Bani Abidi’s retro­spective exhibition, titled They Died Laughing, recently ope­ned at Gropius Bau, one of Europe’s foremost exhibition spaces, in Berlin. The retrospective’s title is taken from her series of watercolours of laughing men and women who are depicted as defiant and rebellious. It is a courageous curatorial decision that exposes us to the artist’s solidarity with those who have been silenced or who have disappeared due to their political convictions.

The series is Abidi’s homage to those who — in post-colonial histories of censorship, curtailment of free speech, disappearances and brutal silencing — continue to speak the language of insubordination, resilience, laughter and life itself. Berlin is also a thoughtful site for this exhibition, with the city’s own haunting history of disappearances and division, that is constantly at the risk of being forgotten in the midst of continuing efforts to memorialise. This tension between the politics of erasure and recovery remains a central theme for Abidi and the exhibit. The title offers the meta language and the metaphor to engage with Abidi’s art practice as it has developed over the past two decades.

A contemporary artist who lives in Berlin and Karachi, Abidi through her video art, photographs and drawings subversively addresses issues surrounding nationalism, power and politics while focusing on the ordinary, the mundane, the absurd and the everyday affairs in the colonial and post-colonial South Asian context. Her art has a distinct sense of irony, humour and satire that invariably brings a smile to our face (if not outright laughter).

Bani Abidi’s retrospective in Berlin pays homage to resilience and defiance in the face of subordination

Yet, it is nervous laughter that, at times, exposes us to our own uncomfortableness with the contradictory and unstable conditions of our existence. In doing this, Abidi employs a nuanced aesthetics that directs us to find ways to live with differences and disagreements, yet also prods us towards recognising power — subtle or brutal, visible or otherwise. She forces us to question the fixity of our own identities and nudges us to imagine the possibilities in considering our enemies to be part of our world in profound and meaningful ways. This phenomenon is mostly evident in her works ‘Mangoes’, ‘The News’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘Karachi Series I.’

Laughing 4
Laughing 4

We enter the exhibit at Gropius Bau through a rotunda where the curator, Natasha Ginwala, has brilliantly placed an installation that brings together the visual and the audio (perhaps as a tribute to Abidi’s own art-making practice). A profound homage to lost voices (and lives), ‘Memorial to Lost Words’ introduces a hidden chapter of South Asian and colonial history, the service of British Indian soldiers during World War 1. In this memorial to memory, Abidi asks: how does one recover memories of ordinary folks and take them seriously as history? To be sure, attempts to remember and recuperate always remain partial and are mere efforts to put together a past that may only be available in small fragments.

Laughing 1
Laughing 1

Within this context, Abidi invokes the forgotten history of more than a million Indian soldiers who served in World War 1 (and of those 70,000 soldiers who died). Perhaps as a response to the history of imperial non-remembrance, she puts together an assortment of letters — ‘Fragments of History’ — written by the men to their families and friends, letters that were systematically censored and are now archived at the British Library.

These letters trace the presence of the soldiers who were shipped across oceans to fight someone else’s war. They speak of the desire to return to loved ones. One soldier insists that a flute be sent as much dejection has settled over the writer. Another consoles a grieving mother on the death of her son. Yet another, while in the midst of death and destruction, compares “experiences” with women in France.

Laughing 8
Laughing 8

Abidi’s aesthetics resemble that of an archaeologist who reconstructs these voices as if assembling a pot from shards and pieces found in a dig. The artist overlays these mediated voices (censored letters in English translation from the British Library) with the poet Amarjit Chandan’s rendition of poetry based on these same letters. These words of loss, longing and displacement, haunting lamentations, put to music and sung in Punjabi, envelope the rotunda as a soundscape (as one reads the letters). It is the most moving moment in the entire exhibition. The songs (and the letters) invoke grief and an embodied appreciation of sacrifice. They also connect us to the universal themes of migrancy and thr creation of an intense desire to return and to reconnect.

Themes related to censorship, erasure, salvaging and excavating stories are depiced in a range of the exhibited work. For example, in ‘Funland, Karachi Series II’, Abidi depicts the ways in which the threat of censorship and surveillance created the compulsion to store away books in Karachi’s Theosophical Society Hall — a space for open dialogue and discussion for over a century.

In a companion piece, she tells the story of how a mob set fire to Nishat Cinema and “silenced” a place that was part of the modernist fabric of Karachi’s inclusive and tolerant past. Another part of the series visually narrates the closure of Funland in Clifton, the childhood escape for many of us, due to the construction of a skyscraper in the area. In a series of videos and photographs that prove her deep love for the city she grew up in, Abidi shows a librarian packing books, preserving them for another time and another future. Similarly, she has an “actor” move through the ruins of Nishat Cinema salvaging objects and retrieving mementos (memories).

