October 30, 2019

Censored Karachi Biennale Exhibition Incites Public Outcry

KARACHI, PAKISTAN—On Sunday, a group of plainclothes men claiming to be Pakistani law enforcement officers forcibly closed an installation by artist Adeela Suleman that drew attention to police brutality and hundreds of alleged extrajudicial killings in Karachi, one of the world’s largest cities. The exhibition had opened to the public only hours earlier as part of the second edition of the Karachi Biennale. The move prompted a fierce backlash on social media that only grew when the work was vandalized shortly afterward.

Titled “Killing Fields of Karachi,” the sprawling exhibition consisted of 444 stone pillars topped with metal wilted flowers, along with a video work installed in the city’s historic Frere Hall. The sculptural forms are meant to represent the victims of “police encounters” allegedly involving officers serving under disgraced commander Rao Anwar and are arranged in rows evoking tombstones. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), “police encounters” are incidents where law enforcement unlawfully kills an individual and then stages a shooting or other crime to make it look like deadly force was justified.

Anwar, the former senior superintendent of police who led a crackdown on the Taliban and members of other militant groups living in Karachi, gained notoriety after the National Commission for Human Rights shared a report in January 2018 that revealed Anwar was “involved in 192 police encounters in which 444 people were killed.” Anwar is also accused of targeting ethnic Pashtuns living in the city, and for the first time in his career is facing a criminal trial. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports that Anwar was indicted along with seventeen others in March.

Suleman’s exhibition included a video about the death of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a young shopkeeper and aspiring model who was killed in a “police encounter” last year. The work showed images of the twenty-seven-year-old’s father, Khan Muhammad, and the location where Mehsud and three others were shot to death. His alleged murder and the false terrorism charges against him, which were later dismissed in court, sparked widespread protests that fueled a greater human rights movement.

According to media reports, several plainclothes men claiming to be from state agencies arrived around 12 AM on October 27, the day of the exhibition opening, and demanded that the display be shut down. If the staff didn’t comply, they threatened to destroy works as well as other equipment. Suleman, an associate professor and the head of the fine art department at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, was present when the officers pressured Frere Hall’s administration to close the show. As a result, the doors to the lower level of Frere Hall, which contained a portion of the exhibition, were padlocked.

At a press conference to denounce the censorship, which was organized by civil rights activists Jibran Nasir and Karamat Ali, Suleman, a Karachi-based sculptor, said: “My work was just a story of incidents that took place in Karachi around a year ago. There was nothing in it that wasn’t already public knowledge.” Toward the end of the conference, a man, who was later identified as Afaq Mirza, the director-general of the city’s parks department, interrupted the speakers, removed microphones from the makeshift podium, and started shouting at the crowd to leave, saying that the area was a public park and they didn’t have permission to be there.

Sometime after the conference, the alleged officers returned and knocked over the works. Photos of the artwork and of the vandalism have been circulating on social media, inspiring many to speak out in solidarity with Suleman. Several activists and members of the local community staged a die-in among “Killing Fields of Karachi.” A video posted on Twitter also shows people trying to pick up the sculptures and put them back in place.

Following the incident, the biennial, which is curated by Muhammad Zeeshan, published a controversial statement on Facebook that has been criticized for not defending the artist or her work. While the post states that the Karachi Biennale team is “against censorship of art” it also says that, in regard to Suleman’s exhibition, “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.”

It continued: “We hope the artists’ community will understand that our platform, as has been illustrated through our projects is purely to promote art to build a large public audience and any public event has to work within certain agreed with boundaries.”

In response to the events, Faisal Siddiqui, an attorney who is representing Khan Muhammad in his son’s murder case, told the Express Tribune: “We were hopeful that Anwar would be punished for his crimes, but today’s events clearly show that Rao Anwar and others like him are being protected.”

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