Adeela Suleman traverses a narrow space between several paradoxes both structurally and thematically in her new body of work titled “I Had no Choice but to Hear You”. These dichotomies are existential as well as physical and the tension between them makes for some high drama. But it needs to be seen whether the drama is purposeful enough for the success of a show or if a critical, intellectual distancing is more imperative.
The oeuvre consists of gurneys and IV stands which detract slightly from Suleman’s previous usage of more ubiquitous objects like kettles and drain covers because the objects in this case arrive imbued with the connotations of wounding and suffering. But Suleman misappropriates the objects by flattening the gurney, pinning it to the wall and embroidering it heavily, while making exotic floor lamps of the IV stands. Then in her inimitable method of beautification, she proceeds to layer the works with ornamentational detailing; the gurney is covered with a beautiful damask patterned with the curtain of dead birds; and the lamps are embellished with Islamic geometrical patterning and metal roses, all of which Suleman says are found objects pre-constructed for other usage. This disparate imagery is further intensified by the use of coiling snakes styled as arabesque motifs or in the recreation of the logo for western medical associations that uses the Rod of Asclepius as its symbol for healing. The metaphor is further accentuated by medical datum that uses snake venom for the treatment of several diseases. In Suleman’s narrative the snake is the epitome of evil that exists in the human psyche.
Suleman’s use of the curtained dead birds each simulating a hand gun, has been re-defined in the form of a massive chandelier. Titled Fly My Pretties and formulated through a series of latticed cubes through which light is emitted the wall hanging throws a myriad shadows on the surrounding walls thus enhancing the space. Without these shadows the room is just four walls and audiences are relegated to passive spectatorship. With it, a participatory arena is constructed in which viewers are prompted to engage more actively with the works. But it is still not an adequately immersive experience and how much we are to engage with the works is left to be defined individually. The psychological exploration which is the goal of the informed viewer is restricted in Suleman’s works simply because she puts the canonical methods of viewing back into the objects she creates. The gurney which could have proved just as effective in its upright functional position instead takes the place of the traditional canvas on the wall and removes it from the experiential realm of the viewer.
But in many ways doing it differently is what distinguishes post-modernism from previous isms. There are no rules of engagement in installation art says Suleman and objects at being slotted or pigeonholed.
Then there’s the decorative element in Suleman’s work. For some the enchanting craftsmanship is enough to captivate, enthrall and stimulate unabashed glee, a sentiment most rare in contemporary art viewing. For others, the adornment is a trigger for skepticism reinforced by Gombrich‘s unforgettable truism that “the beauty of the picture does not lie in the beauty of its subject matter” after he offers a disclaimer about the nebulous benchmark of beauty. But Suleman manages to retain the crackling tension of the larger existential conflict between good and evil through the imagery of the embellishments which she says she is happy to obtain from sources as diverse as pop culture to traditional motif-making. She makes beauty the front for her own grief at the environment she lives within and a façade for the ugliness of the world in order that she may protect her children from it as long and as far as is possible.
This is the essence of Suleman’s thematic structure. She says “The work is an introspectively critical comment on my facility to ignore the rupture around me and continue my daily existence with some degree of lightheartedness within my self-made cocoon for the sake of providing normalcy in my children’s lives”. But in all fairness, as Gemma Sharpe points out, “Suleman engages with her environment without aloofness or detachment by the very nature of her work process”. She leaves the safety of her studio to work with the artisans whom she has trained over the years, in their surroundings and thus traverses the disparities of social structure, class and income that have carved up the city so divisively.