"The everyday is the only thing I look at," says artist Bani Abidi, who for the past 20 years has taken the city of Karachi as her palette, using its trends and customs, biases and developments as the material for her artwork. She says her work is "interpreting life. It's reading everyday things".
The Sharjah Art Foundation is staging a mid-career survey of the artist's work, curated by Hoor Al Qasimi and Natasha Ginwala. Titled Funland, after a popular amusement park that was threatened by new high-rises in Karachi, it is a rare example of an exhibition where the whole adds up to something more – and more importantly, different – than the sum of its parts. Abidi has always offered a sardonic viewpoint, frequently saying that she hopes to bring down power through laughter, and disavowing any kind of overt emotionalism. But this exhibition feels emotionally charged, perhaps because of a sonic element that reverberates among the old rooms of the Bait Al Serkal, and the seriousness of the subject matter, even if lightly addressed. Abidi has made a lament for her native city, which has been altered by decades of military rule and unregulated real-estate development, and for the events and people that are forgotten in history and politics.
Memorial to Lost Words (2016), for example, presents letters that Indian soldiers sent home to their families in World War Two, reassuring their loved ones that all was well. The servicemen fought under the British crown, but their role has been largely overlooked. Abidi pairs the letters with love songs set in Punjabi composed by the poet Amarjit Chandan, set against music composed by the Pakistani musician Ali Aftab Saeed. These songs play in alternation with a Punjabi folk song that existed at the time, sung by women's voices, as if to signal the family's response.
Heard in the former domestic rooms of the Bait Al Serkal, one of Sharjah Art Foundation's restored spaces, the relationships evoked by the letters feel proximate, almost alive. (The exhibition originally travelled from the Martin Gropius Bau museum in Berlin, where Abidi is now based.)
"I say to everyone: I will never again have a show as beautiful as this," Abidi laughs. "Al Serkal was like a house that was inhabited again. There are ghostly sounds, bodily sounds, but no one is there."
"It has been a huge learning experience to put everything together," she continues. All retrospectives allow for bird's-eye view of artists' main concerns, but because Abidi's work is often of a smaller scale – "twenty years of sketches", she calls it – the constancy of her themes and strategies comes almost as a surprise, even to her. Visitors, she says, have discovered a feminism she didn't think was there. "So many young women have come up to me and said: 'We just love the way you laugh at men.' And yes, there are many works about power, and power equates to masculinity in many ways. I really am enabling laughter at patheticness, in these crazy characters lounging around trying to impose their body and power over society. I realised I reacted against a kind of feminism in Chicago, but had come to it through the critique of power."
When Abidi did a graduate degree at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1990s, she says she felt pressured to perform the role of the oppressed Muslim woman. She looked to other kinds of artistic discourses, such as that of cinema, but eventually returned home to Karachi, and the experience seems to have cemented a determination in her practice.
"I moved back thinking I don't want to be part of [being a token Muslim woman]," she says. "And because I was full of the confidence of being home, I started playing everything on my own terms, and I've always done that. My career has been incredibly slow but constant. It's taken 20 years and I'm still very fortunate to have a show of this magnitude at 48. None of my peers have had that, and I'm very aware of that. But I've never had to play the game of pleasing anyone internationally."
The work's local focus means it also has tracked a controversial subject in Karachi: the city's growing social conservatism. In the photographs of Karachi Series I (2009), for example, she looks at a bridge that families use for barbecues on Sundays when it is closed. She had the idea for the work while driving along the road at dusk on a Sunday during Ramadan, when people were breaking their fast: the popular bridge was utterly empty. She realised that non-Muslim families had stayed at home, too, despite not fasting themselves. For her, it became a symbol of non-Muslims' increasing invisibility in urban life, and she started photographing them on the road, in the poses of whatever they might have been doing in their houses, like reading a paper, doing the dishes or watching TV.
"They all have their back to the camera," she says. "They're kind of hiding. But they have their names underneath – Christian, Farsi, Hindu. Karachi is a city with a fascinating history. People have always travelled between the east coast of Africa, the west coast of India and Karachi. There was a cosmopolitanism that existed from the 16th century onwards."
Other strands emerge, such as the relationship between people and the roles they adopt: how emblems of power become power itself. For The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing (2006), she noticed a trend towards photography studios in which young boys, furnished with kaffiyeh and sword, would dress up as Muhammad bin Qasim, an Umayyad Arab commander who is seen as the symbolic father of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The nationalism of the state here appears in the everyday – although Abidi's version of this scenario includes the non-picture-perfect bits. The young boys get bored; one strips off his costume and leaves the camera's gaze.
The artistic language of the state also appears in one of her largest projects, Death at a 30 Degree Angle (2012), for which she made a documentary about Ram V Sutar, the Delhi sculptor behind many of India's statues of politicians and historical figures. The video shows the process behind Sutar's work, for which the artist negotiates egos and politics; in the room next door, photographs of the statues Sutar was not able to make suggests a journey from early ideals of democracy and Gandhian values towards the messier realities of government.
Abidi came of age as an artist during the 1990s, when Karachi was in the middle of an extraordinary creative period, and which influenced her far more than her formal studies in Chicago and at the National College of Arts in Lahore, the pre-eminent art college in Pakistan. A new art school had just opened in Karachi, ushering in a paradigm shift in artistic practice. Artists moved from the traditional studio-based work of miniatures and printmaking to an appreciation of what was going on in the street. Artists worked with sign painters and welders, building both their own artwork and the infrastructure to exhibit it within.
"This was all about 'forget the studio, let's exist on the street,'" she recalls. "There was no internet. It was pre-global art residencies, pre-international galleries – none of that existed. We were all setting up our own exhibitions, writing letters – on typewriters – and artist newsletters. We would pirate art books and cinema just to watch them. There was a sense of being cut off but very happy and very excited just about being artists."
Funland addresses this period in a show-within-a-show about the Karachi art scene from roughly the time between fall of the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 attacks, co-curated by Abidi and researcher Aziz Sohail. The exhibition, A Very Very Sweet Medina, contains documentary materials and ephemera, explored also in a symposium at the Sharjah Art Foundation that brought in artists from the 1990s, such as Iftikhar Dadi, Shilpa Gupta and Adeela Suleiman, and the younger artists who have followed in their wake. It became an important chance to look at a period that has also fallen by the wayside of dominant art history. "#makeartgenerousagain," hashtagged one of the artists who came over for the event, Yaminay Chaudri. "This act of acknowledging parallel artistic milieus almost never occurs by the choice of the celebrated artists whose retrospectives are on display!"
The show is clearly demarcated from the rest of the retrospective, in both exhibition display and the feel of its aesthetic, but there is a seamlessness between Abidi’s urban excavation and this presentation of work informed by currents of the street. I suspect that Abidi doesn’t care so much about elevating Karachi into the history books; her impulse is always to drill down, to validate the details alongside the overarching.
“The local has been forgotten in certain circles in pursuit of the international,” she remarks. “It is very important to mark that moment because of how strong we were.”
Bani Abidi: Funland is at the Sharjah Art Foundation until January 12