An exhibit at Karachi Biennale was forcibly shut down. Does public art not belong to the public in Pakistan?

As the Biennale disowns an exhibit they curated and an artist under threat, it casts a new light on the organisation.
Updated Oct 29, 2019 05:39pm


On Sunday morning, a much awaited city wide art event awakened after its scheduled slumber, on seven curated sites across Karachi.

The Karachi Biennale, in its second iteration, seemed to make a comeback grounded in a thematic – Ecology and the Environment – that appeared surprisingly contemporary and accessible in its packaging. Many hoped the two year break between the biennales had allowed for the organisers to contemplate a decolonisation of lens, language and approach.

A few hours into the opening, however, one of the sites was unfortunately ‘colonised’ by the kind of men you usually imagine to be behind most state-enforced censorship in Pakistan.

The events that have unfolded since that most violent intervention, have been difficult to process. This is my attempt at deconstructing, contextualising, and finding a way to center the conversation in the political realities that it is an unfortunate consequence of.

The cause of the ‘intervention’ was an art exhibit that drew attention to the sins of a man whose name we're now all-too-familiar with. Rao Anwar, an ex-policeman, and ‘encounter specialist’ has been accused of being involved in the murders of 444 people. He was suspended from the police force, after the death of one of his victims gained national prominence and caused countrywide protests.

A police inquiry revealed that Anwar, our state-vetted ‘encounter specialist’ had staged a ‘fake encounter’ which resulted in the death of a popular Pashtun model, Naqeebullah Mehsud.

After extra-judicially killing Mehsud, Anwar had attempted to paint the murder as a successful elimination of a ‘terrorist’, a false claim which sparked outrage across the country and gave momentum to the emerging Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM).

Amongst other things, PTM, much to the chagrin of state institutions, demanded an end to unlawful disappearances and murders of Pashtuns based on a pattern of ethnic profiling, unfolding against the backdrop of an unending war on ‘terror’.

An attack on artistic freedom or something even more sinister?

Artist Adeela Suleman, decided to use the platform of Karachi Biennale to draw focus to this important conversation – a conversation, and a political struggle which has been subject to immense censorship, intimidation and oppression. Her exhibit, housed in Frere Hall, consisted of graves – 444 graves to be exact, each marking a body.

The installation, titled ‘Killing fields of Karachi’ was accompanied by a short documentary, featuring the father of Mehsud, whose murder Anwar has been accused of.

The documentary accompanying Suleman's exhibit featured Naqeebullah Mehsud's father. —Photo credits: Mohsin Sayeed
The documentary accompanying Suleman's exhibit featured Naqeebullah Mehsud's father. —Photo credits: Mohsin Sayeed

A few hours into its opening, a portion of the exhibit was sealed shut by the powers that be. The portion they managed to seal was in a lower gallery of Frere Hall – a room which could be padlocked shut. The other half of the installation was outdoors, and as it could not be ‘sealed’ away in quite the same way, it was temporarily left intact.

Read: Rao Anwar and the killing fields of Karachi

As the news spread on social media, a few activists working on the Naqeebullah Mehsud murder case organised a press conference at Frere Hall to protest and shed light on the attempt at censorship.

A portion of the installation was sealed and the rest vandalised.—Photo credits: Mohsin Sayeed
A portion of the installation was sealed and the rest vandalised.—Photo credits: Mohsin Sayeed

The press conference was interrupted by Director General of Parks Afaq Mirza; what followed was a testosterone fueled exchange which was both, ridiculous and deeply upsetting in its incongruous real-ness: a government employee responsible for parks, ranting at the media, artists and activists about what art can and cannot be. His power move, was removing the mics activist Jibran Nasir was speaking into, mid speech.

"This space was given for art, not to create a political scene," Mirza insisted, as Nasir countered by informing him that they were all standing in ‘public’ space, to which he responded with, "Yes, but it is not for political activity," following with, "This park is not for political activists, it is for the public."


While it is almost amusing to see Mirza naively argue that the art at Frere Hall, which has been curated and created by individuals who have devoted many years and a lot of labour to its study and craft, is not in fact art, but vandalism – rewatching his statement a few hours later is eerie, as the remaining portion of Suleman’s exhibit is, in fact vandalised.


As the exchange became increasingly heated, the two men shouted at one another – Mirza grabbed Nasir’s hand, Nasir shouted at him to not touch him, read the name on Mirza’s phone screen and told the media that Mirza was currently on call with the mayor.

Nasir continued holding the upper hand in the conversation, being streamed live all over the country through various devices, as he proceeded to shout at Mirza repeatedly, calling him a ‘nobody.’ Mirza countered with – ‘I am DG Parks’ – which Nasir cleverly used to spring back to the topic at hand, corruption by government officials.

