Art critique


For artists residing in Karachi, it is not uncommon to produce works referring to the socio-political environment of the country. Why? Because politics is omnipresent; overwhelming and indiscriminately surrounding all Karachites. So, unsurprisingly, Adeela Suleman’s practice, since its inception, has been inspired by the daily struggles of her fellow citizens.

Curated by Jenine McGaugghran at the Midland Arts Center (MAC) in Birmingham, as part of a solo exhibition titled ‘Allegory of War’, five larger-than-life pieces strive to capture, in the most aesthetic way, the volatile nature of Karachi and the daily dealings of its people. The showcase includes the infamous video and sculpture installation, Killing Fields of Karachi, which deals with extrajudicial executions, and was originally installed at Frere Hall for the Karachi Biennale in 2019.

A new addition to Suleman’s cacophony of material is the piece titled Harbingers of Death. This newly commissioned interactive sculptural piece allows the viewer to step into its eerie interior for an inside-out experience. It is a closed hexagonal structure, tapering as it rises upwards. Similar to a stepladder, each side has symmetrical wooden shelves inserted into it. Two opposite sides have cutout entrances. Each shelf features a multitude of large black artificial corbels perched on them, facing within the architectural form. Part of the structure is a sound piece chronicling the croaking of Karachi crows. More often than not, in most cultures, crows are seen as a bad omen and harbinger of misfortune, but Suleman finds solace in the familiar species as they roam the Karachi skyline in abundance. Perhaps not the crows themselves, but the enclosed space of this architectural work manages to convey a feeling of dread, an implicit feeling of disquiet, as in most of the artist’s works.

Adeela Suleman’s ‘Allegory of War’ attempts to capture the volatile nature of Karachi and the daily negotiations of its people

Two other separate pieces included in the show are By the River and I die Unvanquished. These are enamel paints on found ceramic plates. There is another ceramic plate painting titled Statecraft of Violence in the show, but these two stand out, not just because of the subject of the painting, but because of the concave solid wood frame. The paintings made by the Vespa motorcycle decorators, in enamel and lacquer, are meticulously rendered and, as with most of Suleman’s works, they feature brutal wartime subjects with serene backgrounds littered with decapitated heads and men in combat, all presented in the most aesthetic format.

In the case of these framed plates, which are no different from Suleman’s tapestry works, they are executed in the Indo-Persian or Mughal style of miniature painting. Although due to the heavy two-tone wooden frame with beveled edges, the plates retained their character as serving dishes; a highly decorated but understated serving dish at a dinner party, serving its audience bloodshed on a platter for consumption. It would have added a wealth of meaning if these two pieces were installed horizontally rather than vertically on a wall.

Working with skilled artisans – such as metalworkers, each of whom are professional masters of their craft – is an integral part of Suleman’s practice. He agrees that it serves as a way for him to give back to society, especially since his practice is based on a critique of said society.

The same modus operandi was practiced in the UK, as the large tapestry work titled Allegory of War was produced in collaboration between Suleman and local stitch and appliqué artists in Birmingham using techniques and materials from Traditional Pakistani textile ornamentation.

The artwork in this exhibit is larger than life, visually stunning, and theoretically saddening in equal measure, as perhaps the artist intended.

‘Allegory of War’ a solo exhibition of new works by Adeela Suleman is on at the MAC, Birmingham, UK from July 16 to October 9, 2022

Posted in Dawn, EOS, August 28, 2022