Bani Abidi

A News Free Life

Day 1, Friday, September 16, 2011, 10:00 – 11:30

Showing without Telling is an apt and evocative title, and got me thinking the moment I got the seminar dossier a few months ago. It is a very crucial question of our times where the dreamy aura of global egalitarianism is often misleading. Of recent I have had particular reasons to think about issues of accessibility and travel as my life has been completely dictated by visa issues for the past 4 months. As a Pakistani the Indians won’t allow me to live in India even though I am the wife of an Indian, the Germans in Delhi tell me to go to Karachi to apply for my visa, the British in Berlin say that my British visa process might take a while, and the German Foreign Office in Berlin sits on my visa extension for a month, leaving me with no choice but to withdraw my passport in order to fly here to Switzerland. So for sure it’s not a Utopian moment for everyone, it’s a particular historical moment with very serious political, economic and ideological confrontations.  Mercifully, despite them or maybe because of them, some spectacular new realities and communities have come into being that we are all part off.

The question that I am primarily drawn to amongst the many the Daniel has thrown out is the one about specificity of location in current art production. And what interests me in particular is the fragility of these local cultural spaces in the face of the quick hits of information through which we have taken to understanding each other. Are global artists such as ourselves popular service providers to a predetermined global dialog or are ideas of art and the knowledge of the other truly being challenged in these spaces?

But before I start the conversation about locality and its place in my work, I would like to pose the question whether the need to understand this new transnational art world is a more confounding one for western art centers than it is for artists and audiences like myself. For this disjuncture, if that is what this is, is probably more strongly felt within a previously graspable space occupied by western art history.

The art worlds and histories of the Middle East, South Asia, China, or Africa by contrast have been by definition varied and confused ones, that through the twentieth century have dealt with colonization, nationalist discourse, dictatorships, or clerical rule, to name a few determining realities.

As students, my generation of artists in Pakistan grew up on a piecemeal diet of modern Pakistani painters, post war American abstraction (which we had ample access to at the USIS centers scattered across the country), state sanctioned Islamic calligraphy and miniature painting, Bollywood and Hollywood films, British pop and Indian classical music, and reams of second hand compendiums of contemporary western art that reached us a good 10 years after their date of publication, often with entire chapters missing. Our tutors varied from sulky men who had been teaching miniature painting for 20 years in derelict university departments, to hip young women who would come back with art degrees from the UK, to aging alcoholics who spoke of the heyday of modernism in India and Pakistan. So in the absence of an onward progression of a particular modernity, as citizens of a fledgling nation we were exposed to a strange sequence of disparate art ideologies. In the nineties, many of us left to pursue graduate degrees, mostly in the US, and would eventually all return to live and work in Pakistan.

So maybe what I am trying to say is that the questions being asked on either side of the world and across social and historical divides are bound to be quite particular.

Even the current global interest in these countries has different trajectories and reasons. India is a growing economy, Iran and Pakistan need to be saved from the new bogeyman of Islamic fundamentalism and a certain brand of liberal thought fostered, China needs to be taken seriously economically, but yet its artists also need to also be saved and given democratic platforms to function on. I think its these glaring relationships between global economic and political interests and the art world that one needs to be critical of as artists and curators, even if it is ultimately to hard a reality to contest.

Now coming a bit more towards my interest in locality. This was a film I made in 2000 while I was living in Chicago. Manisha, the protagonist, was my Indian flatmate and she would quote from Indian cinema like my mother quotes Faiz. I share this work, because this is one of my earliest videos and this switch to video from painting was a formative and crucial choice. What I was drawn to most at that time was that video allowed me to play with language and script, with meaning that unfolds over time, and ultimately it was a mobile format that I would be able to mail across to Pakistan. All factors situated in the forefront an audience with whom I shared a history, an audience I had a natural affinity with. In thinking of video, I was convinced at that time and still am that Pakistanis have more of a literary imagination than a visual one. My parents, who are extremely sensitive to allegory and metaphor and puns in poetry and literature, get blank expressions on their faces when confronted with an image which may be spewing out meaning. Part of this can be ascribed to being  products of a Muslim society in which figuration and visual representation is not common at all. So for me to make a work in which the character spoke in a familiar mix of English and Urdu and spoke of something we had grown up on, video tapes of Bollywood films, was an important step towards figuring out where my priorities lay.

When I was in college in Chicago, artists like Shirin Neshat and Shazia Sikander were the flavor of the month in New York. One made work about hysterical Muslims and the other work was a celebration of exotic mark making previously unseen. But both these trajectories left me cold and uninspired. This was the nineties, and the token presence of non-western artists in metropolitan centers like New York was the done thing. I could not understand who these artists were talking to and what they were saying, or maybe, I understood too well. I returned to live in Pakistan in 2003.

