If you’ve ever been outside at iftar time, you will know that uncanny silence, as if the world had emptied. Berlin-based artist Bani Abidi uses that moment, of a silent world, to show how Karachi has changed. In a series of photographs, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Christians, conduct domestic business in the middle of the road – ironing a nightie, arranging flowers, polishing shoes. Lit softly by lampposts and the evening, they are are shot from behind, so it seems the woman in the blue sari, looking in her dressing table mirror, doesn’t know we are there. There are no other eyes, traffic or movement. It’s an empty Karachi. “All the Muslims are inside,” Bani says.
The quietly clever images describe the transformation of Karachi’s inhabitants and their breathing room. Titled Karachi series I, they are part of her recent exhibition “The most amount of people standing still, screaming and laughing” at Gandhara gallery, a secluded space that’s very easy to miss. The show is part of a series inspired by Faiz’s 1960’s poem “Yahan se shahr ko dekho” (Look at the city from here). Iftikhar Dadi says the poem fits in the genre of, ‘shahr-e-ashob’ – lamenting the decline of a great city. It’s no surprise Bani is interested in decay and the evolution of her hometown.
Currently dividing her time between Karachi and Berlin, the video artist says her work is Pakistan-based, but that she shows here the least – displaying video is expensive and tricky. Not to mention the fact that galleries can’t put price tags on them. But worldwide, Bani is widely acclaimed, with work in permanent collections such as those of Tate and Guggenheim.
Curated by Hajra Haider Karrar, the show is a refreshing experiment. In the darkened gallery, Bani’s videos play on curtains of film. Called ‘Karachi Series II (2014)’, it comprises a set of six documentary vignettes filmed at Clifton beach, the Theosophical Society’s library, Fun Land and the remains of Nishat Cinema. A figure with a shock of red hair examines the ashes of the theatre – the victim of a misguided mob in 2012. A once-glamorous icon of the city, the cinema was made by a Hindu businessman during the British Raj. And then there is Funland, an essential feature of a Karachi childhood, now a theme park facing closure. Round and round the hot air balloon ride goes in a silent, vacant park, a whisper of what it used to be. On another screen a man, again with his back to us, stares at the waves, surrounded by a row of chairs alluding to Karachi’s economically divided coastline – with fast food giants, land developers and politicians all drooling for a piece.
In Lahore, while the late Zahoor ul Akhlaq was introducing new ways of seeing miniature at the NCA department he founded, Karachi artists were looking towards popular urban culture for inspiration. At the time no one thought to look in congested street corners and bazaars, and in the packaging and advertising scraps of the day. Bani began exploring this idea of looking at “the everyday”. Her videos have the colours and symmetry of paintings, which she was trained in. In a video triptych, starry lights flicker in a collage titled “Looking out for stars amongst the crescents,” showing Christian neighbourhoods on their special day. Enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she decided she needed to move beyond the two-dimensional – and video opened a new world. Her works became researched, staged, edited.
The quietly clever images describe the transformation of Karachi’s inhabitants and their breathing room
On a warm afternoon, Bani is walking us through her work. At the time we were reeling from Qandeel Baloch’s murder and the unlikely martyr she made. Bani said it is the eccentrics and oddballs – the ones outside our kingdom of rules, who become society’s truth tellers. She looks for the absurd, the freak or the genius. Observing the Saudi-Arabisation of Pakistani society (even Karachi’s sidewalks aren’t safe from it: date palms transplanted from Gulf Arab soils droop on the city’s streets, the ground rejects them, but we persist in planting them). Bani created a fictional character who dresses as Muhammad Bin Qasim and rides a horse. In striking black and white images, a photoshopped Muhammad bin Qasim is seen in front of landmarks, sipping tea, negotiating traffic. In the past, Bani has explored ideas of nationhood, especially the complicated relationship of India and Pakistan – easy friendships among citizens, and venom spewing from governments and newspapers. She also looks at ideas of identity – in ‘Shan Pipe Band Learns The Star Spangled Banner,’ a Lahore-based bag pipe band attempts the American national anthem.
The recent Berlin Biennale was criticised by the Guardian for being too “slick”. That it was oblivious to nightmarish realities of drowned refugee children or treating genocide with derision. I think about this when I look at Bani’s work, the gentleness with which she gazes at Karachi. She is critical but her fondness is clear – artist Yaminay Chaudri calls it her “imperfect beloved”. But there are times when Bani looks at the country with a stranger’s eyes – seesawing between exoticism and cynicism. Her video loop (with a mouth full of a title) “The most amount of people standing still or how to create a revolution through contemporary means”, left you prickly. It depicts a photoshopped rally. The result is interesting, but at her talk, she suggested she needed to create a movement because she didn’t expect one in Karachi – an unfair sentiment. Just three years ago, thousands crammed Teen Talwar protesting election rigging. The gathering was potent enough to irk a certain politician in London. The power of the people even caused re-polling in some districts. And that’s not mentioning the number of times the city united in lament, protest or remembrance – among them the Abbas Town blast in 2013, the massacre of 100 Hazaras in Quetta and more recently Sabeen Mahmud’s death.
In striking black and white images, a photoshopped Muhammad bin Qasim is seen in front of landmarks – sipping tea, negotiating traffic
Perhaps the most touching piece in the show was the vignette about the Karachi Theosophical Society library. If you dig into it the space has its own jewel of a story – started by the smooth-talking Englishwoman Annie Besant, who stood on a table in Karachi in 1896 so people could hear her discuss “Man, the master of his destiny”. Within a year, so inspired by her talks, Karachiites formed the “Karachi Theosophical Society”. Built on dreamy principles like universal brotherhood of humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour, and – here’s where the trouble begins – the study of comparative religion. The society had an enormous collection of books on other faiths. Recently, frightened by the raised eyebrows and visitors asking questions such as “Why do you have books on religions other than Islam?”, the librarians packed the publications, censoring what made their shelves wonderful. Bani sums it up quietly in the film. You can see the handsome colonial floor, the soft afternoon light and the hands packing and packing – sealing cartons and entombing them in plastic as if the contents might escape. And in the end, empty shelves. It is like watching a friend leave.
Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a writer and painter based in Karachi