BANI ABIDI, The Distance from Here, 2010, video stills, video: 12 min. Courtesy the artist.

Section Yellow

Bani Abidi

Project 88
India Pakistan
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

For her first solo exhibition at Project 88, New Delhi-based Pakistani artist Bani Abidi reflected on the idea of migration by peering into the processes by which it is achieved. Comprising a 12-minute video and three photographic series, “Section Yellow” situated itself at the visa office, a place where nationality determines mobility. Traveling, with all romantic notions of transcending boundaries aside, begins with the process of breaking down identity into contents that fit neatly in a folder, and the artist’s latest exhibition glimpsed into the long lines and subtle structures of control that define this process, especially between India and Pakistan.

In the video The Distance from Here (2010), Abidi veers away from the explicit, if poetic, documentary work for which she is best known: the film was made on a set with hired extras playing the role of expectant visa applicants. They file onto a bus to an embassy. They are ushered into lines. They wait to be frisked, one by one, as they watch those before them disappear behind a fabric curtain. Arriving at the Indian consulate, a carefully secluded and tightly controlled zone, becomes a parallel voyage with its own internal protocol and safety regulations. The embassy, in this regard, functions as a third country. Crossing its glass-door threshold is a solitary rite of passage in Distance: the crowd is quiet, almost silent, engaging in little or no conversation. They carry stoic, if not vacant, expressions on their faces.

The Indian fear of terrorist threats, and ongoing territorial contentions in Kashmir, have led to dwindling numbers of Pakistanis being granted access to India. Abidi carefully renders the tedious passage of time that is central to the experience of waiting-—an interminable, conflicted simmer
of emotions. They wait keenly for their turn, yet they dread rejection.

Continuing on the theme of guided movement and anonymous control is “Exercise in Redirecting Lines” (2010), a series of eight geometric photo collages that plays with the meaning of those yellow lines, painted on asphalt, which require permission to cross. Abidi creates a visual antidote to the divisive workings of the painted line in the form of photographs that modify and confound the trajectory of the lines into new patterns. Some are abstract and sweetly decorative right-angle designs recalling early Frank Stella, others evocative exercises in receding perspective that suggest open-ended roads and newly discovered vistas. Abidi proposes a channel of resistance that is both anarchic and playful.

While still underscoring the daunting and dehumanizing aspects of migration, Abidi injects further flashes of brightness into her narrative by carefully pairing images and text for a series of six photographs entitled “Two of Two” (2010). In one of three works on display, a teal typewriter against an orange background and a battered aquamarine folder are subtitled with words telling the story of a retired lieutenant who steadfastly refuses to reapply for his visa when his application is lost. Instead, he continues to send complaints demanding that his missing documents be recovered. The anecdotes are at once amusing and pathetic, particularly as they mark the vulnerability and sometime desperation of dislocated subjects. The color composition and stark lines of the photographs are stylish, even Pop, loudly highlighting these small stories. 

The tone of Abidi’s exhibition, which swung between the witty and the tragic, captured feelings mirrored in the artist’s own divided biography. Although the narratives that she reveals are based in lived experience, the artist coats them with layers of stylized fiction, careful to differentiate her own vision from documentary. By adding unabashed lyrical content to the works, Abidi elicits humanity and pathos, two sentiments that often go unnoticed in the act of filing, whether it is into lines, buses or neatly arranged folders of documentation.