Part of Abidi’s brilliance lies in her ability to use the moving image (and stills) to portray how modern forms of power enact themselves from within the body, forcing us to conform and behave in particular ways. In ‘Section Yellow’, she shows how bureaucratic procedure makes people endure long waits to get foreign visas (or a passport, a driving licence or a ration card), by the filling out of multiple forms and endless attestations. In the case of visas, the interview and the ultimate rejection, make up the normative structure of humiliation for those in the Global South who seek to travel in order to chase their dreams. For Abidi, the act of waiting as a concept and a process, consequently, is linked to the ritualised demonstration of power (modern and bureaucratic).

Expanding on this theme, she continues to engage with Karachi, not only as a particular place, but also as a metaphor to illustrate how power penetrates spaces and bodies. Her video ‘Reserved’, produced through the visual juxtaposition of multiple sites, depicts a closed road with waiting traffic, a group of waiting young students and an auditorium full of middle-class people waiting for a dignitary to arrive. (It also reminds one of Abidi’s series ‘Security Barriers A-Z’, that illustrates how the politics of securitisation in a place like Karachi — or Colombo, Ramallah, Mexico City or for that matter Paris — has changed the architectural landscape of the city through the proliferation of checkpoints and barriers.) The video cuts occasionally to the motorcade in which the VVIP is ostensibly travelling. It is a statement on the invisibility of power and how it can — without overt coercion — tame people to obey as disciplined citizens or subjects and make them wait.

In this ironic, funny and satirical commentary on power, Abidi makes us profoundly aware of how it works. While those waiting in the auditorium, the possible destination of the dignitary, may fidget or seem bored, they remain seated and expectant. These middle-class people remain the most captured by power, despite its physical non-presence. The young children who are standing on the roadside, with flags, to greet the motorcade (those who have yet not been fully “disciplined”), in their simple and mundane gestures, continuously disrupt the order of things.

Along with the hardships and uncertainty, there is also the element of shared space, the breaking of the public and private boundaries, while there may be an aspect of conviviality, cohabitation and action. Apart from its commentary on the invisibility of power, Abidi suggests that bodies at barriers, at roadblocks, at partitioned borders or at fences that separate us, can, through simple acts, also question power and can also be sites where a range of political potentialities may germinate.

Unlike most of her other video works, where Abidi challenges our notion of settled “facts”, creates fictional narratives and pokes fun at those in power (and also those who do not possess it), ‘The Lost Procession’ is her most politically explicit work that embraces the form of a realist documentary. In it she engages with the plight and recent history faced by the Hazara community in Quetta, Balochistan. Working with a Hazara photographer Mohammed Asef, Abidi shows how a world of death and destruction hovers over the community. The curator has placed a seating area in front of the large screen asking people to slow down to absorb the seriousness of the topic. Shots of cemeteries with grieving mothers and of lamentation are juxtaposed to that of young men involved in the practice of Parkour, a form of non-combative martial art that has been taken up by those who live under a state of siege in other geographies as well. The video further poignantly depicts how in a social architecture of loss and death, the mundane aspects of life continue to push through — young boys playing football next to the cemetery — giving us a glimpse of the future where hope survives amongst the recent history of violence and oppression.

In this last video, Abidi’s invocation of Imam Hussain’s struggle against tyranny encapsulates what her art stands for — the un-silencing of pasts, the speaking back to power, the politics of the everyday, the hope for the future which is embedded in mundane acts of solidarity. The gap between the desire of the people themselves, their suffering and their hardship and the elitist nature of the leadership (on one side of the barricades) is clear in her work.

Yet, we may also need to consider, following the scholar Lauren Berlant, the contradiction between the optimism that makes people come out every day, engrossed as they are in the fantasy that their presence will change the world. There is always the possibility that our actions may never lead to a fundamental transformation.

Despite this, Abidi’s narratives (fictional or otherwise) ask us to not lose hope, as she continues to excavate and investigate silenced narratives and keeps scrutinising (with a deep sense of irony, satire and fun) the disciplinary, bureaucratic and exclusionary pressures of the modern state within a universalising economy. A timely lesson for all of us, we should implore her to continue telling us many more such stories.

“They Died Laughing” is being displayed at Gropius Bau in Berlin, from June 6, 2019 till September 22, 2019

Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at University of Texas, Austin

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 1st, 2019