Female artists are common in Pakistan, but female artists who work with video and still photography are not. It took Bani Abidi just a little bit of thought to break away from the stereotype, but when she did, seven years ago, she felt liberated. Abidi’s latest video and still works, currently showing at GallerySke in Bangalore, are images of her life, and the lives of people in Pakistan and India, documenting vagaries that seemingly affect most people at some point or the other.
in focus: (left) A work from the Security Barriers series; the artist.
“That was the reaction I got from most people who watched Reserved. Everybody in the subcontinent has had a similar experience sometime in their lives,” says Abidi of the 9-minute video, which begins and ends with wait: The wait for a dignitary who doesn’t arrive, anxiety apparent on the faces of schoolchildren who have lined the streets holding up little paper flags; on the faces of commuters whose journeys have been unexpectedly stalled; and on the faces of puffed-up bureaucrats as they await his arrival. Occasional sounds of sirens announcing an approaching convoy jolt the viewer and divert attention to another screen that tracks the movement of the dignitary and his attendant cavalcade.
“There is a lot of power in video,” Abidi says. “Moving pictures make people curious and rivet attention.” But, all her works are statements of a state of mind, just as Reserved reflects submission in a state that is now struggling to retain its democratic identity. Other works, such as Security Barriers, a series of vector drawings of the concrete and iron barricades found throughout Karachi, prompt questions about safety and separation. Though the drawings, almost sterile in their precision and neatness, are matched to specific geographic locations, it will be the rare viewer who does not recognize with uneasy delight the innocuous planters and monstrous blockades found all too often outside consulates and embassies. Another series, a photographic narrative, The Address, plots the anxiety and anticipation before and during a presidential address on national television. Like Security Barriers and Reserved, the banal details—a Pakistani flag, a portrait of Jinnah—point to deeper unsettlement, capturing moments of “inbetweeness” when people wait, expect and anticipate events outside the viewer’s frame. “It is a part of my culture to use literary references, but video and photography is a jump,” says Abidi, whose interest in video stemmed from watching films at the Art Institute as a student in Chicago. And, though video has been slow to catch on in Pakistan’s contemporary art scene, Abidi is happy to point out that students at the Beacon House National University in Lahore, where she taught until recently, are beginning to experiment with the medium. Abidi, who works closely with her friends and contemporaries Huma Mulji and Rashid Rana, says, “It’s a challenge to be consistent with video, especially because Pakistan does not have much of a local patronage, so you have to depend on international patronage.”
Recent works by Bani Abidi, at GallerySke, Bangalore, are on display till 28 May