Bani Abidi is trained in painting and printmaking at National College of Arts, Lahore, but her interest moved to video while she was pursuing her MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. The photographic element in her work ensued as a natural consequence of video-making. Bani’s oeuvre is simultaneously witty and sad, giving her works the poignancy that amazes and startles while it narrates. What follows is an interview between Asma Mundrawala and Bani Abidi.
Asma Mundrawala: I’m going to ask you about the narrative content of your work and its performative aspect. I’m interested in discovering why you choose this form of narrative expression and what influences feed into your work.
Bani Abidi: During my undergrad years at the NCA, for the most part, I was painting and it was a very medium-driven interest. Gradually I became more interested in ideas which stood apart from formal issues, and I invested all those into painting. So there was a struggle between following a particular kind of painterly language I was interested in, which was in conflict with the ideas I was interested in. I experimented with that a lot and eventually I felt that I was trying to the push the medium of painting in a direction I could not take it in. During my Master’s degree and my time in Chicago, I had been watching a lot of film, and understood the potential of the moving image and other time-based forms. I started working with video after graduating. I think the reason was that with video as with performance, you can incorporate sound, language, action and time, and you find two or three levels functioning simultaneously on the timeline. And so I felt that the fact that something unravels over time was the way I liked looking at art rather than standing in front of a still image and investing that with a narrative.
AM: Also the tradition of storytelling is so important to our culture. How did you find that to come into your work in an oblique kind of way?
BA: I think it was because I’ve grown up in a home where I found that if we ever tried discussing an image, any image, even if it was a photograph or an early modernist painting like Sadequain’s, it was just shunned under the label of being too ‘modern’ or abstract. There was no desire or ability to understand images intellectually; there was just an expectation of visual beauty. Real enjoyment lay in literature. The contrast was so extreme in the way references were made to poetry and prose in daily conversation but images were only ever spoken about formally. And generally in Pakistan, it is poetry, the ghazals, music or Sufi music, literature and writing that plays a role in the public imagination much more than images of any kind.
AM: This is also evident amongst other things in the text that is written on public transport here.
BA: Yes exactly, that’s much more of an active place full of word play and puns.
Initially when I started in Chicago, it was about being true to language. My concerns were about Urdu and English. Mangoes, my first video mixed Urdu and English as an everyday language. And those things were really important because it was about trying to construct little stories which meant something. So yes definitely, it was as a result of belonging to a literary household. It’s also interesting that after having been through this journey of the narrative, I can now start appreciating the abstraction of an image. Because I have confronted, dealt with, enjoyed and tried to produce full-on stories or moments, there is now a desire within me to be able to pull away and get more abstract.
Mangoes, 2000, Video Still
AM: Yes, your work may have this very strong narrative aspect but yet it is so open to meaning and interpretation that it lends itself to both approaches. For instance your Karachi Series about all these fictitious characters doing various everyday chores outdoors in the evening during Ramadan unravels the duality that you are talking about; the abstractness and the narrative. I think the Karachi Series is a very good example of that.
BA: After having done a lot of video-based work, for the Karachi Series, I invested the same kind of planning and compositional qualities and sense of atmosphere into a photograph. The series differs from the form of photography more prevalent here, which is documentary photography, in the mere fact that they are orchestrated, fictional photos. Therefore a relationship is established to the narrative. I don’t know if one would invest a documented photo of reality with the same level of character and role-playing as is seen in the Karachi Series because there is a very clear artifice in it.
AM: For that matter this is the same for the Muhammad bin Qasim series of works. When I saw you making those works, you were planning the narrative for an excerpt from a television play along with several texts which were to support other works and were written with such aplomb and conviction that it threw the viewer off for a moment. This threshold that your work stands on, between reality and created fiction, is a very exciting place to be in; a place where you orchestrate and direct an entire narrative. This is very different from my experience as a theatre practitioner where I work with somebody else’s text. Here you are making your own text and you are orchestrating the way people will view it.
