Under the soft orange glow of a street lamp, a middle-aged woman in a royal-blue sari, its hue repeated in the deepening dusk sky behind her, sits at her dressing table nonchalantly plaiting her hair. A caption at the foot of the photograph introduces her to us: Chandra Acharya. Similarly, we encounter Pari Wania, in her nightgown, ironing a sheet in the middle of the street. Presented as lightboxes, their backlit luminosity exaggerates the peculiar and unearthly evening light captured in these tableaux.
Bani Abidi’s “Karachi” (2009), a sort of love letter to the cosmopolitan, multireligious city where the 38-year-old artist grew up, was shot on its deserted streets at sundown during the holy month of Ramadan. With the Muslim masses retreated indoors to end the day’s fast, Abidi’s staged scenarios portray members of Pakistan’s religious minorities—Hindu, Christian and Zoroastrian—emerging into the twilight to briefly claim some space in a public sphere that is increasingly hostile to religious difference. With falling light and each of them facing away from us, the figures remain semi-obscured; Pakistan’s inability to guarantee equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of religion, arguably a failure of political vision, is presented as a problem of perception.
The threshold between the security of private life and the increasingly violent and unpredictable public space in contemporary Pakistan is a recurring recent interest for Abidi. “Security Barriers A–L” (2008) and “Intercommunication Devices” (2008), sets of digital vector drawings, survey objects that mark and monitor this tenuous border. The security barriers are brightly colored and patterned; out of context, against a white background, they resemble minimalist abstractions. The intercom devices, gray and dour, instruments of security installed in houses on Abidi’s street, indicate the paranoia pervading the city and the added layers of protection that class and privilege affords.
While Abidi has shifted to still images in these recent projects, over the past decade she has distinguished herself as one of the few committed practitioners of video art in Pakistan. Trained in painting and printmaking at Lahore’s National College of Art, Abidi turned to video while completing her MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. Her earliest foray into the medium was a trilogy of humorous video diptychs that unpack the enduring animosity between Pakistan and India, amplified in the diaspora through a powerful nostalgia for lost homelands. In Mangoes (1999), an Indian woman and a Pakistani woman, both played by Abidi, converse, reminisce and eat mangoes. Camaraderie is gradually replaced by antagonism as nationalism, about the variety and quality of mangoes native to each country, sours the discussion.
Similarly, the news anchors in The News (2001) report the same international incident—a laughable tale of cross-border egg pilfering—from their respective national perspectives. Careful attention is paid to conventions of costume and language, with the anchors using the official Sanskritized Hindi and Persianized Urdu that distinguish each country from its neighbor, over the hybrid Hindustani dialect commonly spoken on the streets of both. As much as these videos accentuate difference, the formal mirroring, and the fact that Abidi herself plays both roles, emphasize cultural similarities, picturing what postcolonial scholar Homi Bhabha has termed “the nearness of difference.”
With humor and irony, these early works highlight ways in which nationalisms are enacted, reinforced and often subverted in everyday life, a theme that Abidi returned to in subsequent videos. Often lacking dialogue and a traditional narrative, and mimicking the unstudied objectivity of a documentary, these pieces apply a keen ethnographic eye to elements of Pakistani culture and politics. In the two-channel Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner (2004), made after Abidi’s return to Pakistan in 2003, a Lahori brass pipe band—a colonial relic now a kitsch fixture at weddings and processions across South Asia—practices the American national anthem, transforming its majesty into a stuttering whine—a wry comment on the uneasy alliance between Pakistan and the US forged in the context of the global war on terror. On the left screen, the band listens to a recording, adapting its melodies to their instruments and style; the right screen shows members prepping uniforms, putting on sashes, turbans and epaulettes. Patriotism’s pomp is suspended through this tentative and unfinished performance of a national anthem.
A parallel logic of suspension structures the carefully storyboarded Reserved (2006), which lays bare an exercise of political power prevalent in, though not limited to, South Asia—that of keeping those less important waiting. The left-hand screen cycles through shots of various locations in Karachi, where increasingly impatient citizens anticipate the appearance of an unnamed government dignitary. On the right, shots of a motorcade traveling through the gridlocked city, accompanied by the occasional siren, heightens the drama. Yet, arrival is perpetually deferred, as the piece ends abruptly and the loop restarts.
“The Address” (2007) is a series of photographs of people in public spaces entranced by televisions featuring a still image of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in a trompe l’oeil recreation of the sort of set used for presidential addresses. Jinnah died in 1948, a little over a year after the country was established, and his legacy cast a dark shadow over Pakistan’s subsequent political history. The country has cycled through alternating periods of martial law and ineffectual democratic rule. The anticipated announcement never happens, the seat of power literally remains empty while citizens begrudgingly accept this leadership vacuum as their enduring political fate. Like Abidi’s other works, “The Address” serves as a powerful allegory for the many unfulfilled promises of a nationhood forged in the euphoria of postcolonial liberation.