KARACHI, Pakistan — Tombstones rise out of the earth lining the pathway in front of Frere Hall, a colonial building and surrounding park in Karachi’s bustling downtown. Iron flowers spring upright from the white gravestones, but most of them wilt, representing not just death, but a nation that has forgotten to replace dead roses with fresh blossoms.
Adeela Suleman’s The Killing Fields of Karachi, was installed for the 2019 Karachi Biennale, a public art exhibition known as the biggest in Pakistan. The exhibit memorialized 444 people killed by Rao Anwar, a cop who extrajudicially murdered civilians by staging fake encounters in which he claimed to fire in self-defense, but no police officer was killed or injured.
Within two hours of its public opening, Suleman’s exhibit had been shut down by men who claimed to be from state intelligence, and the lower hall housing the accompanying short documentary film indefinitely sealed.
The film’s focus is Naqeebullah Mehsud, a 27-year-old aspiring Pashtun model who was picked up from Sohrab Goth by authorities in early January 2018. Detained overnight, policemen tortured and extorted him of money after they found out he’d been saving to open a clothing shop. He spoke to his wife on the phone and asked for a video of his son, who had just learned to walk, before Rao Anwar killed him.
Naqeeb had been a social media influencer, and his Facebook page had more than 14,000 followers. He had migrated to Karachi from South Waziristan, a conflict-ridden area that suffered Taliban violence, military operations, and US drone strikes in the wake of the War on Terror. The murder galvanized a movement for the rights of Pashtuns.
“He was a beautiful young boy, and this happened in the city,” Suleman, 48, told Hyperallergic. “He came here to fulfill his dreams, to become a model, and he was popular on social media.”
Suleman’s artwork was not just censored, but also vandalized and destroyed by law enforcement agencies. Afaq Mirza, the deputy general of parks, said that the space was for the public, not political activists. “This place was given for art, not to make a political scene,” he remarked. The team for Karachi Biennale also disavowed the artwork they had curated, stating that Suleman’s exhibit did not fit into the annual theme of “ecology and environment.”
But the dimensions of public space in Karachi, one of Asia’s fastest-growing megacities and Pakistan’s largest commercial hub, have always been political. Karachi is a city built on land grabs, mining of resources, political parties violently claiming space, and military operations snuffing them out. Whether it’s police violence or infrastructural decay, the untimely deaths of young people in the fifth least-livable city in the world is unbearably normal.
“This city has given me enough shocks,” Suleman said. “And every time you interact with the city, it laughs.”
Suleman’s tombstones, which were made out of cement over a period of months from molds she created, are pyramidal in structure, sacralizing the park with the memory of the dead. The seven-minute film is silent and zeroes in on the abandoned poultry farm in which Naqeebullah was killed. The landscape of the broken-down farm and its jutting pillars eerily mirror the gravestones, both before and after the state brought them down with sticks.
In the accompanying film, Naqeebullah’s father, Khan Muhammad, stands in front of the sea. He gazes into the eyes of the viewer, a stark reminder that his son’s killer still has not been brought to justice.
“There are people who say art is an indulgent activity for the elite, it’s not catering to the masses,” Numair Abbasi, 28, a Karachi-based artist who has faced censorship in the past, said. “If you look at the history of the gallery in Pakistan, it expanded from [conservative military dictator] Zia Ul-Haq’s time [in the 1980s]. Art was banned and looked down upon, so the gallery tried to take everything inside.”
But Suleman’s exhibition was installed in Frere Hall, one of the rare spaces open to everyone in the city, where boys take selfies, women walk along the pathways, and workers hang out on the cool grass. The artwork did not just reference the dead bodies incurred by the state, it also disrupted public space by constructing an artificial cemetery in one of Karachi’s most-visited parks.
Depoliticizing space in Karachi thus is not just impossible, but a dubious attempt by the state to gaslight the public. Sohrab Goth, where Naqeeb was picked up, is a largely working class settlement inhabited by Pashtuns, facing an expanse of sky and highway on one side. It is where the city ends. But Frere Hall is in the center of the city. The Marriott Hotel is across the street, red flag prostrating in the hot air. It is a fifteen-minute walk from Zainab Market and situated where Saddar (downtown) just ends, and the stylish uptown begins. Frere Hall has also been the site of informal study circles by politicized students, and both the nonprofit-driven Women’s March and Climate March.
Perhaps it was the content of Suleman’s artwork and the positionality of the exhibition that threatened the authorities, who did not just shut it down but returned three times to vandalize the artwork. Not only did Suleman bring an issue of the periphery to the center, she did it in a space where it could be viewed by a diverse group of people and form a much-needed collective conversation on police killings.
“When you show ‘444’ in such a big place, then it seems like a huge number. That’s what terrified them,” she said. “When you put it in lines [in newspapers], it makes no difference. The moment you make a visual out of it, they lose their minds.”