This is a particularly poignant time to engage with Pakistani sculptor Adeela Suleman’s artistic offerings. To look at her work, to understand it, absorb it, brings forth intense optimism with every inhalation. And with every exhalation, a churning distress.

You could think of Suleman as a Karachi woman. Karachi-main, to emphasise how deeply rooted she is in one of the most pulsating cities in the world. It is also a real-life urban, Gangs of Wasseypur kind of place, embroiled also in the conflicts of the larger space.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Mujahiddin were brought to life to combat them. When the Soviets retreated, the Taliban was born. This was the early 1990s. By the time 9/11 happened a decade later, Karachi was in the bloody embrace of local ethnic warfare, laced with militancy.

It was also a quintessentially South Asian megacity: bursting at the seams with people, while simultaneously imploding with patriarchy. Then, the shadow of the Twin Towers darkened Karachi’s skies. Some Talibans, too, made it their home. Not too long ago, Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan city was also considered its most violent. But this is Suleman’s home, her muse: a mass of buzzing urbanity, often absorbing the aftershocks of the violent tremors in Afghanistan.

A new book, Not Everyone’s Heaven, published by Skira, illuminates how the city and Adeela Suleman are intertwined.

An intoxicating experience

The first time I saw Suleman’s work was at the 2009 Salima Hashmi curated show, Hanging Fire, in New York. I had enjoyed contemporary Pakistani art before then, in India. But never Adeela Suleman. I came out intoxicated by a few artists. She was one. What I saw there, and later, in New York’s Aicon gallery, were her earlier works. At the time, she was giving to the world her most astounding helmet series: a strangely disturbing yet titillating succession of helmets, made from everyday objects from the kitchen.

She was struck by the travails of her infant son’s nanny, sitting demurely side-saddle on a scooter, or maybe a motorcycle. She would have to navigate a hostile city to sell her skills to care for a little child. She used a tiffin carrier, spoons, drain-pipe covers (which I always assumed were decapitated ladles with perforations). Most of these were familiar items in desi kitchens – a space considered the natural workplace for most women, one that some believe is safe.

In Suleman’s studio, these implements morphed into unlikely altarpieces, with Karachi’s working women as sacred containment. Her later works, with similar drain covers, were more menacing, as they mimicked coffins, phalluses and what to me was a human rib cage.

Power and control – masculine, ideological and global – dripped in from the outside, flooding these works. Conflating the mortal and the eternal, Suleman laid out the everyday unspoken war. As an Indian woman, anchored in Delhi, I see her works both intuitively and visually. Not because I know Karachi (I have visited just a few times), but from the everyday objects, found in my own kitchen, and the everyday business of Indians side-saddling, in danger of slipping off.

In later works, as an art critic and artist Quddus Mirza points out in his essay in the book, Suleman resurrects historical tales, placing them in the 21st century. Medieval and contemporary worlds press and sometimes crash into each other as narratives, technological products and objects of visual pleasure.

You can see in Death of the Heart, (2019), where the riveting copper fighters, headless, go on battling. Around them, miniature brass trees and sparrow-like birds fly. For the artist, every bird alluded to death in Karachi. When she could not count them anymore, she turned to making lattice screens, where birds would be repeated ad nauseum.

Sometimes, she will deploy familiar art forms-flowers of the kind you would see on trucks. She is not the first artist to assimilate such popular symbols into her work – a trend called Karachi Pop. Yet, it is not quite that, because Suleman reconfigures the image to underscore the normalisation of violence. Women navigate an intensely violent city, experiencing their own struggle. At the same time, the humdrum of every life-the trading, the driving, the honking continues to provide sustenance for the cities.

Cruel seduction

I have been very struck by the trait of cruel seduction in Suleman’s latter works-somewhat the opposite of that uniquely South Asian sensibility, “sweet pain”. One part of this is her use of contradictions, like a plug and socket that only the viewer can fit into one another. She paints gruesome battle scenes on salvaged and ornamental platters. In One Must Always Go After the Other III, every warrior is in deep combat against the enemy. Only thing – everyone seems to have been decapitated by now, their necks fountains of endless blood. Their bodily forms take from contemporary norms of beauty, for the bare torsoed have six-pack abs.

Suleman uses a miniature painting style-dazzling details, beautiful forms. It is a specialisation still taught in Pakistani art schools. Several leading contemporary Pakistani artists have made a name through a practice that mines this sensibility. A viewer can quite easily be lulled into this reverie – it starts by being reassuringly beautiful. Only a closer look throws you into horror – both at the intensely bloody scene and the deception of the beauty from afar.

She artistically weaponise everyday objects. When I first saw one of the I Will Meet You by the Water series in the book, I barely noticed the menacing assertion of her butcher’s meat cleaver. My mind was taken in by the idyllic scenery, painted in the popular style familiar even in India. These were the landscapes of the more troubled parts of Pakistan.

This slowly descending sense of shock was repeated in Not Everyone’s Heaven-2. Only a few seconds after taking in the fresh blues, did the red river of blood, flowing well-ordered alongside the crystal waters, jolt me. Then, I joined the visual dots. I was trapped in the knowledge the artist passed on to me, although I never wanted it, for it is a burden, adding to other burdens. I had wandered into a place of sorrow.

Making these extraordinary works requires artistic skills beyond an individual’s solo repertoire. Even a casual glance reveals the participation of multiple talents, from the ornate repoussé to quotidian welding. Casual glances can be deceptive, for Suleman has built up the repertoire of her team by “pushing them to their limits”, so the sheer artistic quality of a piece is delicious and no longer a skill found in the market. This decades-long effort brings to light the miracles that people produce. The visual aspect is a salve that brings sanity and beauty in an intensely suppurating context.

Adeela Suleman’s works linger in the mind. When I was done looking at the book, at images from Aicon’s own current show of her work and began mining my own memory, I felt pushed into that darkening dusk where the world’s little stories and big stories meet. If her work enraptured me, the Afghan situation brought a pall of gloom. Adeela’s world is not a reassuring one, nor is the one we live in.

Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and founder of the NGO Chintan.

Not Everyone’s Heaven, Adeela Suleman, Skira.