BA: It’s also about the skill or the inclination one has something which you have done recently, to find texts that you have an intellectual relationship with. I’m able to do this now because I’ve read things that have inspired me. The relationship between theatre and the original text is the very essential relationship between theatre and written text. The role of the visual artist as someone who creates everything him/herself is increasingly being challenged because artists now collaborate, and form collectives and rely on other knowledge bases. But I did feel that the Muhammad bin Qasim works emerged from this entire idea of history and the fact that it is so concocted. You know when you look at the Pakistan Studies books that they are so wrong. So, for me, to write the text that I did wasn’t a big leap, because we’ve grown up on untruthful texts and have believed them. It was just an exaggeration of a very real thing.
AM: Interestingly enough, you recreated the fictional texts that you were studying as a child, and put them next to your works so that somebody else from another generation could start believing them.
BA: Yes, except that in my work there was a very clear level of absurdity that could be seen in the way the figure was photo-shopped so it was floating in the air, or in The Boy who got Tired of Posing, a narrative was created where the boy leaves. Little moments of magic or absurdity actually lightened the seriousness of it.
I’ve always felt that in our lives here, in Karachi or Pakistan everything borders on the absurd. I think it may be true also for a lot of other places. But for instance if I compare my life in Chicago, life there is very highly circumscribed and regulated, and performance and actions are very pre-dictated. The rules of a civic society and a modern city are very clearly played out and there are very few transgressions. But in our lives here, everything is happening everywhere and it’s an absurd culture so deeply full of contradictions. Here, there is modernity, there are parallel demands of tradition and religion, neighbourhoods and areas are deeply divided, people’s circulation across the city and across class is fraught, there are so many ways in which life is inherently absurd. I’ve always felt that our inspiration comes from life, but I don’t need to go out and search for the right characters and make a documentary. Instead I’ll make my own stories and invest my characters with a certain level of truth. So the characters are not actually there, but they could also be there. In the Karachi Series, the character who is sitting on the zebra crossing reading a newspaper could be real, because life does not always follow logic.
AM: I want to ask you about the designing of the entire work itself. For instance I find that in the construction of your last body of work ‘Section Yellow’, the folders, the space created by the tarmac pictures, or the people queuing and waiting, were all various characters and props of a production. In fact the objects and people were all characters within the narrative. In a sense you were allowing us to confront the event with such proximity and lending a history to everything; the folder that somebody held or the man who wrote this letter for thirty years. This kind of intricate detail that takes you into the narrative is something very unique to your work and a privilege for us as viewers who can access your narrative with such proximity.
BA: I think this happened with this body of work in particular. The film within this work ‘The Distance from Here’ itself is very tough because it is extremely quiet. It’s not like Reserved which is very familiar and anecdotal. This is almost austere in its structure and in the way it plays out.
BA: Well, There are two places in which the film is shot. One is the outdoor waiting area, which is inspired by the experience of waiting outdoors in the Consulate parking lot in Islamabad before the space was ultimately constructed. The second was an air-conditioned visa room. So there is the difference of sounds of these two different spaces where there are people waiting and nothing happening.
It’s a heavy film and there is no relief. Instead of literally playing out the tension that people face by conversations or any other devices; I made the film psychologically heavy. Besides, ‘Section Yellow’ was an entire body of work, and not just a single film, so everything was linked and created meaning when seen together. The whole project included a film, photographs and text works.
The word that I used in my mind was that I wanted to annotate the film with lots of other details that are marginally present in the film or may not even be present, but all refer back to the film. And there were lots of accidental choices and results that emerged as I did the related work. When I was photographing the folders (which very much come from my security barriers and intercoms drawings), I had decided that I’d take the plastic folders that were used as props and photograph them from the side so I would capture the peculiarities, the height and thickness of each.
I would just label them according to the nature of the visa application and that it would just be the thickness that I would document. But it became fairly abstract because when I photographed it from the side, its depth got lost and it just became this strange line. And then when I assembled them together the image became a horizon or a shore. It became something new which I never intended, but I stayed with it, because I liked the idea of the folders being the repository of dreams for all the people. It was also about it being a vista that the viewer is looking at, which reveals the details and the papers once you go close. And of course there was the collage-like exercise in Redirecting Lines. So there were different games I played with the material I had with me.
