Felt very fortunate to have met & interacted with the internationally acclaimed Pakistani artist Bani Abidi who visited SZABIST MSMD Post colonialism class. She not only shared her body of work but also freely shared her inspirations and the thought process at the time of their conception. Bani is an artist trained in Pakistan in the 1990s hence her penchant for exposing social contradictions is understandable considering the transition the country and its people were going through. Bani’s videos, photographic works and installations use elements of performance and orchestration to explore the processes of political history, popular imagination and identity formation.
Bani’s work titled Karachi Series 1 consists of a series of six photographs, all featuring a central protagonist involved in a seemingly banal, domestic activity in the middle of a deserted street at sunset. The light, the postures of the figures (facing backwards) and the apparent calm of their activities imbue a gentle and shared melancholy to each scene. The images, and by extension the protagonists, are clearly part of a common larger narrative. The accompanying titles list names, times and places bring to the fore the common circumstances of their creation. The names of the individuals suggest that they are part of the non-Muslim minorities of Pakistan – Christian, Parsi and Hindu. Karachi Series 1 is an exploration of the place of religious minorities in a public environment not known for its acceptance of difference. By venturing into the street and performing everyday tasks in public, Abidi’s non-Muslim subjects reclaim a time and a place where their status as equal citizens in metropolitan Karachi wasn’t contested. “The photographs in ‘Karachi – Series 1’ hypothesize a silent moment when the original denizens of the city lay claim to a space that is also theirs”. Bani imagines the streets of Karachi in a different time & space in history where these characters from minorities were more visible in the public life of Karachi. The inherent human need to belong in a multi-lingual, multi-ethic, mutli-religion metropolis (as Karachi) as explained in Glissant’s belonging.
Funland is a multichannel video installation depicting the amusement park in Clifton, Karachi in the backdrop of concrete and under construction Bahria Town Plaza. The video is a collection of video images with no narrative or voice-over yet it successfully invokes feelings of nostalgia and sadness looking at the desertedness of the place that once used to be an integral part of outings of a typical Karachi family. Bani’s Funland is an intelligent take on the repercussions of ‘one-size fits- all’ idea of global urban standard of a ‘world-class’ city. She highlights the flip-side of ‘worlding’ cities, in conformity to what Aihwa Ong says in her work “Worlding Cities and the Art of Being Global”- when a city’s ambitions are redefined by globally prescribed forms/symbols of a world-class city at the cost of its unique culture, iconic public spaces and deteriorating public life.
In her work ‘The Address’ the video is a static TV screen used as a sound board for the audience to strike interesting conversations in its context. The screen is a familiar shot from the typical PTV screen set before the head of the state of Pakistan or the Chief of Army Staff would address the nation in the decade of the 1980s till date. Bani shared interesting reactions of the audiences when the screen displayed at various public spaces, people thought someone important was about to arrive on screen and make an important public announcement. The public kept staring at the screen in anticipation signifies our appetite for official sermons. A nation of natural-born news consumers, which readily buys into conspiracy-theories around national news and official announcements.
“Bani explores historical and contemporary representations of the figure of Mohammad bin Qasim, and the proliferation of this narrative in state history and shared culture, through her fictional depictions of the hero in his emblematic form—wearing the Arabic keffiyeh, brandishing a sword, and riding a charging horse”. The Ghost of Mohammed Bin Qasim, the artist monumentalizes the figure, who appears to haunt various sites of national significance around Karachi including the Lahore Fort, the tomb of Emperor Jahangir, and the National Mausoleum of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, or Mazar-e-Quaid. Yet on closer examination, these glimpses of the return of the historical figure contain various incongruities. A short fictional text reveals with iconic contexts and raises questions about the role of nationhood, nationalism, and narratives of our origin in the Pakistan’s history as retold to generations through school curriculum, creating an intended ‘false consciousness’ as put by Gramsci.
‘Speech Writer’ is a visual flick-book narration of the story of a retired speech writer narrating his edited and unused speeches from the corridors of power. In this particular work Bani analyzes the complexities of official history, its (re)construction, edition and censorship, as well as the gaps and inconsistent truths within news media. How we get to know only the edited state-narrated official version of an event in history, never the whole truth. But interestingly the speech writers has no audience, hinting at the fact that the ugly reality has no takers in the real world. People only hear what they want to hear.
Bani creates an exhibition with works based on her interest in history, authority and state power. These works are moving on the blurry brink between truth and fiction without revealing if they were staged or real. Abidi’s photographs, installations and video works are reflections on social disorders and phenomena. Her projects relates to native Pakistan but often refers to its political and cultural relations to India and the Western world. Bani’s artistic practice thereby implies the longing of a younger generation for understanding national identity across cultures and borders.