Nasir asked Mirza why he had the time to bully folks at the park when his predecessor was allegedly involved in a hefty corruption case and told Mirza to investigate and inquire into the crimes of his predecessor. The crowd cheered at Nasir's quip as a stumbling Mirza tried to get a word in.

The press conference ended on a triumphant note, as Nasir told Mirza to go back and do his job, and thanked the media for showing up on their day off on such short notice, as the growing crowd cheered him on. An injured Mirza waited till he got his moment in the spotlight though, and after the press conference, relayed his grievances to the media.

"I had given them permission to use this space, but for art. But over here, you’ve built a graveyard, recreated bodies with whole chilli peppers [in reference to another exhibit], this is not art. It is vandalism. This is giving the wrong picture of Pakistan."

He went on to suggest that the artists need to censor themselves as he questioned why they felt the need to air the country's dirty laundry. And as a parting gift, to make up for the rantings, he revealed to the cameramen, ‘V Corps’ were behind the sealing of the exhibit — confirming suspicions of state involvement.

There is so much to deconstruct here — a good place to begin is a closer look at some of the binaries Mirza was setting up: art vs. politics, the public vs. political activists, public art vs. vandalism — the inherent biases here, caught on camera, are so important.

Also read: Does a city like Karachi even need a Biennale?

While it is almost amusing to see Mirza argue that the art at Frere Hall, which has been curated and created by individuals who have devoted many years and a lot of labour to its study and craft, is not in fact art, but vandalism – rewatching his statement a few hours later is eerie, as the remaining portion of Suleman’s exhibit is, in fact vandalised.

Asking questions is dangerous in the Killing Fields of Karachi

The portion of the exhibit which could not be sealed because of the very ‘public’ space it was set up in, a space with no doors to shut, was destroyed. Broken gravestones strewn against a colonial monument [Frere Hall], a physical manifestation of censorship, against a physical manifestation of imperial conquest, in what is called ‘a public space.’

Conclusions one can draw are: Public art does not belong to the public in Pakistan, and even more importantly, neither do public spaces. Mirza’s words, and the state’s actions remind us that only a de-politicised ‘public’ is welcome in ‘public’ spaces – which also function as ‘public’ sites, usefully positioned for mass consumption, for the state to reassert its power and remind us that the only freedoms we are allowed, are the freedoms we are ‘given’.

Freedom of thought and expression do not come under that category, and if we practice them, we are only ‘giving the wrong picture of Pakistan.’

Another important takeaway – we are supposed to believe that politics is bad. The state’s actions, and Mirza’s words set up a framework of inherent biases in which to be political, is to be anti state. Art cannot be political, because then it becomes ‘vandalism’, and needs to be ‘censored’, sealed, destroyed, for the good of the people.

Individuals cannot be political, because if they are, then they immediately become a danger to the ‘public’ and must be silenced. Public spaces are only for the public, and any individual who is politicised or who attempts to politicise, is no longer a member of the ‘public’, a sentiment perfectly captured in Mirza’s words: ‘The park is not for political activists, it is for the public.’


Remembering the 444 murders, is a political act. Questioning why the state demonises discourse around a mass atrocity, more than the atrocity itself, is a political act. And anyone who attempts to convince you that those political acts are ‘bad’ for you and for your country, wants you to forget that they are robbing you of a fundamental right – the right to question, the right to think, the right to not be silenced.


But what is being described as ‘political’ here? Adeela Suleman, albeit brave in her depiction, had merely documented facts, which have been accepted, investigated, published by the state itself. Jibran Nasir was only asking questions – why had a public art exhibit, documenting political and historical fact, been censored and sealed shut?

What is so ‘dangerous’ and ‘political’ about their actions? Does archiving the history of our country create a ‘political scene?’ Does merely questioning why the process of archiving fact is being censored create a ‘political scene?’ Or is a political ‘scene’ created by state enforced vandalism of a public exhibit? Or even the public silencing of an activist asking important questions?

Is all art not political?—Photo credits: Mohsin Sayeed
Is all art not political?—Photo credits: Mohsin Sayeed

One would hope, a political ‘scene’ is created when the state attempts to remove a mass atrocity from the public consciousness. And that is, perhaps, the most important takeaway – the events of the last two days were engineered to suppress and erase our collective memory, our public consciousness. And so, continuing this conversation is a political act. Locating it in the violence it comes from, is a political act.

Remembering the 444 murders, is a political act. Questioning why the state demonises discourse around a mass atrocity, more than the atrocity itself, is a political act. And anyone who attempts to convince you that those political acts are ‘bad’ for you and for your country, wants you to forget that they are robbing you of a fundamental right – the right to question, the right to think, the right to not be silenced.

