Pakistan shuts art installation depicting extrajudicial killings

A father awaits justice. Screenshot from the documentary: ‘The Killing Fields of Karachi’ – by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman.

On October 27, Sunday, plainclothes members claiming to be from a Pakistani intelligence agency ordered the closure of an art exhibit titled ‘Killing Fields of Karachi’ at the Karachi Biennale 2019. The installation of 444 tombstones and a video by contemporary Pakistani sculptor and artist Adeela Suleman portrayed an emotionally charging experience showcasing the alleged 444 extrajudicial killings by the police officer Rao Anwar, in the past decade.

‘Killing Fields of Karachi’

Rao Anwar Ahmed Khan is a Pakistani retired police officer, who served as Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) in the Malir District of Karachi. A Daily Dawn investigation by Fahim Zaman and Naziha Syed Ali published in March this year detailed his involvement in the murders of hundreds of people in staged encounter killings between 2011 and 2018. He was suspended from the police force on January 20, 2018, after the death of Naqueebullah Mehsud, which gained national prominence and caused countrywide protests.

Adeela Suleman's video installation, ‘The Killing Fields of Karachi,’ illustrates the story of 27-year-old aspiring model Naqeebullah Mehsud. On January 3, 2018, Naqeebullah was detained along with two of his friends by Rao Anwar's men in Sohrab Goth, Karachi. Naqueebullah was kept in captivity, tortured, and then killed on January 13 in a staged shootout  in which he was shot twice in the back. A subsequent police inquiry found that Anwar had attempted to paint the murder as a successful elimination of a ‘terrorist’.

Here is Adeela Suleman's short documentary, featuring the father of the victim Mehsud, uploaded to YouTube by Shamoon Saleem:

Adeela Suleman's art exhibit, housed in Frere Hall in Saddar Town, Karachi, consisted of 444 tombstones – each marking a victim of Rao's execution.

To date, Naqeebullah’s case has failed to get justice among numerous others, while Rao Anwar is still at large.

Not compatible with the ethos of the Karachi Biennale

Karachi Biennale is a movement aimed at employing art and artistic expression to discuss and provoke Karachiites on issues of public concern. It was started in 2018 and has gained traction ever since its inception. The program attracted an international audience and has been lauded in the local and the international arena alike.

On Sunday, October 27, a few hours into the opening, a portion of the installation was sealed and the rest vandalised by unknown persons after law and enforcement agencies came.

The organisers of the Karachi Biennale supported the move of the law enforcement agency in a statement to Dawn.com: “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’.”

Social media reacts

Pakistani liberals and leftists protested the operation through a series of castigating tweets and social media reactions. The state’s selective backing of art and silencing of artworks it does not approve of has bothered activists.

Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer Mohammad Jibran Nasir expressed concern over the issue through his powerful Vlog live from Frere Hall, the location of the exhibit. “If for some the artwork yesterday by #AdeelaSuleman only represented the oppression by #RaoAnwar, the destruction of the artwork today represents state oppression”, he said.

Jibran later organised a press conference at Frere Hall to protest and shed light on the security officers’ actions:

This has not been the only instance of suppressing debate and accountability around extra-judicial killings. Last week, the acquittal of all accused in the Sahiwal Massacre, where Punjab’s counter-terrorism department officials killed a family of innocents due to bad intelligence, outraged people from all walks of life.

“The installation has nothing that is not already out there. It is documented by media and details into cases are readily available”, expressed Adeela Suleman, the curator of the exhibit. Art, in its truest form, serves the purpose of whistle-blowing and extracting civic action through thought-provoking material.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement:

The closure is both an attack on free expression and an attempt to sweep under the rug a longstanding human rights problem.

This isn’t the first time Pakistani authorities have censored freedom of expression and art. In 2016, the documentaries Besieged in Quetta (a film on the persecution of the Hazara community of Quetta) and Among the Believers (a production on the so-called headquarters of extremism in Pakistan, the Lal Masjid) were banned and couldn’t be screened publicly or distributed, even via social platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

According to the reports and additional coverage, both films had alleged “anti-state elements”. Later, Among the Believers was made available on Netflix Asia region but it is not available now for unknown reasons.

The remaining part of the ‘Killing Fields of Karachi’ installation has again been vandalized by the authorities on Monday, 28th of October. Journalists, anchors, activists, and civil society are collectively shaming such heinous acts.

After the exhibit was vandalized, members of the artist community, civil society, and the general public gathered to restore whatever they could of the rubble as a symbolic gesture, standing against tyranny and oppression.

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