an chair behind an empty table. The background is a pleated blue curtain, and there is a bouquet of roses on the table. a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah hangs on one side, a folded flag of pakistan on the other.

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Interview with Bani Abidi

In the three-minute short Mangoes (1999) by Berlin-based Pakistani artist Bani Abidi, two women sit next to each other on a white table, each with a mango on a plate in front of them. Both women are played by Abidi. One character has her hair up in a bun, the other loose and flowing down her shoulders. One is Indian, the other Pakistani, both members of the diaspora of an unspecified country. They slice and pull open their respective mangoes, sucking the flesh clean off the skin. The fruit is an oblique symbol of their melancholy and wistful nationalism. As they eat, they speak about the mango-eating traditions of both nation states, but the conversation soon grows strained as they compete over which has more varieties of mango. It’s an arbitrary, quasi-comic tension, but perfectly representative of the sentiments of animosity and hostility that have ruled Indian and Pakistani relations for over seven decades since the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Much of Indian/Pakistani difference is mediated and maintained by trivial, and often untrue, distinctions. But it is the myth of this difference that reinforces the border and fuels its continuing clashes. Abidi uses the mango to disturb the border relation: while the Indo-Pak border is a physical site of military presence, surveillance and catastrophe, it is also something a bit more intangible, something conjured and retained in the imagination of those that inhabit it.

 

Abidi is interested in the ways that we – more specifically, those of us from previously colonised countries with violent histories – internalise the grand rhetorics of nationalism. In film, drawing and installation works we watch as Abidi’s fictional characters eat fruit, wait in line for visa appointments with plastic folders in their laps, or try and break Guinness book-style records on behalf of nation states through pompous, theatrical gestures. Abidi takes a wry, incisive look at these figures and how they perform their patriotism. She’s also very funny, which is rare and thrilling, her humour producing an effective mechanism with which to undo the preciousness that surrounds political posturing.

 

Q

The White Review

— Your new work The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men (2021) is a series of re-photographed close-ups of the gestures made by political leaders of the twentieth century. There’s Robert Mugabe, Che Guevara, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin. There are raised fists, pointed fingers, salutes and victory signs. Given how war has taken over our newsfeeds with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it feels like this is a fitting time to talk about the pageantry of state leaders. What led you here?

The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men (2021)

A

Bani Abidi

— The work is my way of looking closely at the body language of politicking. It began when we were all feeling trapped by Covid. Everyone had to look up to their governments for direction on how to deal with the pandemic. I was paying close attention to how state leaders acted. There were the patriarchs, of course, like Modi and Boris Johnson, but there was also Jacinda Ardern, who sat in her sweatpants on her bed and asked everyone to stay calm. In the middle of giving her address, she called out to her child to go to bed. I had never witnessed anything like that before: an egalitarian relationship with somebody who governs. As an artist and a mother, I have to constantly multitask. When I saw how Ardern conducted national televised addresses from home in between parenting, I was struck by how different things could be. I became preoccupied with public addresses by different leaders and started looking through them historically.

 

The work is a series of big and small images in three different sizes, and they cluster together according to gesture. There’s the face, the finger, the victory sign, the salute and the wave. There’s a single image of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s praying hands. I started looking at photographs taken throughout the twentieth century. First, I thought I would just do Pakistan because there are so many characters in our political landscape to work with, so many people and egos and personalities and testosterone. The whole history is so dark, and it’s run by these male figures. I started with Zia-ul-Haq, which is our own personal trauma. And then it just grew, I went back to other presidents and prime ministers of Pakistan: Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan. I slowly edged out and realised I wanted to do the whole world. I was looking at a meeting between Zia-ul-Haq and Ronald Reagan, and began following the route of their encounters – before I knew it, everyone was involved. I started categorising the gestures of these moments and their hollowness. The reprimanding raised finger, for instance, is repeated so many times that it loses its effect completely. Everyone is doing it. It becomes bogus: a learned act passed from one leader to another.

Q

The White Review

— On a surface level the gestures are meant to imply that we are in the ‘safe hands’ of political leadership, but you show the opposite – how they can be ominous, terrifying, a little bit silly. The work is also about a certain type of masculinity, perhaps one that is similarly both terrifying and silly.

a watercolour drawing of a balding man wearing a white shirt splitting a hair

The man who could split a hair (2015)

A

Bani Abidi

— The work isn’t exactly about single ideologies. Its objective is to track men across a spectrum of ideologies. When I was watching the footage of the leaders’ meetings, I was also thinking about the laughter that happens in these meetings, the kind of jokes they crack and what’s being hinted at through them. Those moments are so tense, so charged – a lot is at stake.

