THE public opening of the Karachi Biennale 2019 on Sunday was marred by controversy when unknown men forced the partial closure of one of the installations at Frere Hall.

In hindsight, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

The ‘offending’ exhibit by Adeela Suleman was a requiem for the hundreds of victims of alleged ‘encounter specialist’ Rao Anwar. Evidently, the disgraced former SSP still enjoys the support and protection of certain quarters capable of acting secretly and with impunity. Instead, the evening ended with a hapless KMC official attempting to defend the indefensible before a press conference held by members of civil society in protest.

Worse still, by yesterday morning, the rest of the exhibit had been vandalised. Later that evening, the KB19 team released a craven statement distancing itself from the artwork.

Among the feeble excuses made by some against this exhibit’s display is that it tarnished Pakistan’s and its law enforcement’s image. But it was this fiasco and the events which inspired the artwork that do actual damage to our credibility. Such claims are premised on the notion that art should be milquetoast and apolitical — unless, of course, its politics are nationalistic.

What happened at Frere Hall is a chilling illustration of how insecure the powerful are of their own populace, the desperate lengths to which they will go to police them, and the surrender and collusion of the country’s elites in the face of such pressures. The organisers should recall that trying to delink art and politics invariably backfires, as recent controversies involving Contemporary Istanbul and the Whitney Biennial have shown.

The relentless assaults on artistic and academic freedom in Pakistan by depoliticising and controlling all areas of knowledge and cultural production must be resisted. Politics is not a crime; free expression is a constitutional right. Now that the KB19 team has spoken, those responsible for this blatant censorship and vandalism must reveal themselves. Citizens have a direct stake in public art, and are owed an official explanation.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019

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