Adeela Suleman’s work includes nine plates from a distant past with images of confrontation, combat and annihilation
ometimesa creative person’s choice of a subject places him/ her in a certain compartment rather than widening his/ her acceptance. At a session in the Lahore Literary Festival 2020, the Turkish Noble laureate Orhan Pamukhad stated that most of his novels have Istanbul as background.As a result,he is often classified as a writer of Istanbul, like for instance Dostoevsky of St Petersburg, James Joyce of Dublin, Naguib Mahfouz of Cairo, Gunter Grass of Danzig.In reality, all these authors deal with the human condition, alienation and crisis of existenceand the city happens to be merely a backdrop.
A similar reading of Mir Anees (1803-1874) categorises him as an marsiya poet. He has portrayed the battle of Karbala, martyrdom of Imam Hussain (with whom Allah was pleased), the misery of the survivors in the Syrian prisons.Thus, his work is perceived by many asdevotional poetry. However, if one reads beyond the description of those historical events, Anees’s verse is spellbinding on account of its poetic merit, imagination, extraordinary idiom and amazing metaphors. Despite the painful references, the poetry is beautiful.
For creative individualsincorporating subjects of gloom, misery and cruelty in their work, the balance between dark content and delightful form is a critical concern.
Is it justified to portray death in lively hues?What then is the difference between a journalist and a fiction write? Reporting a catastrophe may not require much focus on aesthetic detail (a turn of phrase/the composition of a snapshot), except the intention of conveyingthe message with its miserable clarity; but a novelist or a visual artist can create work about horrible events and cruel accounts, imbibed into a structurethat attracts a diverse audience; besides investigating social and psychological connectionsofatrocious acts.
Adeela Suleman’s work – recently shown at Canvas Gallery’s booth at Art Dubai ’23 (March1-5) can be viewed in the same light. A number of art pieces were created onEnglish ceramic plates (acquired from second-hand markets in Karachi) with elaborate edges and rims. Originally, for serving food, these dishes were transformed into pictorial frames, with central parts meticulously drawn and painted (by Suleman’s studio team).
Three of these dishes depict scenes from Qajar courts (A Princely Redemption, The Acrimonious Melon Eater, Qajar Resurrection), withthe monarch surrounded by lavish items, background and courtiers. The unsettling element in two of those – normallythe decorative/touristic artefacts – is Suleman’s intervention into an otherwise calm and tame imagery.
Instead of the ruler’s head, one sees a fountain of blood, erupting from the neck - the ultimate end or the feared fate of autocrats. The third dish (Acrimonious…) contains an assortment of fruits including watermelons next to the king, who according to the legend got one of his aidesexecuted for the offence of devouring the other half of a watermelon that the ruler had saved to be eaten after his siesta.
Another plate from this group, The Strange Case of the Rebellious Mansabdar, illustrates a typical Indian courtwith aprincely couple in the centre of two neatly arranged groups of courtiers.Anodd character at the bottomis an official in his formal dress, with his head cut and lying next to him on the floor. Ironically, and importantly, thecourtly routine continues despite the presence of a decapitated human.
The figures in the recent work of Adeela Suleman seem strange in terms of their dress, features and arrangements, but in the past anyone from South Asia could have comfortably associated with them, because this region was part of a vast Middle Eastern/Central Asian world.
The normality of everyday life in these visuals with the undeniable presence of bloodshed (appropriated from the Ottoman, Persian and Mughal miniature paintings) could be a comment on the current conditions, in which you eat sumptuous dinners and watch the news of bomb explosions, target killings, terrorist attacks in-between chewing well-done steak or munching on delicious biryani. Some dishes, such as mutton quorma, are associated with the chain of killing, skinning, slicing, chopping a living being. So a food platter is both a culinary delight and the final residue of a cruel operation.
The solo show by Adeela Suleman for the Canvas Gallery at Art Dubai, also includednine plates (Qajar Conflict) with images of confrontation, combat, annihilation from a distant past. Violence has been a permanent theme inhuman history across communities, cultures and ages.Intriguingly, the artist from Karachi has focused on Persian sources to narrate the current spread of violence. There could be several interpretations for this choice (including the venue) but it also demonstrates the artist’s freedom to choose his/her sources from across cultures – not necessarily bound to his/her location or birth.
Figures in the recent work of Adeela Suleman seem strange today in terms of their dress, features and arrangements, but in the past anyone from South Asia could have comfortably associated with those, becausethis region was part of the vast Middle Eastern/CentralAsian world. With Persian masters participating in the development of the miniature painting at the Mughal courts and political leaders in India fighting for the survival of Ottoman caliphate; numerous families of South Asian Muslims tracing theirancestral tree/surname to cities in the Middle East and the Central Asia.
In another workthe artist extrapolatesand extendsa number of historical, pictorial and metaphysical sources. In her large tapestry, The Orpheus Descending, several narratives, times and locations merge. The Greek mythological bard, playing on his lyre, has descended to the underworld.
In the same pictorial space, Arghan Demon brings the armour to Emir Hamza (from the Mughal Hamza Nama) “on side panels men are coming down from heavens to loot the world, but the world is already in chaos, despair and the water is red”. Here, Suleman produces a composite saga of violence, which is cruel and painful, but made pretty and presentable through the power and sophistication of narrator’s voice.
The war landscape is more visible, sparseand bare in Armageddon, an installation made of cut-outs of hand-beaten repoussé and chasing on copper and brasssheets, a continuation of similar Memory May Be A Paradise II (2022), for the Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham. These disjointed figures of soldier, shapes of weapon, segments of landscapes, make the war and violence a household affair irrespective of whether it is fought in the ancient Greece, medieval South Asia, present day Syria or on the streets of Karachi.
War/conflict/killing in the art of Adeela Suleman is no different from how it is described in the words of poet Zeeshan Sahil. Describing firing, Sahil compares it to a folk song, a background noise that provides usualthe setting for our lives.
The art of Adeela Suleman keeps reminding us of such events – not limited to certain surroundings, society or age; but turned transnational in their atrocity as well as their absurdity.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.