 

I am keen to show how these gestures and performances betray the vulnerability and the traps of masculinity. Mine is not always a scathing critique, but a more subtle one. These politicians and people oppressively dominate our lives and dictate our futures, but they are also caught in their own traps. If I think about our female leaders, whether Benazir Bhutto or Indira Gandhi, they came into power as continuations of the dynasties of their fathers, of men. In the way the popular imagination dealt with them, it was as though they played the role of ‘the son’ in these dynasties, and, of course, they were never enough.

 

So yes, I keep returning to masculinity in my work. There is the series of drawings, The Man Who… after Ilya Kabakov’s ‘The man who flew into space from his apartment’ (2015), I made about men who’ve tried to break Guinness book-style records. I fictionalise them: there’s ‘The man who clapped for 97 hours’ or ‘The man who could split a hair’. To me, these are men who, without fully realising it, are part of the nationalist project, this strange drive to be in The Guinness Book of World Records under the nation states that they are from. They are completely absorbed in this game of being patriotic, and their actions – like making the biggest lock in the world – put Pakistan or Punjab on the map. These are strange and tragicomic forms of patriotism, and they make these men fascinating and complex as characters. Men personify and occupy a certain kind of public life in South Asia, so this world is where I like to play out these strange dynamics and try to unravel them.

Q

The White Review

— Your works show us a slow deconstruction of certain types of performative masculinity, and they do so with great humour. This feels important, as humour functions as a form of analysis and critique. Put simply, we are also able to laugh at the thing that we are otherwise wounded by.

rows and rows of empty white plastic chairs

An Unforeseen Situation (2015)

A

Bani Abidi

— It’s about taking agency. I’m interested in the agency of the people who are doing the laughing. I always think of the Aurat Marches that have been happening in different cities across Pakistan – where women come together and they have very specific manifestos and demands around labour, wages and respect – and the young girls are just so funny. ‘Mujhe kya pata tumhare moze kahan hain?’, they ask the cameras, ‘Why should I know where your socks are?’ These statements are so ordinary and domestic, and so familiar. They are indicative of all the small ways in which women come to the service of the men in a household. But these girls are coming out and answering back with jokes and with sarcasm. In public debate, men couldn’t deal with the fact these women were being funny. There were so many news TV shows with discussions about the Aurat marches, where the girls’ statements were discussed and analysed by men. It really unsettled them.

 

I think that my motivation is not only to find the moments of humour, but also to identify and point out my solidarity, which is with fellow South Asians, and how we confront power. I’m interested in people who are being subjugated by regulations and pompous behaviours. The art world too is full of characters with a very masculine, expanded sense of self. I, for instance, don’t think I am here to make long feature films on very spectacular things. I’m about stepping into the world, silently and with trepidation, not marching out authoritatively. I’m interested in expressing doubt and insecurity. I don’t want to appropriate the language of megalomania as a way to exist in this world, as an artist or in the way I live. I think my terms are different. And I want to argue for another way of existing in this world.

 

The characters I write or make work about are cogs in a system that maybe they don’t even believe in. There are compulsions to being part of a nation state, and I try to think through those. When I first conceived of the film An Unforeseen Situation (2015) I had just seen a photograph in a newspaper of thousands of empty white chairs arranged in rows in a stadium in Lahore. The University of the Punjab wanted to hold an event with the most amount of people possible singing the national anthem – the seating was for 150,000 people. When I saw the photograph there were no people in it, it was just of the preparation – an image of an empty stadium. I ran with that idea and in my film, I show that no one actually showed up because they haven’t been bribed well enough. I propose that as citizens of Pakistan, we would have to be paid to make the effort to arrive at a stadium in order to sing the national anthem. At the end of the film, we see this young boy who – after the event is cancelled – starts training to break his own kind of world record to put Pakistan on the map. He practices breaking walnuts with his head. It’s once again an obtuse gesture, but I wanted to deliver a sense of agency to all the people who resisted the call to sing the national anthem. I am very invested in undoing propaganda or the project of ‘the patriot’, and in the hollow constructs of patriotism. To me, this boy is an individual who takes on the failed project of the entire government. And that’s very tragic. I think a lot of the people in my works are tragic characters. Differently, and in a more straightforward way, in And they died laughing (2016) and The man who talked until he disappeared (2019–2021), I make a series of drawings of activists that the state has deemed to be a threat, many of whom have disappeared, and I try to make a record of them.

