Bani Abidi’s survey exhibit inhibits her unique storytelling and methods of deconstructing mainstream narratives
There are many ways of measuring distance, whether through the metric system, miles, yards, feet, or just as a stretch in time. Technology has further altered conventional ways to calculate distance — through cell phones for instance. Then there is distance determined by emotions, like someone being close to your heart despite being physically absent, or completely remote even if sitting next to you.
Funland, a major survey exhibition of Bani Abidi at the Sharjah Art Foundation, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi and Natasha Ginwala, October 12, 2019 to January 12, 2020, encompasses all these and other notions of distance. Alongside differences: between states and continents, past and present, religious and racial, private and public.
In the context of her work, Abidi reminds one of the title of Ishiguro’s second novel: An Artist of the Floating World. This is an ideal position for any creative individual to be in. Born in Karachi, Abidi studied art in Lahore and Chicago, lived in Karachi and Delhi before moving to Berlin. Currently living and working between Berlin and Karachi, she frequently travels which is visible in her art, as some of her work invokes questions of otherness.
The ‘otherness’ with its many faces made its way early in Abidi’s art. For example, her series of photographs in which an adolescent from Hyderabad Sindh dresses as an ancient Arab soldier, posing in front of monuments and urban buildings both in Lahore and Karachi titled the The Ghost of Mohammad Bin Qasim. Or young boys in Arabian attires holding cardboard swords, sitting as if devout warriors, The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing. She also made a series of three videos Mangoes, Anthems and The News in which the same person acts as an Indian and Pakistani in different getups, while eating and praising that particular mango, national anthem, reading identical news items – actually a joke – translated into Urdu and Hindi, with a heavy Arabic and Persian flavour with a dominating doze of Sanskrit.
The floating world in Abidi’s art is fractured — suspended between reality and imagination. She observes and picks fragments from history and constructs works which denote spatial, political and societal divide. Her exhibition provides the opportunity to view most of her works – video, photograph, sound, installation, digital print, watercolour – as early as Mangoes 1999 to the latest Maatam in 8 Different Beats 2019. In the past two decades, she has dealt with the presence of state, power, politics and dislocations, drawn references from religion, popular practices, literature and colonial past. For example, Memorial to Lost Words 2016, is a sound installation that includes 25 marble tombstones like slabs carved with words from letters written by Indian soldiers serving in WWI, which were censored; along with the sound of a Punjabi folk song. The work, inspired by the artist’s reading of Abdullah Hussein’s Udaas Naslain, had a mesmerising effect when it was installed in Lahore Biennale 01, around the dominating statue of Queen Victoria inside the Lahore Museum.
Bani Abidi looks at the sites and sights of conflicts through a lens that simultaneously deposes an added layer of meaning; to a reality which is marred by barriers, boundaries and borders: physical, national or psychological. Characters in her artworks attempt to cross these insurmountable lines. Like Section Yellow that “addresses bureaucratic rituals and security protocols affecting people starting journeys”. Another work Security Barriers A-Z consists of different types of safety devices confronted at urban check posts. The variation in design, dimension, pattern and colour convey a two-fold message — that even grim and gruesome realities are not one-dimensional.
The artist discovers another side, a lighter one, akin to what Milan Kundera describes as laughter, a necessary device to diffuse and deconstruct the edifice of power. In works such as And They Died of Laughing, there an imperceptible gap between pleasure and perishing. The grimace is evident in the eight watercolours of people who somehow seem to be embodying the verse of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, ‘Yahan sey kutch nahin khulta|yeh phool hain key lahoo’.
In other works, laymen perform tasks (clapping for 97 hours; splitting a hair; yawning continuously for 5 weeks) can be seen as a “playful study of performances of masculinity and futility as explored through the lenses of competition, rivalry and the desire for achievement”. There are also journalists and activists in The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared referring to dissidents gone missing in the Islamic Republic.
The persistence of power, often in painful or playful modes, manifests in Reserved and The Address where ordinary folk are shown in their moments of waiting for the appearance of a powerful personality, in person or on media. The contrast of routine activity with the proper and planned posture of authority presents an uncanny, unbearable situation.
Or the state of being the other as visible in her Karachi Series I. There are pictures of people from Hindu, Christian and Zoroastrian communities performing domestic chores at public spaces of Karachi during an hour when the Muslim majority is breaking fast in Ramazan. Abidi investigates those who survive on the periphery, and are in between desire and disappointment, practicality and fantasy. For example, the 2-channel video Shan Pip Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner, of commercial band players in Lahore, rehearsing American tunes to perform at weddings at a time when the US war planes were dropping Daisy Cutter bombs in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Perhaps the essence of Bani Abidi’s work is the mapping of a world, segregated not only along socio-political and economic lines, but also between factual and fictional lands. Hence, one is unable to figure out what is actual and what is fabricated. She searches data, collects details, documents information and then converts these into works, which in turn become even truer than facts, because borrowing from VS Naipaul: “non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies”.
Abidi’s fiction is fabricated mostly through the lens of a still or moving camera, often rendering grim matter like sectarian targeting and ethnic cleansing for instance the plight of Hazara communities in The Lost Procession. However, she draws differences of a different type in her Maatam in 8 Different Beats, a sound installation that combines the rhythm of ritual beatings performed by actors and dancers in the studio, but the work was inspired by devotees from Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, and Iraq in a procession offering nohas in their native tongues in a far-off land — Berlin.
The title of her survey retrospective — Funland — relates to specific social structures, civic spaces and cultural shifts in Karachi, experienced from Sharjah, alluding to the fact that we live in a dangerous world, where we may laugh till we die.