I remember a very interesting conversation I had at that time with Bernarda Shahn, who was the wife of the American Social Realist Ben Shahn, Her husband and her were active in the 1930s and 40s in the US.  I met her at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture the summer before I was leaving and mentioned to her that I had finished my studies and was going to be returning to Pakistan, to which she very lucidly replied, “But of course you must, you should take your citizenship seriously.” And this came from someone who represented Left wing politics and was hounded by the state during the McCarthy era.

I made Shan Pipe Band soon after returning to live in Pakistan. My 6-year stint in the US was still fresh in my mind, I had been present in the US when the Twin Towers were attacked, and the global “war on terror” had been declared. The US was bombing Afghanistan while using Pakistani air space to carry out its attacks. Pakistan’s acquiescence in the matter was not entirely trouble free. The structure of this video was clearly derived from a certain performance and documentary tradition of video making that I had been exposed to in the US. So my formal motivations and influences were starting to take root. However, the form of the artwork was not detrimental as I had feared but was received seamlessly by a Pakistani audience, since the content resonated deeply. This video work went onto become one of the most favored of my works in international biennials and exhibitions since it spoke of a globally urgent issue. An issue, as I was soon to understand, that I was almost expected to address.


Bani Abidi, Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner (video still), 2004, Video, Double Channel, 7:30 sec. © Bani Abidi, courtesy of the artist

Meanwhile armed with the new tool of video and back in Pakistan, I had started looking back at the nuances of the society I had grown up in. It was an intense time as I started watching and noting moments and events with the heady feeling of articulating them in this new medium. In 2006 I was commissioned by Sharmini Pereira, one of the curators of the first Singapore Biennial, to make a new work. Mine and Sharmini’s meeting is worth mentioning here, and here I digress a bit.  This meeting was one of the most engaged exchanges I have had with an international curator, and I hold her model of curating in high esteem. She was in Pakistan for a brief period, but instead of meeting the twenty odd artists who had been recommended to her by various quarters, she chose to meet only eight, a random choice as she only knew of one or two. She spent an entire day with each one of us and eventually three of us were in the show. But what we all felt was that she had gone to great lengths to understand what everyone was doing and sharing what she herself was thinking. It’s in contrast to that working relationship that I now think of the current movement of curators, artists, and artworks from one exhibition to another in quick succession, and wonder about our roles in this age of international mega events, that increasingly feel vacuous and regurgitated.  Sharmini went on to leave freelance curating and set up an artist book imprint in London and Sri Lanka, where she commissions and produces artists books. RESERVED was the video I produced for the Singapore Biennial.

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Bani Abidi, RESERVED (video stills), 2006, Video, Double Channel, 9:00 mins. © Bani Abidi, courtesy of the artist.

This video came from years of personal experiences of having to wait for a VIP to arrive at some event or the other. It would happen yearly at the prize distribution day in school and then as an adult at cultural festivals. The importance of an event was not sufficiently established unless there was a ribbon cutting ceremony and a well known public figure thrown into the mix. This phenomenon, for instance, says so much about the space I grew up in, in ways which I could not even begin to articulate consciously. It is inherently absurd and comical, all I did as a creative decision was take what existed as a notebook jotting and take it to an iconic level.

My work is often seen as having a political edge and its that ‘edge’ that I am interested. The qualifications for being politically minded and the definitions of what is political seem to be getting easier, narrower, and increasingly predictable each day. Coming as I do from Pakistan, a country situated in the center of what is seen as the global crisis of terrorism, I have to regularly negotiate all kinds of stereotypes.  The critical discourse that the world so wants to see coming from Pakistan is predetermined. Much like the heavily indulged critique of communist utopias by artists who fled the communist block for the West, Muslims are now “encouraged” to talk about good Islam versus ‘bad’  Islam. Our critical voices should somehow begin with lamenting the status of women in Muslim societies and end with raising fists against the brutality of dictatorship.  The world’s interest in women from Muslim countries is a particularly fascinating one, because depending on the political climate at any given time, some Muslim women are apparently more persecuted than others, Most often it’s the Iranian women, earlier it was Afghani women, now its Pakistani women in the northern areas who are getting daily attention, but how often do we see anything in the international press about women in Saudi Arabia? Never, which is surprising, considering that Saudi laws regarding women are the most regressive in the Muslim world and are the guiding light for the much-maligned Taliban. But since they are one of the biggest US allies in the Arab world, their world is the their own business.

So needless to say, news of social breakdown and crises in any part of the world needs to be looked at with some level of criticality and historicity.

