As Bibi Shirini and other Pashto songs battle with roaring motorcycle engines in the semi-commercial area of Kashmir Colony, there lies a hidden secre
As Bibi Shirini and other Pashto songs battle with roaring motorcycle engines in the semi-commercial area of Kashmir Colony, there lies a hidden secret studio in the narrow alleyway. I look to my left and then to my right trying to spot something shiny and metallic to give away its cover – this was rather pointless. After rattling the lock on a large white gate secured in between a carpenter and a paan wala dukaan, we walked into an immense studio.
This studio belongs to Adeela Suleman, which this is made evidently clear from the minute we step inside her space. She whisks past me, greets her workers, wishes them Merry Christmas, and then immediately, it is down to business as Adeela asks about the updates on her work while pointing to pieces on shelves and picking up stored items. I am, in the meantime, gawping at the size of her studio and all things Adeela-esque laid out carefully in cabinets or hung up on the walls. Metal birds, swords, diptych warriors and ornamental plates hang around us. But there is more! On the mezzanine floor, Adeela stores her old work and has a research space stocked with books, a computer, sketches and an exercise cycle to let off some steam when things really hit the ceiling.
The road to success for Adeela Suleman and her intensive practice was not carefully carved out for her, though. Looking through her pinup/musings board, she turns to me and says: “There are no regrets in terms of the decisions I made. I took all the opportunities that came in my life. Right after Indus Valley School, my first show was at Sheraton Hotel at the Art Fest. At that time there were just two or three galleries with a maximum of ten years of experience and anyway, I really wasn’t getting the support I was looking for from galleries. No one wanted to show my work here, neither did anyone want to buy it and for eight years no one bought anything from me…because the nature of my work was such, I was making things from bartans (pots), found objects and domestic items. No one took it seriously or took me for a sculptor because I wasn’t “making” work with my hands and that’s the biggest issue here. I wasn’t worried about this because from day one I knew what I wanted to do and my work would take this path but I was concerned as to WHEN people would recognize me as an artist.”
After completing her bachelor’s from St. Joseph’s College and while finishing up her master’s at Karachi University, Adeela secretly gave an admissions test at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture. She giggles as she recalls that it was only till her acceptance came did she break the news to her parents that she was pursuing a third degree which was for four years. It seems that with her multitudinous pursuits and commitments, Adeela has acquired the knack for pushing boundaries and maintaining high expectations for herself. She recalls that her first big break was while she was residing in Cambridge for a couple of months after her Fine Art degree. Raiji Kuroda from The Fukuoka Museum had come to Karachi and was shown Adeela’s thesis work and immediately approached her; “so they asked me to send them a proposal and I sent them a big packet of my motorcycle project (Salma, Sitara and Sisters Workshop) with newspaper clippings and drawings and a lot of research. They seemed to really like it and told me they would have my work. I think that was the best thing that happened to me and it motivated me to make my work when I was really overwhelmed with life at that time. My degree was over, I was living with my husband for the first time in another country, I was pregnant and I didn’t even have a studio then!”
After coming back to Karachi and renting a space at her alma mater, Adeela whipped herself into work mode and at last, her largely acclaimed piece Salma, Sitara and Sisters Workshop was created. Laughing at the madness which ensued afterwards, Adeela reenacts the days when she had to run back and forth from the Museum in Fukuoka to set up her work to the hotel with her newborn baby. “It was quite mad, and all this time I had a teaching job at Karachi University as well, so things were exceedingly complicated!”
It seems, however, that nothing has changed and as an artist, Adeela understands that her lifestyle has countless trajectories which demand equal attention. However, one day she seemed to be losing touch with her work and it was then where she decided whether she would have to read a page, just flip through an article or sketch out a budding visual, she promised herself to do something or the other just for her practice every day. Her recent show at Canvas Gallery, ‘Dream of Carnage’ came as a slight surprise to most of her viewers. Perhaps, due to the change of scale and the insertion of a video. However, Adeela remarks that people who really understand her work saw it as a very natural progression in her visuals. Suleman is known for beautifying heavy connotations of violence in our everyday lives through iconic Pakistani craftsmanship. As we look through samples and testers for her final products we talk about her research on stories of violence such as Khalid ibn al-Walid and the river of blood which lurks through the painted plates exhibited in ‘Dream of Carnage’.
Adeela notes that years ago we would hear of murderers stabbing people and running away, but today the stories of violence escalate into details of victims having their eyes gouged out or their limbs hacked away or attacked in gangs. Her reflection on the intensity of violence which has seeped into society is visually depicted in all its glory; bright cadmium hues of crimson and delicate Mughal figures amazingly painted to spurt blood all over the composition.
The recognition for the extent of the skill in her work is shared by both the artist and the artist’s comrades. During her student years Adeela searched and searched for the perfect craftsmen to work with and after eons of trial and error her employees Younus Bhai, Parvez Bhai and Hanif Bhai are more than just employees. “I don’t think people realize that to work with other people and to manipulate and bend a craft to your favour is an art in itself,” Adeela comments while exchanging frames with Parvez Bhai, “I love pushing the skill and craft of creating something to a level which I have desired but it was not an automatic result – I would and I still do sit with my craftsmen until each leaf or stem is the way I need it to be.” When I ask about how their response is, she chuckles and has zero inhibitions in telling me that at first, all her employees would laugh at her and think she was off her trolley but with mutual respect and developing a relationship her team is the treasure of her practice and career. “I despise it when they are taken advantage of and aren’t given the credit that is due to their training.”
Clearly contributing to the artist community, whether it is contemporary or traditional, Suleman is dedicated to the cause. Having years of teaching experience and nurturing the Vasl Artists’ Collective, Adeela spoke frequently about how there needs to be more investment into art institutes for not just students but teachers and practicing technicians. Committed to increasing the amount of financial aid to artists and art students, she explained that it is important to try all methods to retain and increase the artist community in Pakistan. Tethering herself to so many responsibilities, Adeela full heartedly acknowledges that people are amazed at her attention span. “People say that I’m nuts but I’m just high on life!” She throws back her head and laughs. As we leave the studio, Bibi Shirini is still playing for the departure of Adeela; she raises up her hand and all the motorcycles halt for Bibi to cross the road.
Images courtesy Canvas Gallery.
Veera Rustomji is a Fine Art graduate from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She has been a freelance writer for the past two years and enjoys conducting research within the field of art.