Countless things excite me about the monograph Bani Abidi: The Artist Who (Hatje Cantz Verlag GmbH, 2022). Edited by Saira Ansari, the linen-bound book collects fresh scholarly and personalized contributions (printed in large fonts) by authors and curators who have spent years engaging with the Berlin-based Pakistani artist’s multimedia works. Essays, conversations, and a multiple-page, full-color spread of Abidi’s digital works, accompanied by creative graphics and commentary, complete this artistic edition, which serves as a continuing record of her ruminative art practice.
Abidi’s multimedia artworks are sociopolitical and satirical commentaries on the effects of state and military bureaucracy on the everyday lives of Pakistanis, especially those residing in its largest city, Karachi, where the artist was born. Her photographs, short videos, and drawings offer layered interpretations of national conflicts through what Ansari calls “South Asian irony, the nervous energy of waiting, and tragedy as humour,” as well as issues surrounding patriarchy and nationalism.
For instance, in the single-channel video “An Unforeseen Situation” (2015) Abidi recreates sports events hosted by the Ministry of Sports for Pakistan’s Punjab region in 2014. According to the government, some of these broke world records, one being the largest number of people gathering to sing the national anthem. However, in the video recreation, Abidi spins a completely different outcome that shows 150,000 chairs being set up and eventually removed in a Lahore stadium. Adding humor to the visuals, the artist informs viewers through captions that so few people showed up to the event that it was cancelled. Here, she employs satire to point at the ridiculousness of these drills in which the state relies on civilian acts to build shallow nationalist sentiment rather than working to solve everyday problems in the life of average Pakistani people.
Historian Vazira Zamindar interprets these works as a comment on the aftermath of colonization. For example, in the video “The Distance From Here” (2009–10), the artist orchestrated long queues of civilians waiting on the roads for their international visa applications to be processed. Zamindar notes that Pakistanis have sadly become accustomed to excessive waiting, discrimination, and policing, approaching a level of absurdity, as the video infers, for what should be simpler processes and regulations.
Karachi’s 16 million people have contributed to a unique culture that is manifested through ubiquitous texts and visuals that survive in the megapolis’s infrastructure. Several of Abidi’s photographs are presented in a creative layout by Abeera Kamran, spread over multiple pages and titled “Karachi Is a Body Warm to the Touch and Cold.” The images bring attention to an omnipresence of political and religious messaging throughout the city, as well as advertisements on public walls for locally produced pharmaceuticals promising to cure erectile dysfunction, posters of local cinema heroes and villains, and the increased amount of state-installed security barriers that civilians have borne in hardship due to a rise in local political and ethnic conflicts in the city.
The monograph also includes a gripping three-part dialogue between Abidi and two friends: Bristol-based Pakistani artist Huma Mulji and cultural anthropologist Omar Kasmani. The three individuals recall Karachi in different ways that will resonate most deeply with readers who have spent significant time traversing the city’s tough urban landscape. Mulji says, “I walk very fast in Karachi, always on a mission, even when wandering.” As a Karachiite, I relate immensely to her comment about the city’s chaotic nature and fragile security situations.
The monograph is not a compendium of Abidi’s life and work. Rather, The Artist Who lets readers peer into a postcolonial space through critical engagement and visuals designed to both educate and entertain.
Bani Abidi: The Artist Who (2022) is published by Hatje Cantz and is available online and in bookstores.