Recently, at a symposium on contemporary art from Pakistan, a newspaper journalist got up and asked a very interesting question. He asked the artists present that if they were that politicized how come their work completely ignored day-to-day realities in Pakistan, class disparity which is the most dominant social motif, the presence of ethnic and political divisions in big cities, the nationalist ideologies that we are fed in our school systems, equally urgent philosophical determinants of our day to day lives.  Of course since he was a journalist in the audience, and the artist was a guest on stage, he got a glib response and everyone laughed. He had just asked a very simple question, what and who determines what is worthy of representation? it really left me thinking about what exactly it is that we are up to. In this creation of appropriately “political,” internationally accessible art about terrorism, Islam, and women, is there room for something ordinary, quirky, or poetic?

Last year there were two anthologies of Pakistani writers that were published, simultaneously by coincidence. One was printed by Granta, a publishing house in London, and the other by The Last Word bookshop in Lahore.  The comparison between the two was as transparent a revelation as one could have hoped for about the extremely complex world of art and its global and local audiences. I insert here a comparative review about the two books, the writer says:

“Beyond the theme of Pakistan, the two collections have little in common, and they leave the reader with very different impressions. At first read, the Granta anthology seems more familiar, more in sync with other contemporary coverage of Pakistan. It’s not all beards and bombs, but none of the pieces seem too far away from the country we read about every day in the New York Times or the BBC—it has that sense to it, of bated breath, of decades of decay, of disaster around every corner.”

About the anthology printed in Pakistan Life Is Too Short, he writes, “In these stories, Pakistan is just a place, where people live and die, get by or don’t, fail and succeed, love and hate—as people do everywhere, anywhere. These are really the more familiar stories: what we did today, where we went and where we came from.”

I have to confess that I also prefer the process of looking closely at the quotidian with the hope that I might arrive at something larger, or on the other hand might not. As a film critic praising an Iranian film said, “There is no such thing as a universal film, there is only a good film made locally.” For me the work of writers and artists is to feed into the shared consciousness of a group of people, and to up the ante with every gesture.

If we are asking the question of how to make art from one place more easily communicable to an audience from another, it’s also important to ask whether it is even that important for everyone to fully comprehend everything. The subjectivities of an artist from one place find resonance in the subjectivity of a viewer from another, so thousands of such particularities exist, we needn’t all agree on one thing. Despite its phenomenal implications the Internet seems to have also cheapened the act of knowing. Getting to know other places for instance used to take a lifetime, and most often, it involved travel and a honed curiosity. I grew up never really knowing what the big deal was about American road movies for instance, not until I went to live in the US, that’s when I finally understood the genre. On the other hand I might have never lived there and never fully known. But by itself the form had intrigued me as a narrative of a journey and that impression, too, was enough.

But these assumptions of a Utopian and egalitarian exchange have had a inverse effect on cultural actors across the world. The most promising results of which are actually in the local and regional resistance to it, in the organizing of particular and contextualized dialog.

One wonderful instance of regional exchange was a student scholarship that was instituted recently at the Beaconhouse National University,Lahore. Funded by a Sikh philanthropist based in London, every year students from seven South Asian countries are invited to apply for art school in Pakistan. Belonging to different lingustic groups, distinct income groups, and coming from different cities, the only thing that connected all these kids was Bollywood. Going to study somewhere in the region was not a possibility when I was making choices to go to graduate school.

The Sharjah Art Foundation based in Sharjah, is another example of an institution that has been playing a very major role in the cultivation of critical art and thought in the Middle East for the past six years. The organization is the umbrella organization for the The March Meeting, a yearly symposium, the Sharjah Production Grant, and the Sharjah Biennial. However, Jack Persekian, the director was asked to leave the institution earlier this year by the order of the sheikh, because of the commissioning of an artwork that was found to be objectionable at the last Sharjah Art Biennial. This did not come as a surprise as it is a conservative monarchy with lots of money. Actually given the circumstances and social culture of the country, the 6 year life of such a institution should be credited to the Sheikh and not only its end. The foundation made an incredible mark and has set important standards. The neighboring gulf state of Dubai by contrast has been able to offer nothing more than corporate art prizes like the Abraai Captital Art Prize and glitzy art fairs, so lets thank God for little mercies and hope for new Jack Persekians and new foundations.

The other slightly ironic but heartening cultural relationship that has had extremely productive results is that between India and Pakistan. India has for the past ten years printed the best of Pakistani writers and shown an entire range of Pakistani artists. This support is not philanthropic or independent of global capital, we are still talking within the realm of high end publishing houses who have their regional offices in India. The only difference is that the expectations of Indian publishers and readers when it comes to Pakistan are vastly different than they would be in the West. So what has ensued is a whole range of writing that gets commissioned yearly in Pakistan with no prerequisite of it being a tool of information.

The emergence of locally produced art journals, symposiums that address the delicious particularities of local histories, TV channels that challenge the hegemony of western news have become the norm in a very short period of time.    We are all armed with the same tools, but are fighting different battles and talking in different languages. And may the battles change and languages flourish.

And I leave you with a work that is pertinent in some ways to this discussion and has a very important link to the Burger Collection.