A cop-out from the Biennale organisers

Unfortunately, the Karachi Biennale placed itself with the status quo, on the wrong side of this erasure. In a statement released yesterday, they claimed that Adeela Suleman’s exhibit, which interestingly enough, was curated by them, was not compatible with the ‘ethos’ of the Karachi Biennale’s second iteration.

Furthermore, they did not wish to ‘politicise’ their platform, which, let me remind you, is a public art platform, that sets up public art, in public places, in Karachi.

I do hope the irony of that does not escape you. But just to be sure – if some of the illustrations in my article have not been clear enough, public spaces are political, and in Karachi, public spaces are rife with politics. One of the main venues of the Biennale this year – Bagh Ibn-i-Qasim, a public park, was only recently subject to an attempt at land grabbing. How is that not political?

The most absurd bit of the statement, however, is, “the theme this year did not warrant any political statement on an unrelated issue, as all artists have agreed to focus on ‘Ecology and the Environment’, within the framework of cultural sensitivities”. What are we supposed to make of this?

I’m once again left questioning — is it culturally insensitive to murder four hundred and forty four people, or is it culturally insensitive to questions why that happened? What is an ‘Ecology’?

As Twitter users very pertinently questioned after the statement was released, violence is an intrinsic part of the city’s ‘ecology’. One would expect art curators to know that?

They wrap up the statement with an unapologetic disclaimer, “To ensure a sustainable future of Karachi Biennale, it is imperative that we focus on its mandate to connect art with the city and its people”. Which basically reads: we are dependent on state institutions, and we will not challenge them.

The extent of the betrayal is shocking. One can see how the platform is dependent on these institutions – from being run by corporate funding intent on protecting the status quo, to requiring basic logistical necessities such as permits. But to go as far as to disown an exhibit they have curated, to not stand by an artist under threat because of work she exhibited on their platform, casts a new light on the organisers.


If you have a moment, go sit by the rubble of the gravestones. Touch it, hold it. Remember it. Censorship is real, state oppression is real. Those who take to the streets to fight it, are not ‘vandalising’ the country – they are fighting for their truth. Just because you cannot see their oppression, does not mean that it is not real.


The Karachi Biennale, is perhaps too deeply entrenched in the state itself – to expect it to decolonise, to unlearn the power structures one would hope can be challenged by art, is futile. The two years between the biennales were spent learning a language that did not sound as ‘colonial’ – a language that seemed more accessible, and yet, it was only the language that was ‘learned’. The ideas behind it were completely ignored.

But those ideas found a way to manifest, and even if the biennale is incapable of incorporating them into its ‘mandate’, the conversation has become so much larger than them.

The vandalised grave stones were rebuilt. Students, activists, artists, organisers reconstructed the installation. And then they laid their bodies next to the rebuilt gravestones in protest. They physically fought the attempt at erasure. They brought their bodies to the site of violent erasure, and they told us they will not be robbed, they will not forget.

And then, in a somewhat bizzare development, the Curator of the Biennale, came out with his own statement – in which he clearly stated, that he had, in fact, curated the exhibit, that he stands with all participating artists, that he stands with Adeela Suleman.

But in the same breath, he went on to thank the city government for their support, and advised everyone : ‘In order to make KB19 a success and at the same time secure the right of freedom of speech of everyone, it is imperative that we all unite and allow citizens of Karachi and the visitors from outside Karachi to access all the KB19 venues without them feeling threatened or insecure”.

Who is he speaking to here? Those who vandalised, or those who rebuilt? Or those who awoke to a city in which the rebuilt gravestones were broken, once again? Who is threatening, and who is creating a sense of insecurity? Those who protest, or those who erase?

The installation has been destroyed once again – and this time it was the labour of the very ‘public’ that owns the space, which was disregarded and reduced to rubble. How does one ‘secure the right to the freedom of speech of everyone’ in the face of that?

This moment is incredibly important, and not just because of the resistance it has inspired. It is important, because it is tangible. Oppression often unfolds in places we cannot see – we know it and understand it, but it isn’t always a tangible reality we can see, feel, touch, visit.

If you have a moment, go sit by the rubble of the gravestones. Touch it, hold it. Remember it. Censorship is real, state oppression is real. Those who take to the streets to fight it, are not ‘vandalising’ the country – they are fighting for their truth. Just because you cannot see their oppression, does not mean that it is not real.

The events of the last two days have unfolded in a public space and people have been silenced in a place that is owned by them. People have also fought back in a space that they share ownership of with you. Remember your power.