An art installation called 'The Killing Fields of Karachi' was destroyed and removed from where it was on show at Frere Hall, Karachi, last week, sparking confusion and anger among the local art community.

The work, by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman, consisted of 444 concrete pillars with metal flowers atop them, and a film featuring the father of a young man killed by police. It was Suleman's response to the 444 extrajudicial killings allegedly presided over by Sindh province police superintendent Rao Anwar, carried out between 2011 and 2018.

The work was part of the second Karachi Art Biennale, which opened on Sunday October 27. That day, men in plainclothes arrived and ordered the exhibition to be closed. Part of it was sealed off, and the next day, the pillars outside the hall were found knocked over and damaged. A day later, the piece had vanished entirely.

The identity of the men who removed the artwork cannot be independently confirmed, but officials from the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) – a public company providing municipal services in the city – have spoken about the incident. As reported by Pakistani video news organisation Soch, KMC officials said the men in plainclothes may have been from the army, and explained that the artwork was removed because “members of the public were confused by the impression of a graveyard in a public park”.

The Killing Fields of Karachi as pictured on October 27, before its destruction and disappearance.


The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Semyne K, an art enthusiast who went to see the exhibit on Monday October 28.
 

“I’ve never heard of this happening on the art scene”

I was very surprised to see that much of the artwork had been shattered. I saw all these tombstones that had been knocked down and broken. It was very upsetting. I went to the front of the hall to see the rest of the exhibition, because there were meant to be several other artists on show [editor’s note: at the time of writing, four artists are listed as having exhibits at Frere Hall, including Adeela Suleman], but the main hall was closed. I felt like someone’s right to free speech had been infringed.

The Killing Fields of Karachi on October 28 after being vandalised. Photo: Semyne K.
 
It was a very benign exhibit, because everyone living in Karachi has heard about these killings, especially about the young man who was killed [editor’s note: Rao Anwar is being tried for the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, whom he claimed was a militant, but was proved to be innocent. A police inquiry found he was killed in a ‘fake encounter’]. Policemen were tried and convicted, and the courts have said the young man was innocent and not a terrorist.

People are still going to the Biennale, but people seem less excited than they did about the last one. What happened has left a bad taste. But what’s ironic is that Suleman’s exhibition has had the biggest impact of the Biennale. It has overshadowed everything, and left the rest of the art looking a little tame and passive.

Semyne K outside the padlocked main entrance of Frere Hall, October 28.

“It was a slap in the face to the community”

People flocked to the site in the days after the initial act of vandalism to stage various protests. The Karachi Biennale team released a statement saying the work was “not compatible with the ethos” of the event, because its theme was “Ecology and the Environment”.

We talked to an artist and former student of Suleman, who wishes to remain anonymous. He was there at a “die-in” among the rubble on October 28.

Our Observer took this photo of a protest outside Frere Hall, October 28.
 
I wasn’t only protesting the destroyed artwork, but also the response from the Biennale. They threw the artist under the bus, and understood neither the art nor the theme.

At the protest, people were lying on the ground, and putting the broken concrete plinths back together. We were trying to show that the work was absolutely relevant. These killings and our response to them are all part of the ecology of the city.

Nobody likes art being destroyed; it was a slap in the face to the community, and we realised that if it happened to her, it could happen to us. I was struck by the way people came together to support each other, both Pakistani artists and some foreign artists. It was nice to see such a supportive atmosphere, standing together and recreating the artwork, but it came at the cost of so much negativity.
 
People try to reconstruct Suleman's artwork, October 28.
 
The night after this protest, the work was completely removed. But people continued to come and say we had a right to voice our thoughts. A kind of memorial was held for the victims as well as the artwork, but the protesters were kicked out. It shows that nothing has been done about the situation.
 
Video news organisation Soch report that protesters are forced to leave the Frere Hall site by KMC officials on Saturday November 2.
 
I’ve heard of this kind of thing happening before, but not so publicly. The way the Biennale framed their response, they suggested there was no place for politics in their theme. But art is political by nature. What’s even more confusing is that the Biennale curator has come out to say he supports Suleman.

Maybe they weren’t fully aware of what the work would represent, but I don’t understand how, because they have jury members going and seeing the work ahead of time.
 
Our Observer’s photo of Frere Hall, October 28.


Article by Peter O'Brien (@POB_journo)