Civil society members express concern over 'shutdown' of exhibit on Rao Anwar at Karachi Biennale

Updated October 27, 2019

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'Killing Fields of Karachi' by artist Adeela Suleman displayed at Karachi's Frere Hall. — Photo courtesy Nazish Brohi via Twitter
'Killing Fields of Karachi' by artist Adeela Suleman displayed at Karachi's Frere Hall. — Photo courtesy Nazish Brohi via Twitter

An installation titled 'Killing Fields of Karachi' by artist Adeela Suleman displayed at Karachi's iconic Frere Hall as part of the Karachi Biennale 2019 was "forcibly shut down" on Sunday, allegedly by law enforcement agencies.

The lower hall of the building, where part of the exhibit was displayed, has been sealed, reliable sources confirmed to Dawn.com.

A press conference was held by lawyer and activist Jibran Nasir and other members of the civil society to speak about the taking down of the display.

Nasir said that part of the exhibit was a video installation which showed Naqeebullah Mehsud's father and the scene where Naqeebullah was killed.

Naqeebullah Mehsud — an aspiring model and shopkeeper from South Waziristan — and others were killed in a fake police encounter, led by former SSP Malir Rao Anwar, in Karachi in 2018.

"You all must have seen pillars installed here which symbolise Karachi's bloody history — the 444 murders which were committed between 2011 and 2018 by Rao Anwar. This is not a matter of dispute. This is a fact which is part of police record," said Nasir at Sunday's press conference.

"There are graves here marking the deaths and there was a video projection which contained visuals of Naqeebullah's father, and visuals of the place where Naqeebullah and three others were murdered.

"At 11 in the morning, some people came here who introduced themselves as belonging to sensitive organisations and they said this room should be closed and put under a lock, otherwise all the materials, laptops, projectors, paintings, will be destroyed."

Nasir alleged that the Frere Hall staff was threatened and the guard was sent away by the men who had stormed the venue.

Artist Adeela Suleman told Dawn that she was available at the venue of the video exhibition when certain people were seen asking about it.

Suleman — who is an associate professor and head of the Fine Art Department at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture — said that two persons in a civilian dress appeared at around 10am and "pressurised" the administration of the Frere Hall to stop the exhibition, otherwise, they would forcibly stop it.

The artist said that the plain-clothed individuals did not speak directly with her.

Separately, she confirmed to the media that the lower hall/room where the video exhibition was being played has been sealed. The artist revealed that her art pieces/paintings were available outside the hall.

Asked as to who the persons were, she replied, "I really don’t know."

Addressing the press conference, to speak about her exhibit's closure, she said: "My aim was just to tell a story. I was, in fact, repeating an event which took place a year earlier."

"It [the display] contained no such thing which was not already part of general public knowledge," she said, visibly upset.

"If artists can not express themselves in their own way, then I really can't say how we will ever have any creation of art and who we will have to take permission from."

Dawn.com has reached out to the organisers for a comment on the matter.

Meawhile, DIG South Sharjeel Kharal told Dawn.com, "We have not received any complaint from artist or organisers formally or informally about [the matter]."

“This thing has been brought to our notice and we are looking into it,” added the chief of the South Zone police.

Another police officer, who wished not to be named, told Dawn that there was no role of the police in sealing off or stopping the art exhibition.

Press conference interrupted

The press briefing was also "disrupted" by "unknown men who threw away mics of media and shamelessly tried to censor us", said Nasir in a Twitter post.

A video snippet from the press conference shows Nasir being interrupted by a man who later introduced himself as DG (director general) Parks.

"Go do whatever you want to do outside of here," said the man.

At this, Nasir refused to budge. "I will not go from here. You have no authority to tell me to," he said.

After some more hot words were exchanged, the man warned Nasir to "not force him [to take action]" to which Nasir replied: "Please, sir. You are a nobody."

"I am the DG Parks," said the man.

Nasir said that as the DG Parks, the fundamental job of the man — who did not name himself upon Nasir's request — is to "conduct an inquiry into the Rs2 billion corruption" of his predecessor.

"You should be ashamed," said Nasir, adding that instead of conducting an inquiry into his own department, the man was interferring with the press conference.

Social media calls attention to closure

The closure of the display gained traction on social media, with several Twitter users also reporting on the matter.

Journalist Mubashir Zaidi, who was among the first to bring attention to the incident, said law enforcement personnel were "raiding Karachi Biennale at Frere Hall [...] to stop and remove Adeela Suleman’s artistic production 'Killing fields of Karachi' which depicts the story of the 444 killings by Rao Anwar".

"Trucks & men have descended all over Frere Hall. The lower hall has been sealed," he said in a post on Twitter at around 1:15pm.

Rights activist Nazish Brohi said that the "video installation" had been sealed by "security agencies".

"Killings aren't the issue, depiction is," she remarked over the development.

Professor of Sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) Nida Kirmani, too, took to Twitter to share photos of the installation "as an act of solidarity" with the artist and "resistance" against its "shutting down by LEAs".

The title of the installation — 'Killing Fields of Karachi' — is similar to that of a Dawn investigative report titled 'Dawn Investigations: Rao Anwar and the killing fields of Karachi' published in March, which explored the kind of law-enforcement system that accommodates and protects cops like Rao Anwar.

"Until Naqeebullah’s murder, Sindh’s so-called encounter specialist had not faced any inquiry over the number of encounter killings to his ‘credit’. Not a single inquiry — despite having slain at least 444 people between 2011 and 2018, according to the police’s own records. Not a single policeman was even injured, let alone killed, during the 745 encounters," the report had stated.