Q

The White Review

— Your film RESERVED (2006) takes us through the small details that comprise the pageantry of state dignitary motorcades that run through South Asian cities: children in crisp uniforms look bored as they hold up flags, waiting on the pavement outside their school; the police set up barricades, bringing traffic to an indefinite standstill; a reception committee of men in suits pace around anxiously on a red carpet. There’s a kind of futility to it – in the film, we never see the motorcade arrive, but watch as people must relent to the fact that the city has come to a total halt.

a film still of two frames. on the left there is a man sitting amongst blue seats, some of which are labelled 'reserved'. on the right, a low shot of a motorcade led by three police motorcycles.a film still of two frames side-by-side. on the left, a view from behind the driver's seat of a car that is being stopped by a police officer, whose palm is outstretched and who has a whistle in his mouth. He is wearing a white uniform with a black beret. On the right, a view of an approaching motorcade, led by three police motorcycles.two film stills side-by-side. On the left, three men in suits wearing rosettes stand on a red carpet in front of a closed door. Two of the men are in conversation, and the third is speaking on the phone to the side. On the right frame, a motorcade led by three police motorcycles. a van at the back is visible, with an officer dressed in black standing out of the top of it.

RESERVED (2006)

A

Bani Abidi

— Certain small details stick with me. In RESERVED, the small-time politicians of the reception committee keep adjusting their badges on the red carpet. The badges are enormous and decorated with these long ribbons – you can buy them quite cheaply at a street market for 10 rupees, but when these men put on those badges you see how their chests swell up. The badges, the red carpet, the barricades, the kids and their crumpled flags: these are the sets that are built around political power.

 

The theatre of the ubiquitous and quotidian moments of a city really draws me in, as do the emotions that are evoked just by watching people. An interesting constraint for me is that I never shoot a film live. South Asian faces and bodies are often treated as objects for photos to be taken of, while the chaos and the colours form a background noise as filmmakers try to capture the texture of a space. I don’t want to engage in that type of gaze. I painstakingly recreate moments – like traffic jams or people waiting. I do it fictionally and produce it with permission and with payments. Ultimately, the small detail is what makes me follow a story. The empty chairs, say, or the badges with ribbons. My ability to recreate and fictionalise could come from the fact that I am trained as an object maker and a visual artist – I’m not strictly a filmmaker.

 

The other day I found an image from my studio archives. I am standing inside of the set that I built for my work The Address (2007). A blue curtain hangs behind a long wooden desk, a small painting of Muhammad Ali Jinnah is at one end of the desk and a large cloth flag of Pakistan at the other. It’s a replica of a typical backdrop used for presidential speeches. In the prints that comprise the work, I place a floral bouquet on the table but leave the chair empty. I’ve installed the work in public spaces in Lahore and Sharjah, trying to invite viewers to think about the relationship they have to these kinds of sets, and maybe confront their literal emptiness. The set was sitting in my studio for a long time, and I would have breakfast in front of it, and sometimes just go into it and perform for the camera. I enjoy the control of the stage design and objects, in which I punctuate and mix these desires.

Q

The White Review

— The emptiness of the set in The Address is quite moving. Perhaps it’s about what we, as viewers, bring into that emptiness. With early works, like Mangoes, for instance, you sit with how we hold these nationalisms, and the borders that they imply, in our imaginations.

an chair behind an empty table. The background is a pleated blue curtain, and there is a bouquet of roses on the table. a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah hangs on one side, a folded flag of pakistan on the other.

The Address (2007)

a film still of a man on the left and a woman on the right eating mangoes with their hands, above plates with knives resting on them, as well as cut pieces of mango.

Mangoes (1999)

A

Bani Abidi

— Pakistan’s foundation myth is a bit naked and obtuse, it’s just over 70 years old. In many ways it’s abstract, but in many ways, it’s in me, and it lives in my mother. A lot of the scripting of the story happened before my eyes, and I’ve seen many of the stages. For me to imagine a pre-nation state geography is much easier, because that’s the geography that my mother inhabited. And her relationship to the border is very simple – whether to travel or not. I think often about how Cyril Radcliffe came in and flew over the Indian subcontinent in a small Dakota military aircraft, and through this kind of haphazard dabbling in the landscape, he drew the line to divide it up. Men are not only writing our histories but literally drawing up the lines that we occupy.

 

I’ve been thinking about revisiting some of those early works, like Mangoes, but writing them in a fictional landscape around the border. It would be a post-nation situation where the borders are still there, but they are no longer functional, they are ruins. And in this new, no-border landscape people can commute again. In this new world, people talk about what we experience today – visas and surveillance and restrictions – as though they are from a bygone past. I find that the border is such a rich thing to extract from. I am interested in trying to look at the border as something that has happened and finished, rather than something that we are, and continue to be, defined by.

Q

The White Review

— I like this idea of using the border as the point at which we extract something, a ruin that is ready for fresh rewritings. Borders are starting to more aggressively define us with the rise of the right wing, and it feels important to resist them.

