The experience of death is common to all people and to all societies — few other experiences are as universal as this. Yet, the human relationship with death is a highly uncertain one. In spite of the unanimous belief that we all are mere mortals, there are certain types of death that always leave us confused, benumbed and shocked.
Take the example of dying from violence. It always has a different impact on the way people think about death from the impact caused by the passing away of an old relative.
Artists have dealt with the subject of death in a similar way — as a universal experience infused with personal and culturally specific overtones and undertones. And, quite like other human beings, they treat death by violence as an exceptional, though by no means novel, occurrence.
Adeela Suleman has attempted at presenting the experience of dying by violence in a manner that is simultaneously attractive and shocking.
Her exhibition, Fragmented Landscapes, is a commentary on how violence has penetrated our physical environs and our psychological outlook at the same time and with devastating effects. In her artist statement, she explains the rationale for the show.
“Be it habitually remembered or deliberately evoked, [violence] has a deep impact on individual awareness as well as collective identities. The memory of violence is not only embedded in peoples’ bodies and minds but also adorned onto space in all kinds of settings especially in the natural environment,” she writes.
Adeela, head of the fine art department at Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, has a multitude of solo and group shows, both locally and internationally, to her credit. Her works exhibited in Fragmented Landscapes are an extension of her 2015 exhibition, Dream of Carnage.
Viewed from a distance, the works on display are a visual delight with their hues of crimson, transient shades of grey and ornate Eastern frames. The delicate ceramic plates that she uses in most of the works serve as a surface that has the ability to induce a state of calm certainty within the viewers. But it also invites them to get up close and that is when they see the gruesome nature of the imagery depicted on it. This frequent juxtaposition of violent and grotesque images with beautiful aesthetics is the most salient feature of Adeela’s art.
One of the works at the exhibition consists of six white frames that contain shreds of postcards in various compositions. The card pieces seem to have a ceramic texture as if Adeela has broken a plate and placed its bits together to create the illusion of shattered landscapes.
These landscapes – depictions of a mountainous countryside – represent traditional scenery we all have seen on postcards showing different holiday destinations. Within this idyllic setting are camouflaged metallic meat cleavers, coated in enamel and lacquer paint.
This act of concealing lulls the viewer into a false sense of safety — as if these deadly tools have lost some of their ability to hack through flesh and bones because of the beautiful environment around them; as if they have also become part of the aesthetics of the scene. But it is not easy to overlook their lethality, their original function to cut and carve. Adeela is well known for working with such gripping illusions.
In another work, a picturesque scene is spread over 36 ceramic plates. When viewed from a distance, one can focus only on their colour scheme — shades of dull red and grey. Once one steps closer to inspect the fine details on each plate, they assume an alarming feature and become a river flowing with blood.
A third series of works shows carved wood affixed to vintage ceramic plates — each piece displaying Adeela’s signature embellished aesthetic. In one of them, a stunning champa tree offers shade to two headless miniature figures with blood gushing from their pores while a pool of blood glistens in the distance.
The works in the exhibition, at first sight, appear to be stylistically excessive but upon close viewing they look amply balanced by the multiple layers of meaning and message they contain. This feature is more than obvious in a work that skilfully deploys a known ceramic representation of two English women in bonnets who are carrying three headless figures in their laps.
Here is a delicate deployment of a traditional motif to form a shocking contemporary vocabulary. The images effortlessly draw attention to the bygone eras of Mughal rule and British colonialism while at the same time emphasising that the types of violence may have changed over time but its persistence has not.
In another work, two warriors in metal armour stand face-to-face with each other as broken arrows lie at their feet. Devoid of blood, the work suggests an effort by Adeela to capture the exact moment when two human beings are at the precipice of committing the most heinous of acts towards one another, giving no thought to repercussions. Violence leaves no room for regret; it follows the law of the jungle where survival is the prerogative of only the fittest — that is what the image seems to convey.
Adeela does not want her viewers to merely see violence for the sake of violence. She encourages them to find broader metaphors in her works and this she does by infusing her images with an aesthetic beauty that on the surface looks incongruent with her themes but in reality is not.
Her technique is clearly aimed, among other things, at underscoring the indifference and desensitisation towards violence and death that is pervasive in contemporary societies: that the things of beauty that we so hold dear and valuable are, indeed, being blighted by bloodshed and destruction but, in our social and historical myopia, we never pay attention to the simultaneous existence of death and beauty.
The viewers of her work find themselves indulging in the phantasmagoric effects of a beautifully crafted scene until its violent nature dawns upon them — confusing, benumbing and shocking them.
Occasionally, Adeela changes tack and adopts a minimalist approach for visual representation. This, too, is a way of allowing viewers to interact with her works in imaginative ways. Consider her work comprising four half-pillars forming an arch against a wall.
They acquire different meanings for each viewer as he or she moves through them, occupying the negative spaces in between them, if only for a brief moment.
In the absence of a convincing explanation as to why human beings are prone to violent tendencies, human societies must deal with the ethical and cultural consequences of acts of mass and individual violence. Adeela’s work serves as a visual reminder of how human beings have allowed destruction and violence to infiltrate beauty by ignoring consequences.
This was originally published in the Herald's July 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.