Pakistani Authorities Shut Down a Show in the Karachi Biennial That Criticized the Government’s Extrajudicial Killings

Adeela Sulemen's work was destroyed and called “vandalism.”

Adeela Sulemen's intallation Killing Fields of Karachi (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

An exhibition in the Karachi Biennial that evoked the extrajudicial killings of hundreds of people in Pakistan was shut down by authorities in the city on Sunday, sparking outcry from artists and activists worldwide. 

In the courtyard of the city’s historic Frere Hall, Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman mounted Killing Fields of Karachi, 444 tombstone-like sculptures topped with wilted metal flowers—one for each victim of a series of murderous raids led by former senior superintendent of police, Rao Anwar. 

Inside the hall was a video piece about Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old shopkeeper and aspiring model who was killed by police last year. Mehsud’s murder set off protests throughout the country. 

Suleman’s show had only been open for a few hours when two plainclothes men arrived and instructed the organizers to close it down. By Monday morning, the installation in the courtyard had been knocked down, while the door to exhibition space was sealed with a padlock. Speaking on behalf of state authorities, the leader of Karachi’s parks division told Samaa TV that the exhibition was closed because it considered it “vandalism,” not art. 

“My work was just a story of incidents that took place in Karachi around a year ago,” said Suleman, who also teaches art at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, at a press conference after the censorship incident. “There was nothing in it that wasn’t already public knowledge.” Authorities then shut down the conference, too.

As images of the destroyed artwork circulated online, supporters took to social media to express their solidarity with Suleman. A group of activists staged a “die-in” at the Killing Fields of Karachi site, while others attempted to reinstall the work.

“We are against censorship of art and believe that expression is very subjective to the viewers interpretation of the artwork,” read a statement posted by biennale organizers on Facebook. “With regards to the exhibit in question, 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.”

The statement incited new criticism of the biennale for its organizer’s failure to stand with Suleman.

“We have seen censorship in the past, but in recent years things had been better,” Suleman told ARTnews. “This opened my eyes again. This shows the power art has in a country like Pakistan—they couldn’t take it for even two hours. Pakistan can talk about air pollution and water pollution—but corruption of mind and memory? That will be censored.”

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