Adeela Suleman’s work featured in ‘Bashi Bazouk’ exhibition focusses on violence using different modes of depiction
The number of times the word ‘violence’ occurs in this text may be surprising. Ashis Nandy notes that the only substitute for Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola; in the same vein, the only synonym for violence is violence. There can, however, be several forms of silence to cope with various forms of violence. An artist does not generally take up arms, enter politics or join protest demonstrations to confront violence of various types, scales and intentions. A visual artist, for that matter, is closer in this regard to a snail than a turtle. He/she does not seek refuge in the self but carries the burden on his/her body, and continues the journey forward. So much so that the baggage and the body become one, inseparable entity.
An artist’s silence is heavy, impending and dangerous. It can transform into an expression that continues to haunt listeners as well as speakers – the victims as well as the perpetrators of the violence. The artist’s response does not refer to a single event, protagonist, location or period. With a surgeon’s skill, it carves the society’s flesh, and opens up wounds that may have been rotting for ages. In this operation, snippets, examples and testimonies from diverse sources are included to ‘picture’ the inhuman situation in human hues.
If violence is a product (of the current world order), Adeela Suleman has picked this from another shelf. As a witness, she could sense its fumes in her home town Karachi. She has also encountered it on a personal level through the experience of family members and friends. Like other artists, she is aware of its devastating presence in our lives - at home, in our psyche and in the outer world. Her work, currently part of her solo exhibition, Bashi Bazouk, reveals its connection with the apparent and inherent violence using different modes of depiction. The exhibition was scheduled for Art Dubai, but due to the pandemic situation, is being held at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, (March 9-18).
A logical outcome of violence is death; Adeela Suleman’s work is against death. It’s a survival kit. In her large-scale applique piece (11/5.5 ft.), she has created a narrative about different stages, methods, situations, weapons and victims of violence. “Her new series is replete with delicate filigree, flora and richly decorative motifs inspired by Safavid, Ottoman, Mughal and other empires at the peak of their violent conquest.” Using historic imagery as a starting point, Suleman has cut segments from traditional manuscripts depicting scenes of carnage. Translating from paint on paper to weave on fabric, she has created an overpowering scenario of individuals busy in battle and massacre, defending and dying. There is blood in countable drips and in continuous trickle; there are sabres, swords, arrows; slashing of limbs, limp torsos, severed heads – joined piece by piece, without leaving a background or backdrop. In a way, this conveys the omnipresence of violence, and its excess turning into a delightful pattern. This reminding one of how pictures of annihilation, explosions and accidents are telecast repeatedly, so that they end up losing their gruesomeness.
Suleman’s tapestry can also be compared with Tarantino’s movie Reservoir Dog, in which the abundance of bloodshed mutes and mutilates violence into a pictorial (films are called pictures) pleasures. The genesis of aggression is different in different societies. In America, it may relate to race, narcotics, gang wars or street crime. In Pakistan, it extends to politics, religion, ethnicity, gender, state apparatuses and petty thuggery. We have become so used to the news of target killings, ethnic cleansing and random shootings that our situation is illustrated by Urdu poet Zeeshan Sahil: “As if firing is a modern folk song/and to its tune, one can play cricket or teach kids a new method to count.”
The normality of violence is both dangerous and desirable. An inherent problem is its attraction. Bright red is an eye-catching hue; sepia brown is boring. An account of a peaceful existence is unexciting compared to the reportage of some feud, brawl or murder. So for a visual artist, violence can be a trap, irrespective of whether it is a painted canvas, an installation, a digital work or a piece of sculpture. This is what is frequently demanded, expected and exported from here.
In that case, Adeela Suleman’s large patchwork and embroidery titled Momento Mori: Remember That You Must Die, reveals violence, but does not disclose an address. On the contrary, it communicates visuals from a long-dead history. Suleman has tried to stitch past with the present by interjecting visuals from contemporary settings, thus indicating the persistence, spread and seepage of violence rather than transient eruptions. In addition to historical and modern versions of violence, recent years have witnessed another form of violence. This is not violence by a state, military or fanatics, but a virus. Covid-19 has posed the biggest threat to everyone – around the globe.
The second part of the exhibition consists of five combines: concoctions, security masks and helmets that are worn on head and protect eyes, nose and the respiratory passage. Fabricated with mundane items like drain covers, tongs, oil drainers, icing nozzles, and kitchen utensils in various metals, these suggest armour-like headgears to fight the violence, on the streets, every evening at home or during the period of the pandemic. Magnificently manufactured, these appliances indicate resilience against any threat. These echo Suleman’s earlier sculptures, which were helmets for females, composed of pots and pans. But the latest body of work can also be interpreted and utilised in the background of Covid-19 with its necessity to cover the mouth and the nose. This series of head pieces, called If You Got a Head, ironically refers to the exhibition’s title, Bashi Bazouk, (Turkish for ‘disorderly’ or ‘leaderless’) are metal masks to fight the unknown enemy.
Today that unknown enemy is a virus. During the previous decade it was a group of fundamentalist militants. There is also state apparatus and one’s past. There is a sense that, through her latest work, Adeela Suleman is engaged in a combat with her past art. In this battle, every side is a winner.
The writer is an art critic based in Lahore