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Finding Relief from a Violent Reality

Heads up – if you walk into Sullivan+Strumpf gallery in Gillman Barracks this month, you’re going to receive a very bold greeting from gleaming metallic relief sculptures hanging against a dense black wall.

Relief sculptures lie somewhere between the two-dimensional and three -dimensional worlds. They protrude outwards from a flat surface but also belong to that surface from which they were carved. Because they can be carved directly on walls, ceilings and pillars, they are typically found as architectural features on buildings. Examples include carvings which can be found on temple walls or metalworks as seen here:

Installation view, Ashes to Ashes, 2019, Sullivan+Strumpf. (Photography by Ng Wu Gang).

These are recent works by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman in the newly-opened exhibition Ashes to Ashes, her first solo show in Singapore.

Suleman has become well-recognised for her artistic perspective on the theme of violence, especially the kind that has become part of the routine of the people in her native city of Karachi, Pakistan.

Adeela Suleman, Death of His Heart, 2019. (Image courtesy of Sullivan+Strumpf)

A visitor to this exhibition may assume at first that he or she is looking at historical visuals that carry a message which is foreign and removed from contemporary times, but as strange as this sounds, do not judge these artworks by their cover!

Suleman brings to our attention morsels of history, together with a sense of the violence that has embedded itself starkly in her community, especially following the events of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City in 2001. After closely observing events taking place around her, Suleman arrived at a rather sinister but intriguing conclusion that “violence satisfies those same urges for human beings as sex, sports and food.”

Details of Adeela Suleman, Strike of a Believer III, 2019. (Photography by Ng Wu Gang).

Suleman’s warrior figures hold swords and wear armour that is adorned with Islamic art patterns of the artist’s design. These gorgeous details do not reference any specific historical event or place and are intuitively mosaiced from the artist’s various encounters with Islamic art. My conversation with Suleman revealed that the designs could have been inspired by a multitude of sources, as such patterns are ubiquitous expressions in Islamic culture. They could have been inspired by Mughal-era murals and paintings, architectural details in mosques and even possibly, fabric patterns.

Here is an example of the intricate and wonderful patterns in Islamic art. Mohammad Ali, Page from a Polier album: Entertainments in a Harem, 1780 (Lucknow, India). From the collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Although Suleman’s figures are decapitated, her warriors are nonetheless poised for battle and action. If this imagery seems familiar, you might be thinking of these older works now in the Singapore Art Museum’s collection, and which featured in the 2016 Singapore Biennale.

In her older works utilizing ceramic serving dishes, the artist describes her process as the creation of a kind of ‘skin’ upon a found object, and she leaves it to the viewer to discover her cheeky but clever act of ‘serving up’ a gruesome truth. The fine details in these images lure one in to take a closer look, and those same images enthral but in an unexpected manner– the violence within becomes suddenly unmasked and illuminated.

Even though these new metallic relief sculptures are of a  different material, found objects remain at the heart of Suleman’s artistic process. One does not immediately see the base objects used by the artist (in this case, kitchen utensils called pateela, in Urdu). Instead, one is presented with something a lot more interesting, something that toys with the boundary between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional, occupying a space somewhere between the found and created. In Suleman’s own words, “the skin itself has become the object.”

Let us take a moment to appreciate the artist’s technical skill of manipulating scale.

In virtually every piece in Ashes to Ashes, there is an ethereal tree and sparrows which look like they are in the ‘background’ of the work, but are in fact placed and scaled to look like they are in a realm above the battling headless figures.

There is no ‘ground’ in these sculptures, so their placement is open to other ways of understanding their relative positions. Depending on your perspective, the tree and sparrow could be standing in the background of the warriors, just watching helplessly. But look again: there’s no ground here at all. The same tree and sparrow could be literally ‘higher’ – placed in a heavenly realm beyond the warriors.

The sparrows carry symbolic meaning that is tied to Pakistani current affairs. As news of ethnic, religious or caste-related violence emerged in her home country, Suleman resolved to make one sparrow, a common bird, for each reported ‘commoner’ victim. Quickly realizing that her production pace could not match the pace of the violence that led to these killings, she switched to producing just as many of these sparrows as she could. Flying upwards and away from the battleground of the headless warriors, the victims are thrust into the afterlife – both free from earthly violent forces and yet stuck in the reality of death.

While all the human figures visible in Ashes to Ashes are male (and modelled on real-life artisans who work in Suleman’s studio) the artist maintains that the role of gender was simply never a conscious aspect in her observations of the role of violence in her city’s landscape. There are no visuals of women, but to her, it is a mere circumstance that the figures used in her expressions happen to be male. Interestingly, it seems that her work ties into the legacy of Mughal-era miniature paintings, which for many dynasties of painters were meant to be illustrations of historical happenings or poetry verses describing divine events. The emotions and moods in these works reflected the very foundations of the warrior kingdom: courtship and lovemaking with respect to women, and wargaming where men were concerned.

Suleman’s commitment to the thematic umbrella of ‘violence and beauty’ is a powerful statement on a community and culture that, every day and without choice, bears witness to an intimate connection between the two concepts. As she revealed towards the end of our meeting,

“My studio is in a city area, in a building and of a size where the neighbours see (me as) just making decorative pieces. But those working inside the studio understand the true nature of what is being created, and what we are really working on.”

Poetic, gleaming and ornate, Suleman’s sculptures showcase the unchanging and enduring qualities associated with acts of violence through the ages. At the same time, however, the works are beautiful and aesthetically charged, reminding us of how such violence can easily be glamourised, or even normalised, in contemporary times.


Ashes to Ashes runs at Sullivan & Strumpf at Gillman Barracks till 2 June. Catch it before it ends! 

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