The art in war

October 2, 2022

While incorporating the imagery of war, Adeela Suleman breaks barriers between genders, patriotism, geographies and histories

The art in war


ike many others in her generation, Adeela Suleman, has not experienced war (she was a one-year-old in 1971). As an artist, however, she reveals a fascination with war that haunts everyone who has participated in it, witnessed it in real life, watched it on television or in movies, seen documentaries and photographs and read about it.

A heroic aspect is often attached to war: selfless soldiers, accounts of bravery, dashing uniforms, glittering medals – as well as a greater and noble cause of saving the nation by sacrificing one’s life, future and possessions. Forsaking one’s family, loved ones and regular pleasures to serve one’s homeland makes war attractive, desirable and respected.

In Punjabi language, vaar refers to “a heroic ode or ballad that generally narrates the story of a Punjabi folk hero or historical event”. Vair means animosity; veer, the word commonly used for brother, also means strength. These Punjab words are not entirely unrelated to the English ‘war.’ War, whether in Punjab planes or on English frontiers, has generally been a man’s business; women, children and animals suffer on account of it and crops, trees, houses, settlements and villages are ransacked.

While incorporating the imagery of war in her work, Adeela Suleman breaks and bridges the barriers between genders, patriotism, geographies and histories. In her art, war emerges as a testimony or/ and a tendency. In her solo exhibition, Allegory of War, at Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham (July 17 to October 9) works on various scales and dimensions, various media and formal solutions point to the existence of conflict: from the Muslim history recoded in illuminated manuscripts and miniature paintings, to present day warfare and atrocities, target shooting and extra judicial killings.

Some of Suleman’s work relates to documented incidents and contemporary accounts. However, her mode of representation transforms facts into metaphors. A certain picture, episode or anecdote may have definite meaning and power for a contemporary audience. Once removed from the context, it acquires a new significance. For instance, snapshots of Vietnamese mothers, farmers and villagers before their execution, are viewed today as signs of cruelty, rather than a means to identify the peasants and their families.

Scenes of beheading, combat, bloodshed and assaulting soldiers in Mughal miniatures too may have been based on actual events (like in My Lai massacre in Vietnam) but with the passage of time the details have been forgotten and became irrelevant. The art of miniature painting, which according to Arthur C Danto, was originally a mode of documentation “[b]ecause imperial patrons wanted visual records of their deeds as hunters and conquers.” is now perceived as an accumulation of symbols, styles, subjects and identity markers. Adeela Suleman has reconstructed a war landscape – beyond location and time, in which soldiers are seen confronting their opponents.

This work, like a novel comprising many characters and situations, is composed on a gallery wall in Birmingham. Memory May Be A Paradise II (2022), is mostly made of figures reminding one of the past: brandishing swords, holding shields, headless warriors in action, noblemen engaged in hunting, animals jumping on to their prey; arrows, cannons, trees, shrubs, clouds and fighter planes dropping bombs.

The art in war

The opportunity of holding a gun, injuring a person, annihilating him/ her brings a ‘masculine’ satisfaction in delinquents as well as in some in law-enforcing agencies. Like Bollywood movies, constructed around a ‘fearless policeman’, one hears about cops who eliminate their targets without any regard for the law.

In this hand-beaten brass and copper repousse installation, Suleman renders a war scenario. War, a gruesome and disastrous reality, also encodes courage, fearlessness, excitement and beauty.

Many people are enthralled by the aesthetics of power. Ceremonial military outfits (from King Charles III in his regalia to Chilean dictator Gen Pinochet in his army dress) amuse and impress the viewers. Suleman produces her soldiers in many positions, postures and acts, fabricating their attire in intricate, exquisite and complex patterns. These historic figures become part of our reality – with their (almost two-dimensional/ flattened) presence on the well-lit wall; like the way we watch a war reportage on our TV screens.

Social and electronic media transmit material that has a following and appreciation among viewers. Video games and war footage on telly, besides innumerable photos of conflicts across the globe, confirm and satiate a basic human urge to dominate. A primordial motive from recorded battles between Greeks and Persians, Mahabharata and crusades to modern-day quarrels in our alleys and neighbourhoods –is usually tamed through sports, political talk shows, intellectual discourse – and domestic disagreements.

The opportunity to hold a gun, injure a person, annihilate him/ her brings out a ‘masculine’ satisfaction in delinquents as well as some in law-enforcing agencies. Like Bollywood movies, constructed around a ‘fearless policeman’, one hears about cops who eliminate their targets without any regard for the law.

Adeela Suleman’s video installation Killing Fields of Karachi (2019) addresses crimes like these. Narrating the death of Naqeebullah Mehsud, allegedly murdered by police, Suleman reminds viewers that his was one among 444 deaths caused allegedly by the same officer.

For the Karachi Biennale 2019, Suleman created an installation of mortuary plinths, commemorating the illegal executions. Her artwork was vandalised and removed by force. However, a work of art, like a rumour or a revolution, is never quite extinguished. Walking across a number of plinths in Birmingham, made by local masons with metallic flowers at the top, and faded black and white visuals behind them, one returns to narrow lanes of Karachi.

Adeela Suleman charts the expanse of violence in a series of cleavers with a blurred vision of brutality - soldiers aiming their weapons, advancing tanks, war scenes. Here the use of format is important, because a butcher’s chopper for separating mutton/ beef portions – is also a tool of barbarity. Suleman in this, the History Will Erase Itself (2019) paints views of wars intriguingly in a diffused and hazy version, remarking how the story of a confrontation, or even the history of a whole nation is made unclear, for the future generations.

The art in war

Walter Benjamin claimed that death was the only experience a human could not have, because it was sudden, unforeseeable and blindingly absolute. However, deaths are also indicated or announced by crows or ravens - usually dark birds, making noise to foretell sad news. In Suleman’s sculptural installation, Harbingers of Death (2022) one finds rows of black birds perched on shelves of a high wooden structure, accompanied with their sounds. The sound of these creatures heralds some sort of mournful occasion. Their repeated cawing and croaking, alludes to a crime site: a killing in Karachi; a stabbing in South Hall or a mugging in Manchester.

Whether sounds, images or materials, the work of Adeela Suleman deals with life, death and memories of a specific city. Yet to see her exhibition, you travel to a distant town, give directions to the taxi driver in English, and he replies in Urdu. Hence the city of Birmingham provides a rightful context to the Killing Fields of Karachi.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

The art in war