‘Momento Mori – Remember That You Must Die’
‘Momento Mori – Remember That You Must Die’

The relationship between art and war is determined by how artists perceive conflict and how they depict it. Such artworks transform an object of moral outrage into one of aesthetic beauty and, like in all art forms, the violence serves a communicative purpose apart from its aesthetic value.

Adeela Suleman is among the premier contemporary artists of Pakistan and her art practice centres on aestheticising anger, aggression and atrocities. Suleman’s latest show, Bashi Bazouk at Karachi’s Canvas Gallery in Karachi, reaffirms her stance on war, terror and violence.

Challenging rather than accepting the notion of war as heroic, she references the spirit of the Turkish Bashi Bazouk adventurers to reinforce her premise of unrestrained warfare and senseless killing of innocents.

Irregular soldiers of the Ottoman army, the Bashi Bazouk were armed and maintained by the government but were not paid and did not wear uniforms. Motivated to fight mostly by expectations of plunder, their uncertain temper occasionally made it necessary for the Turkish regular troops to disarm them by force.

Adeela Suleman’s show references historic Turkish mercenaries to reaffirm the artist’s stance on war, terror and uncontrolled violence

The Bashi Bazouk were notorious for being brutal and undisciplined, thus giving the term its second, colloquial meaning of “undisciplined bandit” in many languages. During the Crimean War, the allied generals made fruitless attempts to discipline them. Their excesses during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, at last, forced the Ottoman government to abandon their use.

The Bashi-Bazouk-related artwork, ‘Momento Mori – Remember That You Must Die’, of bloodthirsty mercenaries brandishing swords and scimitars, illustrates a militia gone berserk. Sourcing Persian, Mughal and Turkish miniature imagery, Suleman constructs a crowded battle scene of foot and horse soldiers lunging forward as they drive their long-bladed shamshirs into the flesh of the enemy. Pandemonium prevails as flying arrows and charging elephants add to the chaos that has no clear positions of attack or counter-attack.

Unlike the traditional miniature technique of pardakth (dotted) rendering on burnished Wasli paper tablet with a single hair brush, Suleman’s ‘Momento Mori’ is finely crafted on fabric, using banarsi silk, jamawar, raw silk, velvet, hand and machine embroidery.

The colour choices relate to the miniature palette of brilliant hues and the ground of fiery red silk offsets the war pageantry to advantage by enhancing the feel of bloodlust and savagery. As a wall hanging, eleven-by-five-foot in size, it is a specimen of tapestry art.

‘If You Have Got A Head’, from the series of steel sculptures
‘If You Have Got A Head’, from the series of steel sculptures

Giving a contemporary twist to the classical miniature, this finely executed embroidered patchwork art adds a new dimension to Suleman’s repertoire, which was earlier primarily revolving around suggestive forms sculpted from sanitary and culinary fixtures/fittings, exquisite steel filigree or lattice work, and the Repoussé embossing method of decorating metals.

The remaining four artworks spring no surprises as they conform to Suleman’s established signature of screwed and welded forms. The series of steel sculptures, ‘If You Have Got A Head’, are composed mainly with cooking utensils, drain covers, shower heads, tongs, bowls, spoons and cottage cheese moulds, and are vaguely identifiable as defensive breastplates or headgear.

If the viewer is interested in connecting with the premise of the show, it is important to see the artworks within the context of the Bashi Bazouk sensibility of irresponsible behaviour. Numerous armed conflicts are currently taking place around the world, causing death, displacement and suffering on a massive scale. When prominent conflicts persist, they continue to exact a severe human cost. Like the curtailment of the Bashi Bazouk mercenaries, rogue militias or elements need to be identified, restrained or brought to justice.

Aesthetic expression that engages with war, terror and violence compels viewership as it forces art outside its comfort zone. The shock value of tragic, aggressive or gruesome images of chaos and horror can be traced inevitably to human rights violations.

There are no easy answers or solutions to such violations, the complex relationship between human nature and war, and whether war is morally justifiable. But peace can only be restored when justice prevails.

“Bashi Bazouk” was displayed at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from March 9 to March 18, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 28th, 2021

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