Conversation with Bani Abidi
Sehr Jalil Raja: I want to ask about your life before art schools, BFA National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore, 1994 and MFA the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), USA in 1999 …and are there any significant memories or influences that contributed towards your art?
Bani Abidi: Nayyar Jamil who was my art teacher when I was 16, and was someone who made me seriously think of being an artist. Nayyar is an institution in Karachi, as over the years she has prepared hundreds of students for A-level art, for admissions to NCA and the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Her studio, her home and her person…everything about her was an interesting alternative to life as I knew it and it was very inspiring. She is still one of my closest friends.
SJR: How was the academic transition from an art school in the East to one in the West? Was the West more open to ‘new’ and diverse ways of making work?
B A: I am not sure how much of being an artist can be attributed to one’s ‘art education’. Both my experiences at NCA and SAIC were more formative in the socialization they provided, and the experiences of living in Lahore and Chicago. Academically, while the School of the Art Institute has an excellent faculty and is one of the best art schools, I learnt more by osmosis than instruction. Art school is a bit like therapy, therapists know their tools but might not know the cultural contexts of their patients. Similarly, there were too many unintelligent stereotypes about being Pakistani that I had to negotiate, these identity stereotypes were not important for me then and aren’t important for me now, so that was a bit of a waste of time. What was important though, was exposure to formal and conceptual questions in the work of other students and artists exhibiting in the city…and that’s why I talk about osmosis.
S J R: Your works Anthem, Mangoes and News are so visually and philosophically dual in their existence. What experiences/witnessing motivated you to make these works?
B A: These works are mockeries of nationhood. How and in what ways do you separate a people who are more culturally similar than religiously dissimilar. All of these videos came about as a result of having close Indian friends during my time in Chicago. I have always been touched by how language, food, smell, weather can form the core of one’s sense of home, and does, till the time that ideological motivations start forcing you away from what is local and known to you.
Wahibism in Pakistan starting to take over Indo-Islamic variants of the religion are a case in point.
S J R: The strong, perplexed and defined character-sketches in your videos/photos are almost like a foundation of your art. They tell their own stories. On which point do you start when you conceive these characters?
B A: It’s only recently that my work has started centering heavily around individual characters, in works like ‘The Speech Writer’ and ‘A Table Wide Country’. Its usually particular moments and situations that I am drawn to into which I plug in characters, spaces, sounds and objects. But the more recent interest in individuals comes from a curiosity about human eccentricities as ultimate manifestations of agency and independence. I think a lot about how people cope and get by day to day in cities like Karachi. I think about disappointment and despair and ways out of it.
S J R: It was very interesting to read a description of your work ‘Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner 2004’; it said, “The Scottish Pipe Band is a colonial legacy that still exists in Pakistan. Now, unattached to the military these band musicians play Indian music tunes at weddings”. How do you perceive this duality and in your opinion a society as contradictory as that, is a blessing or a curse for an artist?
B A: Contradictions, absurdities and dysfunctionality are crucial for a healthy, living, changing society. People should always be on the edge, asking questions and trying to figure things out. Nothing is duller and more mind numbing than a society that has been ‘sorted out’ and dealt with, it leads to intellectual paralysis. I love living in South Asia…because that’s the kind of nonsensical reality that drives me forward even in its deeply agitating way. However its also because of that dysfunctional behaviour that I am actually not living in South Asia but in Berlin with my Indian husband…since India and Pakistan behave like hormonally imbalanced men with a higher dose of testosterone than they can handle.
S J R: Oriana Fallaci quotes Bertrand Russell (referring to those in power) in her book Interview with History; “If they say ‘Die’ we shall die. If they say ‘live’ we shall live”. Your works particularly starting from 2006 Reserved, 2007 Address, Section Yellow to recent ones like Death at a 30 Degree Angle, Proposal For A Man In The Sea and the Speech Writer/Table Wide Country 2012, all comment on the correlation of power and society. Working between Karachi and Delhi and exhibiting internationally, can you please discuss your role as an artist, are you empowered enough, and do you need power and the act of representation?
B A: The kind of power that I look into in my work is off a haughty and aggressive variety, which seeks to impress and oppress others. A person’s need for power is a source of amusement and reflection for me, I am certainly not seeking it out for myself. You are speaking more about empowerment, assuming that there are possible disadvantages that I may have confronted, showing that I do in a wide international arena. In answer to that I would say that I do have the power and a confident enough position from which to operate in a critical and self-defined manner.
S J R: Your works are almost a bridge-documentation between fact and fiction. How important is fiction for restoring facts?
B A: Facts are also events transcribed in history from particular perspectives. History and its relationship with fiction and subjectivity is assumed at this point. So I consciously produce fictional facts as well, ‘The Boy Who got Tired of Posing’ (2006) is the first work where I did this, and I was getting back at the all the cock and bull Pakistani history that we were taught in school. I basically made up my own stories about Pakistani society in the 80’s. I made up lies to critique the lies that were fed us.
S J R: How extensive or confined are video and photography in terms of technique and experimentation, what are the most intriguing aspects of the medium you use?
B A: Video and photography are vast mediums and occupy many streams and tangents in the history of visual culture, almost impossible to get your head around once you start thinking of their presence in our lives. So there is an exciting breadth to the way they have been employed and how one can continue to imagine their use.
My interest in video, as I always state, lies in the aspect that is most essential to it, it unfolds over time. There is a difference between watching a still photograph or painting and watching a series of images and sounds that are played out sequentially. And hovering somewhere in my South Asian subconsciousness is an inclination towards narrative, and video suits that very well.
S J R: Which work do you perceive as your most challenging and fulfilling work till date?
B A: RESERVED is one of my most fulfilling works. It’s the first time I had a production budget and could experiment with actually creating fictional spaces and moments with the precision I had imagined them. The video is about a city that has come to a halt as it awaits the arrival of a VIP who is driven in a motorcade through the secured blocked streets, the context is clearly Pakistan. Developing the characters of the cynical and bored public who are stuck in a traffic jam or the eager sycophants who await him was a highly pleasurable job since through these characters I could give life to so many memories of growing up in Pakistan. I do think that I work best with ideas that I have a deeper intuitive relationship with, rather than ones, which are more constructed and intellectually driven, researched ones.
S J R: What are the current and expected projects lined up for 2013/2014 and any collaboration with writers or artists?
B A: I have just had a baby, so if there is any such thing as a maternity leave in the life of an artist, I am taking it. But no, there are various projects and shows in the pipeline for which I am scheming and planning, but it’s too premature to speak about those.
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