“Exercise in Redirecting Lines”, a solo exhibition by Karachi-born artist Bani Abidi, is on display at Kunsthaus Hamburg until 30 October 2016.
Pakistani artist Bani Abidi presents a series of “fictional documentaries” in an exhibition exploring the mechanisms of exclusion and participation in global politics.
Addressing national politics through the awkwardly everyday
Kunsthaus Hamburg is holding the first extensive overview of Bani Abidi’s works in Germany, entitled “Exercise in Redirecting Lines”, which presents the artist’s oeuvre through a series of “fictional documentaries” that explore the mechanisms of power and the relationships inherent in global politics.
Bani Abidi’s (b. 1971, Karachi) signature methodology involves the creation of fictional video documentaries that are often exhibited with accompanying photographs or publications. The early work of Bani Abidi has explored the production of national discourses looking specifically at the role of speech, television, song, sports and the media.
The Speech Writer (2011) is a fictional video documentary presented in the form of ten flip books, whose contents “document” a day in the life of a retired political speech writer. The viewer cannot hear the character speak but witnesses, instead, the minor daily activities of a man who previously formulated the rhetoric and declarations of Pakistan’s public figures.
Bani Abidi’s practice explores the relationship between an individual’s daily experience and national narratives. By presenting the figure of a fictional speech writer supposedly writing for Pakistan’s politicians, the work contrasts an attempt to make visible the processes involved in the construction of the national discourse on the one hand, and on the other an attempt to document and explore the more meaningless modest daily activities of a given character.
Critiquing the clumsiness of cultural hegemony
Other works compose awkward collaborations between participants and the artist that are not s fictional as they are ludicrous, in a critique of the mechanisms of cultural production in the age of cultural appropriation and imposition. In Shan Pipe Band Learns (2003), Abidi asked a brass pipe band in Lahore to learn how to play the American National Anthem. Given only half a day to listen to the melody and practice, the band was recorded rehearsing and playing the anthem. The video hones in on the uncomfortable gestures of the musicians as they struggle to assume a tune that is foreign to their portfolio as well as to their mother-tongue.
The Scottish Pipe Band tradition is a colonial legacy that still exists in Pakistan, whereby Pakistani musicians working for the military would provide the soundtrack to national and colonial events. Now, unattached to the military, these band musicians play Indian music tunes at weddings. With the invasion of Iraq, and the systematic intervention of the United States in Pakistan, Bani Abidi’s video work explores the violent processes of cultural imposition through a complicit re-enactment of political yielding to US interests.
The focus on the clumsiness of the musicians as they struggle to grapple with their performance highlights another defining feature of Abidi’s work. The artist skilfully creates macro-political critiques of the maneuvers of international foreign policy making through a micro-political mapping of the minor junctures of stunted communication between people. This communication is expressed through their awkward gestures, body language or expressions performed or captured in her work.
“Exercise in Redirecting Lines”: a critique of regulations for migrants
“Exercise in Redirecting Lines” focuses on Bani Abidi’s work made between 2006 and 2016, a period defined by the artist’s experience of moving between India, the United States, and Germany. Thus, much of the work in the exhibition has been shaped by the artist’s own experiences with travel, migration and bureaucracy. In the film The Distance from Here (2010), Abidi brings together an anonymous crowd of people at an undefined place. Standing in line in a waiting room, people of all age groups wait to have documents verified. Each person is scanned with a metal detector and is equipped with a tie for the passport photo.
In her video, the formalities of border control are ritualised to become the evidence of the hierarchic injustice of global migration policies. The work recalls an earlier video and photographic work entitled Section Yellow (2010), which similarly explores the exploits and contingencies of transit in a series of depictions of the specifics of preparation, anxiety and anticipation. In exploring the gestures of people queuing up to travel, both works lace waiting and administrative processes with the taste of an existential nightmare. These are but two examples of a number of Abidi’s projects shown in the current exhibition that critique the excessive bureaucracy that characterises the regulation of the movement of the Global South’s working class migrants and refugees.
