artist’s perspective, it is not compatible with the ethos of #KB19 whose theme is “Ecology and the Environment”, and feel that politicising the platform will go against our efforts to bring art into the public and drawing artists from the fringe to the mainstream cultural discourse,” read the statement. It added that the “while art is self-expression, the theme this year did not warrant political statement on an unrelated issue, as all artists have agreed to focus on “Ecology & the Environment” within the framework of cultural sensitivities”.
It ended with the hope that artists use the platform of the Biennale to promote art while working within “certain agreed with boundaries”.
An organiser of the Karachi Biennale who was at Frere Hall said the orders to shut down the exhibit came from the top to the top.
“That just shows the understanding of art of the people who make such statements,” said Suleman of the DG’s comments.
“Women artists thinking independently and being bold at an international event, that’s a positive image of Pakistan. Me being able to say whatever I want to say, that’s a positive image of Pakistan, not this, not them removing my work.”