Art fiend: Negotiating identity

Pari Waniam 7:42 pm, 22nd August 2008, Ramazan, Karachi

When it comes to video, there are not many who understand its relevance in the art world. It may be a well-established art form, but does not carry the same commercial value as a painting or sculpture. Thus, becoming a video artist in Pakistan takes a certain amount of passion, drive and daring in addition to talent; all of which Bani Abidi possesses in abundance.

Abidi is a Karachi-born artist currently based in Berlin. She is primarily a video artist and has exhibited her work extensively in international solo and group exhibitions and been part of various biennials and triennials. Her works are also part of prominent museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and Tate Modern.

However, due to the technicalities of displaying video art in Pakistan, and the reluctance of art collectors and patrons in buying video art, her shows in Karachi have been sparse. Her latest solo show at Gandhara Art Space, The Most Amount of People Standing Still, Screaming and Laughing, is the first in six years, and some of the works have never before been shown in Pakistan. Abidi acknowledges Gandhara's director, Amna Naqvi's support in making the show possible.

Bani Abidi presents her video installations as satires about the idiosyncrasies of ordinary people and provides insights into larger themes

The artist was always interested in art and drawing, and wanted to attend the National College of Art in Lahore. She was the youngest of her siblings and her father was very supportive of her career choice. She did her Masters from the University of Chicago, where she spent six years. It was only after graduation that she became interested in video; the idea of being able to work with multiple images, narratives and sound excited her, as compared to the singular image of a painting.

Abidi feels that living in Berlin is cleaner and simpler, but can also get a bit boring. "Living [in Karachi] and understanding things here is phenomenally more complex and exciting and troubling and saddening. So it's all levels of emotions; positive and negative. It's much more evocative." She produces all her work in Karachi and is always involved with local artists and friends on various projects.

Her work consists mainly of short video vignettes that are based around the city, focusing on the socio-political and cultural environment. However, she seems to have an inherent interest in its people, their actions, reactions, differences, shared experiences, emotions and idiosyncrasies. She talks about ordinary people and situations, rather than making grand overarching statements. The dark humour and satire in her work allows us to laugh at ourselves, and for her to laugh with her audience, like two friends exchanging smirks at an inside joke.

Ghost of Muhammad bin Qasim

What is most striking about her work is how a singular narrative based on human eccentricities and peculiarities acts as metaphors that convey themes as vast as our Indo-Pak history, nationalism, religious and ethnic identities, and political power-play. In her current show, this quality is most prominent in the works 'The ghost of Muhammad Bin Qasim' and 'The speech writer'.

Her works at Gandhara focus mainly on the city, as it is the second in the anniversary series Look at the City from Here curated by Haajra Haider Karrar. However, the artist feels that it is the 'Karachi Series II' that is the most representative of this exhibition. The videos are displayed in the form of multiple screens suspended in a large room, playing with spatial relations and sounds of crows to create an immersive space.

The piece takes four public spaces in Karachi, which have been lost or changed somehow — the Theosophical Society; the burnt down Nishat cinema; Funland, a theme park facing closure; and Clifton beach, the culmination of the city's social / class divide. Unlike her previous scripted works, this one is closer to a documentary style with minimal intervention. These different narratives running simultaneously talk about the death of public spaces for people who actually own the city: the working class.

The works chosen by the curator perfectly encapsulate the essence of the artist's practice and her relationship with the city. We get a sense of how her practice has evolved and matured over the years, but has also retained that quality of championing the underdog that we saw in the 'Karachi Series I' some 10 years ago. We can only hope the patrons of Pakistani art can do the same and we see more of Bani Abidi in our galleries in the future.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 17th, 2016

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