AM: Yes, The Distance from Here has a strong controlling environment about it, one that dictates the behaviour of the characters in its narrative. The spaces you were trying to depict and the environment you are referring to is transferred into the way you have made the work. The horizon suggested the new world beyond it, yet the physicality of the space controlled the flood of people who come with their dreams. This was very much part of its spirit.
BA: Definitely, and I am interested in this series of the intercoms and security barriers because I’m interested in this very blasé approach which comes from the tradition of documenting that existed in the conceptual art movement in the 50s and 60s in Europe. There is blandness to the lists and documentation, and all the humour and emotive possibilities that it has are very subliminal.
AM: Tell me how you felt about making a film in India. I keep thinking of Reserved and how much it was about Karachi and Pakistan. Suddenly when I saw the video, and its specificity to India in its characters, I wondered how important it was to you that the work was not specific to Pakistan.
BA: I think it wasn’t important for it to be specific to Pakistan because in this story Indians are in exactly the same place as Pakistanis in terms of being vulnerable to visas. There are so many biases and generally the ethos is very similar. It was however a more foreign experience in its production. I worked with documentary film makers. The documentary tradition is so strong in Delhi. Here, for Reserved, I worked with an advertising person and another who makes soap operas. That was where the difference lay. Also the way the crowds are. I worked with a lot of extras and saw them for the first time on the day of the shoot. So you can’t relate to them immediately as you can to Pakistanis because here there is a familiarity. Perhaps direction may have been easier here. It was more expensive to do it in India. I suppose I have to do a film here again. There has been too much of a gap between my films to make an immediate connection or comparison. I have to see how different it feels to be making a film at home.
AM: And for your forthcoming project you are also making a film in India.
BA: The forthcoming project is inspired by a lot of things. It starts with this obsession with power and power hierarchies, which I noticed when I went to Lahore to work in a professional environment. The experiences I had there were of a very hierarchical structure. In experiencing the way institutions ran, I encountered a hierarchy and a strong feudal mentality.
Because I am interested in power I have found lots of inspiration everywhere. I read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book The Emperor which was about Haile Selassie and the craziness of power. I’ve spoken a lot about this because it’s been a very important book for me. It makes me think of the excessively feudal culture across the country in Pakistan, or for instance a program like Waris and the familial and economic structures in that, and just the various manifestations of power. So actually now, it doesn’t matter that the work isn’t in Pakistan. You’ve isolated things about Pakistan that are part of your life, and you can find those motifs all over the world.
Ultimately I have settled with the story of a small-time politician who wants to have a statue made of himself in a central place in his town but he just can’t decide how he wants himself to be represented. The idea moves around a patron and a commercial sculptor who is trying to meet the imagination of this little politician who keeps arguing and thinking about how he wants to be remembered. This is angst that I think a lot of people in power face. The work is inspired by politicians in India because there’s a lot of political statuary. This is not a practice in Pakistan. If it was and if it could happen, Pakistani politicians would also do it. But there are other ways, such as several police motorcades or huge hoardings with their portraits everywhere. So there is always a possibility of a grandiose manifestation of yourself.
But because I’m talking about political statues, as an artist that language is also extremely exciting for me. Ultimately there are some questions that are very particular to Pakistan, and I think those will remain, but I think it’s also very nice to move away. It’s also nicer to look at everything in a historic light, a broader light.
AM: And also I don’t think you want to be read as someone who makes work specific only to Pakistan. You will make it when your work calls for it but certainly I think it would become a limitation for you if you would make work that is largely specific to Pakistan.
BA: Well, I read into life here and notice details and make works about those, but I don’t know whether I am making work ‘about’ Pakistan. Like the Karachi series is very particular to Karachi and my understanding of a city I grew up in. But it’s about my surroundings, and my life, which happens to be Karachi in this instance.
And honestly speaking, to be making work ‘about’ Pakistan right now is such a contested and awful space. Everyone is trying to find how to do this. Meanwhile the world already seems to have reached a verdict about Pakistan. The media has overly represented Pakistan but within a particular prism and set of interests. So you ask yourself whether you want to spend your life just negotiating those representations and who for? I need to look at it as a country, or a society. One needs to objectify and step away.