On Censorship at the Karachi Biennale

The forced closure of Adeela Suleman’s exhibit at the Karachi Biennale was a difficult situation for Adeela Suleman and the Karachi Biennale. Should the KB curators have been more thoughtful and placed her artwork in a different space so as not to attract the ire of the authorities? Was KB’s statement afterwards capitulating to the viewpoint of law enforcement wise or foolish? Considering that the entire show, participants (many of them foreigners), and visitors still needed to be protected as the Biennale continues, should KB have taken a courageous stand or been strategic? These are all hard questions to answer but they must still be asked as we consider our tenuous artistic freedoms and the continuous pressure from the state to limit them.

As an artist, I would argue that censoring art is wrong, unless public endangerment results (which is rare). But the art scene in Pakistan has always been subject to state censorship (think back to Ayub’s times and how poets and writers were harassed), so it was not surprising. It is naive to think we operate in a space of complete artistic freedom. Nobody in Pakistan or anywhere else in the world does, when they bring that art out into the light to be seen by other people. What was surprising was that Suleiman’s work was approved by the KB curators in the first place, if it didn’t fit the ecology theme. I would argue that it did, in the sense that violence and murder are an assault on Karachi’s mental health, which has knock-on effects on our environment, but that the connection was not clearly made, and certainly brushed aside when it came time to “unjustify” the decision to include it in the Biennale.

Withdrawing support for an artist is a painful decision, one that is being taken as cowardice of the organizers. But festival organizers do get intimidated by threats of state reprisal; they’re only human after all. The Karachi Literature Festival has also been forced to alter its program over the ten years it’s been happening in Karachi. KB itself  engendered controversy in 2017 with the damage done to the Pioneer Bookstore, accusations of elitism, and so on and so forth.

As the Dawn editorial in today’s paper states, art shows do get shut down, as in Turkey, South Korea, Cuba and the Venice Pavilion at the Azerbaijan Biennale. No art exists in a vacuum, and we would be naive to think it can never happen in our quasi-dictatorial society. If it isn’t the authorities, it’s conservative or religious elements that threaten artists. I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the KB organizers and have to make these decisions. And under pressure, anyone would be hard-pressed to get it right.

In a world where artists struggle against state censorship everywhere, perhaps this incident at Karachi Biennale is the most powerful illustration of that dynamic, even stronger than if the original exhibit had been allowed to remain open. What could be more poignant than the sight of the tombstones in Suleiman’s symbolic graveyard knocked down to the ground, as if they themselves had been killed in cold blood? It is the death not just of the 444 people killed that Suleiman was evoking, but the death of art itself in the face of censorship.

People have been making the statement that “all art is political”. That’s a very pretty thing to say, but I tend to stay away from the fancy statements, preferring instead to let my art do the talking. Still, consider the case of China, where Ai Wei Wei gets censured for his art but Mo Yan is accused of pandering to the government. Artists engage with politics, because politics is a part of life and artists engage with all of life around them. Sometimes politics engages with the artists, when all they want to do is create art. But the artist who survives is the one who knows how to navigate politics and the system, especially in countries like ours. Some people call that “self-censorship”, others, “survival”. Only when you are an artist living and working in a repressive society do you realize that attaching a good or bad label to any of this is unrealistic.

There are many artists who ostensibly strive to stay away from politics. Would you consider Rembrandt’s art political? Not at first, but Rembrandt was patronized by rich and powerful figures, some with political connections. Even today, art is political, but not in the way the innocent believe: the fellowships that you accept are funded by donations from business people; the art shows are funded by multinational corporations. Galleries are owned by millionaires. We are all making political choices in everything that we do, so to say that “all art is political” and yet believe that all artists are divorced from the politics of the art scene, or untouched by the politics of their environments, only creating art in a pure, untouched space that will remain forever protected by the state, is naive in the extreme.

Still, art will continue to be made in Pakistan, and Pakistan’s artists will continue to push the boundaries of what is acceptable to our authorities. That’s what you sign up for when you become an artist. That’s why artists are considered revolutionaries. That’s why artists are considered dangerous: we say things that shouldn’t be said, according to good taste, common sense, and polite society. That’s why we know instinctively that censorship is harmful to the flourishing of creativity. That’s why we get called irresponsible and subversive and obscene and all the other things designed to keep good citizens in their places.

The authorities will be congratulated for doing their jobs and maintaining peace and order. The artist will be congratulated for being courageous. The KB organizers will be congratulated for a successful Biennale, but for this unpleasant incident. The show will go on. This will never change, because art is the enemy of the system. But all artists, who are cannier than you think, know very well the artistic compromises they make before anything of this magnitude ever gets to the eyes of the authorities, or the front pages of the papers. </p>