Sealed exhibit on extrajudicial killings 'not compatible' with ethos of Karachi Biennale, say organisers

Updated October 28, 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

Organisers of the Karachi Biennale 2019 said on Monday that an exhibition depicting extrajudicial killings in Karachi at Frere Hall, which was "forcibly shut down" allegedly by law enforcement agencies on Sunday, is "not compatible with the ethos" of the event.

The installation titled 'Killing Fields of Karachi' by artist and professor Adeela Suleman was stopped forcibly allegedly by some “plain-clothes men”, triggering criticism by activists on social media. The exhibition was about the 444 killings allegedly carried out by Rao Anwar, a former Malir SSP.

In a statement shared with Dawn.com, organisers of the Karachi Biennale said: "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'."

The statement added that "politicising the [biennale] platform will go against our efforts to bring art into the public and drawing artists from the fringe to the mainstream cultural discourse".

The organisers added, however, that they are "against censorship of art and believe that expression is very subjective to the viewer's interpretation of the artwork".

The statement expressed gratitude for the support extended to the biennale by Karachi authorities, saying the City Government had allowed the platform to use public spaces to install artworks and "use the city as a canvas".

"And while art is self-expression, the theme this year did not warrant political statement on an unrelated issue," it said referring to Suleman's exhibition, "as all artists have agreed to focus on 'Ecology and the Environment' within the framework of cultural sensitivities".

The organisers said they hoped the artists' community will understand that "any public event has to work within certain agreed [...] boundaries".

"To ensure a sustainable future of Karachi Biennale, it is imperative that we focus on its mandate to connect art, the city and its people," the handout concluded.

The statement came as journalists and activists shared photos of Suleman's exhibit after it was vandalised allegedly by law enforcement personnel today.

Also on Monday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it was "deeply concerned" about the alleged forced cancellation of the artistic presentation by authorities.

It noted: "Ironically, this show if allowed to happen — whether critical of the state or not — would have been watched by a few hundred people. Its banning has made international news. This is detrimental to the interests of the state and creates resentment among citizens."

'Cowardly'

Some citizens took to Twitter to express their disappointment with the stance taken by Karachi Biennale organisers regarding the stoppage of Suleman's exhibition.

"So disappointed in the Karachi Biennale right now. Their statement is repulsive. Don’t organise a Biennale if you are incapable of protecting your artists. You can’t put up art in public spaces in Karachi and not be ‘politicised’. Art is political, public spaces are POLITICAL," tweeted Aiman Rizvi, a cultural writer.

Another social media user termed the stance of the show's organisers as "cowardly".

"What's the point of doing art if it's not critical?" they questioned.

Journalist Fahad Naveed tweeted: "For anyone whose ever wondered how isolating being a young artist in Pakistan can be, please see how even Adeela Suleman — a world renown[ed] artist and head of one of the handful fine arts programmes in this country — was not backed by Karachi Biennale when things got rough."

Write Nuzhar S. Siddiqi said silence would have been better on the part of the organisers than what she called the "dispossession" of Suleman’s work.

Reem Khurshid said she was "disappointed but not surprised" by the Karachi Biennale's "craven statement".