A

Bani Abidi

— Some nights I wake up thinking that it’s unforgivable that there are not more of us who are anti-border, and that we don’t actively oppose it. And given the hideousness with which India is trying to erase Islam from both its history and present, it’s all the more important that we remember that the border is so young. As people of the subcontinent, our imagination is so much closer to the rhetoric of the border. It’s interesting that our nation states are so faltering and so young, their clumsiness is less finely tuned than Western nation states. It’s precisely because the making of this border is so recent that we have to move to other forums to oppose it. And this opposition must be a part of a bigger intellectual movement that reminds everyone how young the Indo-Pak border is. As people who have been historically formed through each other, it’s shocking that we are so ready to accept this strange and abstract hatred towards each other. My son is Hindu, Muslim, Pakistani, Indian, and everyone says how he’s my biggest art project. We bring him up to see both religions as legitimate, as beautiful, as expansive, and also as problematic. He’s had the privilege of going to Delhi, Calcutta and Karachi regularly. His idea and experience of South Asia are exactly how I wish mine could be.

 

And I feel quite intensely about this. My friend the filmmaker Priya Sen and I conducted a workshop with Experimenter gallery in Calcutta. Called In search of new names (2021), it brought together 18 Pakistanis and Indians from 12 different cities. We located each other on Google Maps and took each other for neighbourhood walks. It was a simple premise, about introducing a geography and where everyone’s homes were. It was emotional – we were all so sentimental.

Q

The White Review

— A friend of mine often tells me an anecdote about going to the Wagah border in the early 1980s and hearing the prayers from the Golden Temple while standing at its edge. It’s a blurry border.

A

Bani Abidi

— The border isn’t the only injustice, it’s also everything that we’ve been taught about it. In Manan Ahmed Asif’s The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (2020) he writes about the making of this history that we’ve inherited, which is primarily written by British historians. In A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (2016) he takes us to thirteenth-century South Asia and what cosmopolitanism in the subcontinent was like then. I’m just really struck by the amnesia, how quickly we have forgotten our own history. And that amnesia is so important for political control. Nation states rely on this amnesia: they want to control the memory of what we used to be.

 

Recently I went to the Christian graveyard in Karachi. I’d never been there before. It’s in the centre of the city and was set up by the British. It shows the whole gamut of Christian ethnicities in Karachi, pre-Partition and all through the twentieth century. There were priests from Mangalore, Punjabi Christians, Chinese Christians, Bengali Christians. All these converts, along with Goans and British people, are buried there. There was such an abundance of different last names, and origins of where they were born, but they’re all buried in Karachi. I had a moment of a material connection with how the soil I was walking on was the bones of these people. And that’s what Karachi is – it’s the material reality of those who have lived there before.

Q

The White Review

— This multiculturalism is key to understanding what we have inherited in the form of these nation states. In The Dawn of Everything (2021), David Graeber and David Wengrow show how early history was always diverse and defined by migration and movement. Pre-modern societies were structured around a flux, they were never static. There was a dense internationalism in pre-colonial societies, which was erased so that the colony could present itself as a modernising force. Kashmir is a great example. Even the language, Kashmiri, carries these incredible traces – it’s so hybrid, it’s Urdu but also a little bit Persian, a little Afghani, a little Arabic.
A

Bani Abidi

— All of the languages of the subcontinent are like this, they are the culmination of so much difference and movement. It’s astounding that we’re so brainwashed not to appreciate the very, very complex effects that our history has been able to hold and process. I come from a multi-religious, multi-lingual society. I’m very aware that when Pakistan got created everyone had to learn Urdu, it forcibly became a national language, and my use of language is a direct result of this fact. But it was an injustice. Because there were hundreds of languages in use, and so many of them still are, and people find ways to get by. Europeans are rarely able to comprehend the level of diversity that we have always taken as part of our lives, that we negotiate every day. We embody a cosmopolitanism that Western constructs don’t even begin to grapple with. And that’s what is infuriating. As previously colonised subjects, we are still trying to prove ourselves to the world, or show how our knowledge of the world is so vast. Still, the greatest tragedy is in our own understanding of ourselves, that’s where we need to put in the work, because that’s the real grandeur of where we come from.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is co-editor of The White Review.

BANI ABIDI was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and now works between Berlin and Karachi. She uses video, photography, drawings and sound to tell stories about performances of power and ordinary people, often through quotidian details and absurd vignettes. Abidi studied visual art at the National College of Arts in Lahore, and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work has been exhib- ited widely in solo and group shows internation- ally. Solo exhibitions have taken place at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Sharjah Art Foundation, UAE; Gropius Bau, Berlin; Kunsthaus Hamburg, Hamburg; and Experimenter, Kolkata, amongst others. Selected group exhibitions include WALK, Schirn Kunsthalle, 2022; Asia Pacific Triennial, 2021; Seoul Mediacity Biennale, 2021; Lahore Biennial, 2018; Edinburgh Art Festival, 2016; 8th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art, 2014; No Country, Guggenheim Museum, NY, 2013; documenta (13), 2012; Kochi-Muziris Biennial, 2012; 10th Lyon Biennale, Lyon, 2009.

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