Pakistan & its love affair with Censorship

Just when people thought things were changing in Pakistan, an art installation about police killings faces state censorship. On, October 27, 2019, the exhibit in Karachi was sealed off from the public. A project by Adeela Suleman called the Killing Fields of Karachi commemorated the murders during a series of Police raids between 2011 and 2018. The installation consisted of 444 tombstones with Iron flowers springing upright from the white gravestones, but most of them wilt, representing not only death but a nation that has forgotten the value of life.

The next day it was vandalized and closed for good.

Within two hours of its public opening, Suleman’s exhibit was shut down by men who claimed to be from state intelligence. Men who did not utter a single word to the artist reportedly attempted to reduce the artwork to ruins. They smashed tombstones and pillars and ended any attempts by fellow artists to bring the art piece back up.

The closing of Suleman’s exhibition on Sunday drew nationwide condemnation from fellow artists and human rights activists who say it was yet another attempt to censor criticism in Pakistan and can be considered symptomatic of the nation’s oppressive political atmosphere.

Suleman said that she witnessed controversies of this sort in Pakistan a lot, but had remained hopeful that there could one day be greater freedom of expression in her country. Now, she thinks otherwise. “We have seen censorship in the past, but in recent years things had been better,” she said. “This opened my eyes again. This shows the power art has in a country like Pakistan—they couldn’t take it for even two hours. Pakistan can talk about air pollution and water pollution—but the corruption of mind and memory? That will be censored.”

We all know how censorship, in the long run, doesn’t work in favor of democracy. Yet we continue to see censorship prevail at the smallest of expression of ideas in the country.

Does an Apolitical Ecology exist?

The aim of the organizers of this event, in general, is to use art as a vehicle to discover, discuss and respond to Karachi. Yet the organizers did not support the artist after her work was left in ruins. Their reason? the art being too political & “not compatible with the ethos of KB19 whose theme is ‘Ecology and the Environment’.”

The disappointment also came from Afaq Mirza, the deputy general of parks, who said that space was for the public, not political activists.

But the features of public space in Karachi, one of Asia’s fastest-growing megacities and Pakistan’s largest commercial hub, have always been political. Art, in general, is always political. For the environment to remain untouched by politics, civilization would have to perish.

And Karachi is a city built on land grabs, political parties violently claiming space, and military operations putting them out. A country with such a predatory political economy, in the end, the deaths of young people in the fifth least-livable city in the world is insufferably normal.

“Ecology” has also been broadly interpreted to include the human ecology of the city. It goes without mentioning that the activities Rao Anwar engaged in drastically altered the natural ecology of Karachi and its outskirts. e.g. the land and sand/gravel mafia).

Art in Pakistan has for the most part been for the elites. It isn’t seen as something for the common man. It was a rare sight for such an installation to have taken place in one of the most visited parks in Karachi.

The Park is the center of the city. It has a Marriot hotel on one side and one of the largest markets on the other end. You can see the end of downtown and the beginning of uptown. The site has been used as informal political circles by students, the nonprofit-led Women’s March and Climate March. How do you depoliticize a location like this?

A Game of Privilege

For the privilege to perpetuate, it requires a hefty amount of ignorance. Saying that ecology and politics are two separate spheres is like saying class privilege has not got its roots in the destruction of the environment. In the end, it all boils down to maintaining privilege.

Suleman’s art threatened the state’s privilege by bringing an issue on the sidelines to center stage, where it could be viewed by all kinds of people and start the conversation around police brutality on a massive scale.

  • Sabrina Munir is a freelance photographer who has worked in the GCC and North America. She has her BA in Psychology from York University and is passionate about women's rights and healing through art & community building.