The exhibition’s titular work Exercise in Redirecting Lines (2010) also explores the systems that govern the free movement of people across borders: a series of eight geometric photo collages explore the aesthetic and social significance of the yellow lines that appear in Section Yellow. These markers hold a clear place in a global collective imagination as markers of any form of traffic control. The images show the lines as they are commonly painted on asphalt, their presentation highlighting them as aesthetic forms. At Kunsthaus Hamburg, the yellow lines also appear in the gallery space itself as an installation in an expanded work that appears to make connections between the guiding of traffic, the guiding of migrants and the guiding of art audiences through the gallery space.
An Unforeseen Situation (2015) is Bani Abidi’s most recent work, which debuts in Europe in its finished form in the current exhibition. The work consists of two fictional documentaries that use as a starting point the 2014 Punjab Ministry of Sports televised competitions, during which multiple world records were reportedly broken by Pakistan. The artist tells her own version of the events, composing a series of tongue-in-cheek narratives based on newspaper clippings and rumours, in which, for example, an attempt to break the world record for the number of white plastic chairs lined up, fails.
The artist sets herself up as a documentary maker, conducting faux interviews with characters who are participants, workers and organisers of the attempts to break records. An Unforeseen Situation is a witty exploration of the relationship between competitiveness, ambition, sport, masculinity and nationalism, and how these play out in hierarchical institutions such as large sports organisations, television companies and event management companies.
Documenting Karachi’s shifting social landscape
While Bani Abidi often uses fiction in her videos and photographs, she can also be seen as an investigative artist who is constructing an archive of works that trace the changing social and political landscape of Pakistan, especially during the years the country has been particularly spotlighted in the global media for natural disasters, corruption, terrorist threats and economic problems. Intercommunication Devices (2008) is a set of digital vector drawings that survey objects that mark and monitor shifts in the way that public space is being framed, occupied and regulated in Karachi. The works show the intercom devices that can be seen in increasing numbers in the city, indicating the paranoia pervading the city, especially among the privileged classes who can afford such security mechanisms.
Similarly, Bani Abidi explains on her website that the work ‘Karachi – Series 1′ (2009) is
a sideways glance at a growing manifestation of ethnic, religious and cultural homogeneity in an erstwhile cosmopolitan space. The photographs in ‘Karachi – Series 1’ hypothesize a silent moment when the original denizens of the city step out of their homes to lay claim to a space that is also theirs. Shot at dusk during the month of Ramadan, when most Muslims of the city are breaking their fasts with their evening meal, the artist contemplates the vast emptiness of the city streets and imagines them to be inhabited differently.
Bani Abidi and the “absurd”
The tone of Abidi’s exhibitions swerves between the ludicrous and the deplorable. Many of the works on display at the Kunsthaus Hamburg either document or re-enact situations that are reminiscent of absurdist theatre – a post-World War II movement whose name comes from the 1942 essay by Albert Camus that first mentioned it. Entitled The Myth of Sisyphus, the essay explores trends in contemporary theatre in relation to the titular Greek myth in which a man persistently tries and fails to push a heavy rock up a steep mountain. This is an apt analogy for Abidi’s works, which explore the mechanisms of exclusion and participation in global politics, and express solidarity with minority migrants and artists expected to perform spectacular feats while subjected to increasingly rigid forms of control.
- “The Man Who Clapped for 97 Hours”: Pakistani artist Bani Abidi – February 2016 – Art Radar speaks with Pakistani artist Bani Abidi about politics, absurdity, history and what it means to be a Pakistani female artist.
- No Country? Contemporary art for South and Southeast Asia – July 2014 – the landmark exhibition “No Country” is in Singapore until July 2014 on the final leg of its journey
- 4 Pakistani artists making art out of violence – December 2013 – over the last ten years, Pakistan has suffered the most violent decade of its history, now the country’s contemporary artists are challenging the devastation through their art
- Pakistani artist Bani Abidi on fantasy of heroes, nations, war – January 2013 – artist Bani Abidi takes aim at the historical narratives and cultural memories of South Asia
- Bani Abidi on Indian video art, a medium on the rise – August 2009 – Bani Abidi talks about Indian video art
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on Pakistan artists, and South Asian Video and Photography