Interview with Bani Abidi

AAA's Enoch Cheng speaks to the Pakistani artist Bani Abidi about the development of contemporary Pakistani art, her work, and her personal experience of Pakistan and India



AAA: Your work deals heavily with the political and cultural tension between India and Pakistan. As someone born in Pakistan, do you still remember your first experience of India? How did that first impression get translated into your work today?

Bani Abidi: I first travelled to India as a twenty one year old when I was still in college and I remember feeling my own place in North Indian history for the first time, something which had previously only been an abstraction for me. But it was when I went to study in Chicago and ended up befriending many Indians that I felt the real contradictions between these conflicting national identities (Indian and Pakistani). The seamlessness and comfort of these cross border friendships still comes as a pleasant surprise and, frankly, as a slight relief because they go against the exclusionary national narratives propagated by both countries, which creep into your imagination whether you like it or not. However, while I was living in Chicago, I was also drawn to the petty nationalisms of the Indian and Pakistani Diaspora which, even though charming, could at times be fanatical. My first three videos Mangoes, Anthems, and The News were made during that period.  

What does it mean for you to be based in Karachi and Delhi now?

I spend more time in Delhi because that is where I live with my husband, but I go back to Karachi every three months. It’s definitely unusual for people to straddle two cities and I think ultimately it is a very privileged intellectual space. I know Pakistan better and I am just getting to know India. I find myself being an ambassador for one country when I am in the other but, emotionally, Karachi is my home and I guess always will be.

You once mentioned that your generation owes their development to a raft of interesting teachers who were at the Indus Valley School at the time. Can we find any traces of influence from your contemporaries?

When I talk about Indus Valley and its faculty in the 90’s in Karachi, I mean very specifically a move towards looking at popular street culture as a significant visual, material and conceptual archive. To me this was a major art historical shift in Pakistan because other artists at that time were still steeped in hallowed modern art traditions. Suddenly all notions of what art should look like were tossed in the air and we started looking around us for clues, it was thrilling.

The visual manifestations of such thinking in the work of artists who followed were very diverse. For instance, Huma Mulji and I are contemporaries from that period and, although our intellectual trajectory has many overlaps, our work is not apparently similar. But both of us have thought about, for instance, the "Arabization" of religious and cultural identity in Pakistan. She dealt with it in her sculptural piece Arabian Delight, and I in my set of fictitious photo narratives The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing

There are increasingly more international exhibitions including Pakistani art. You are sort of in between the older generation and the new generation. How would you compare yourself with these two groups?

I have already talked about the continuation and the move away from what the older lot was doing. As far as the younger generation is concerned, many of whom I have taught, they have entered the art world in a very different climate. The art market is now firmly in place, both locally and internationally, whereas it was completely non-existent when I graduated. So there is a thorough professionalization of the young artist coming out of art schools in Pakistan today, which in one way is brilliant because a lot more of them become artists but on the other hand there is less space for mistakes and questioning because they are all working for their next shows.

My generation took a much longer time to come into themselves. The younger generation are also young artists practicing at a time when the world is looking at Pakistan with expectations of seeing a certain kind of sociopolitical commentary, which can be stifling and can also, unfortunately, influence ones understanding of what is important. 

You have talked about the fact that there are actually more female artists in Pakistan because men are bound by cultural pressure to fulfil a mainstream profession. Do you think female artists already get the attention they deserve?

Actually I think they get too much attention, especially artists that bemoan the status of women in Islam. But, given that the primary agenda in Western liberal thought, vis-à-vis Islam, is to liberate the persecuted Muslim woman, I doubt that artists such as these are likely to fall out of favour any time soon; and let's face it, all artists from Pakistan have tons of cultural capital in today’s political climate, myself included. So to answer your question, yes I think that female artists in Pakistan are already getting the attention that they deserve.

Before you moved into video art, you were an installation artist. Are you still interested in this art form?

I am interested in the installation of my video works in which I take into consideration various spatial arrangements, but that’s about it. 

I know that your video work is very much planned out before shooting, which is almost like making a film. How do you see yourself as a video artist, as opposed to an experimental filmmaker?

If I showed my films at a film festival I would be considered an experimental filmmaker and an artist if I showed the same thing in a gallery. I think these categories have become blurred to a large extent. Also, the term "video art" refers to an art form and should now be used historically. I think artists like myself would just identify themselves as artists, not as video artists per se. The whole spectrum of the moving image in the art world is so vast now, its production methods, the varying references to documentary, fiction, performance . . . it’s a highly diversified practice. Also, a crucial difference from earlier video art is that film and video has now been fully co-opted by the art market, unlike video art of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which was spunky precisely because it positioned itself outside the gallery space.

Your most recent works, since The Address and up until the Karachi series, seem to be more visually static, as opposed to your earlier works where there is a lot of movement. Can you tell us about this change? And for Intercommunication Devices and Security Barriers A-L in particular, are you switching to a new direction in terms of media?

Well they are static only in the sense that they are not time-based works. Otherwise there is a continuity of narrative between the works. The Karachi series is a set of staged photographs (like The Address) in which I continue to use production methods that I would use for creating videos. I’m interested in creating images in my video and photographic works that border between truth and fiction. The idea of the staged photograph is a compelling one for me, because through it I retain some of the narrative possibilities of a larger video work, but I am also able to isolate particular moments. The drawing projects, Intercommunicaton Devices and Security Barriers A-L, are series of ongoing drawings in which I have set out to document meticulously exclusionary architecture and objects which one sees in cities all around us now. It’s a global apartheid, generated by heavy doses of fear that we consume daily.

So I haven’t moved away or towards any particular medium, I am veering between a few that make sense to me, conceptually.

You have exhibited in India and Pakistan, as well as different parts of Asia and the world. How does exhibiting internationally differ from exhibiting in India and Pakistan?

There is much to be said for shared histories and humour, and that is something I only have the luxury of experiencing in Pakistan and India. So, the manner in which people outside of the sub continent view my earlier works (the ones that deal with India and Pakistan) does not even compare to the way the same works would be viewed by local audiences. It’s important for artists to be able to build upon subliminal messages that they share with their audience, taking an existing conversation to a different plane. Having said that, instances where this link with a South Asian audience breaks, but gets rekindled elsewhere, is when it comes to formal choices that I make in my work – the contextual bond with the audience is no longer enough; for example, audiences in Pakistan enjoy the content and humour of my work but are not totally comfortable with what they would view as a slightly long and uneventful film (such as Reserved), but I am determined to make quiet and still films that are extended moments in which nothing much happens. And that’s where choices relating to ones own preferences come in. 

Your husband is an Indian graphic novelist. Do you two have common interests and do your practices inform each other?

Yes, we read the same books at the same time and discuss everything that we are thinking about. It’s a pain though because he draws and I create these elaborate photographs and videos. So he literally gets to the drawing board faster than me. So we often argue over who is going to take which idea. But actually our concerns are ultimately quite different, so there is no danger . . . we won’t harm each other physically any time soon!


Mon, 1 Feb 2010

In light of the current COVID-19 situation, AAA Library will remain temporarily closed till 5 February.