Of laughter and reclaiming

By Ananya Jahanara Kabir

12 September 2019

A review of Bani Abidi’s 'They Died Laughing', at Gropius Bau, Berlin, 6 June – 22 September 2019, curated by Natasha Ginwala.
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From ‘Karachi Series I’, 2009. Copyright Bani Abidi, Courtesy: die Künstlerin & Experimenter, Kolkata

In Bani Abidi’s art, laughter is the plumb line, and the title of her sweeping retrospective at Berlin’s Gropius-Bau (6 June – 22 September 2019) also suggests so. Sarcasm, satire, irony, and a constant dialogue with the absurd have played an important role in Abidi’s work over the past two decades. Such intellectual work induces a certain kind of knowing laughter. What we also glimpse through her work is the multitude of ways in which its cast of characters strives to attain a state where laughter is effortless, carefree and a product of uncomplicated happiness. As Abidi’s career evolves, her subjects, attempting to laugh this freer kind of laugh, typically traverse a cityscape that is exhausting, constricting, yet – at unexpected moments – freeing.  Equally typically, their attempts invoke, in us viewers, laughter that is biting and cerebral. Depending on our inclination, this laughter can be tinged by an affection for the absurd, rendered by the artist as familiar and recognisable.

Guided by Abidi’s strong presence in these works, we laugh at, in the absence of much to laugh with. Yet from that gap arises the urgent realisation that we must, or at the very least we must aspire to, laugh with each other. In her most recent works, an affective hesitancy creeps in, deferring both modes of laughter to a time to come, when a current state of uncertainty will have, hopefully, sorted itself out. Perhaps, when that time does come, we will die laughing, again. Natasha Ginwala’s intelligent and empathic curation of this high-quality body of work ensures an immersive experience where we learn through laughter and reclaiming—in this we are led by the people Abidi focuses on, her interpretation of their acts of survival and resistance, and of us, the visitors to Gropius Bau.



‘And They Died Laughing’, 2016. Photograph by Mathias Völzke, Courtesy: die Künstlerin & Experimenter, Kolkata

The retrospective is not arranged in chronological order of the works exhibited. Ginwala has preferred to organise it through thematic and affective circuits that link different moments of Abidi’s creative arc to reveal continuities, shifts and changes. We are drawn into the exhibition’s cacophonic yet charming heart through a looped video of a Scottish pipe band in Lahore trying to perfect their rendering of the American national anthem with nary a guide, apart from a cassette recorder. ‘Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star-Spangled Banner’ (2004) brings us into a very desi domestic space, characterised, like the music of the Pipe Band and the clothes and learning techniques of the musicians, by what is called jugaad: the improvised assemblage of unexpected fragments to respond to an immediate need. The Brass Band is attempting to learn by ear the American National Anthem, in order to entertain a wedding party. Through jugaad, the flotsam and jetsam of global modernity, filtered through the imperial and militaristic genealogy of the Brass Band, and flagged up by the choice of tune captured and showcased by the artist, is converted to serve the festive needs of the chaotic postcolony. We will enjoy ourselves by whatever means: irreverence will open up the pathway. Across the room, small watercolour portraits of protagonists laughing near-hysterically, grouped under the title ‘And they died laughing’, push this understanding to an apocalyptic brink. The portraits were made in visceral response to the 2015 assassination of activist and cultural entrepreneur Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi – an assassination motivated, it would seem, by her fearless work in keeping open spaces for conversation, discussion, debate, and laughter in her city.

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From ‘And They Died Laughing’, 2016. Copyright Bani Abidi, Courtesy: die Künstlerin & Experimenter, Kolkata

Uniting the different demographic classes represented by the Shan Pipe Band and those mourning Sabeen through laughter, is the securitisation of the cities they parcel out between themselves. As ubiquitous as the class barrier is the security barrier: Abidi presents an ‘A to Z’ of security barriers through a series of watercolours the dates of which (2008-18) suggest an ongoing preoccupation. Finely realised and beautifully detailed, the barriers float on their white background, meticulously annotated with the Karachi location in which the barrier in question was spotted. This work is more than an exercise of knowledge as power via the alphabetised inventory. The technical attention paid to these mundane, ugly structures expresses the artist seizing agency over the geopolitical complications that corral and define the Pakistani, urban, quotidian realm. Her artistry sublimates the reduced yet ever-present violence born out of the wielding of power, that yaps irritatingly but threateningly at the heels of those who navigate that realm. In this task she seems to take inspiration from an Indian maker of political statuary, who is the subject of her works ‘A Proposal for a Man in the Sea’ (2012) and ‘Death at a 30 Degree Angle’ (2012). She is also, I feel, personally inspired by the mavericks she commemorates in the whimsical series ‘The Man who…’ (2016). Presented in a later section of the exhibition, this suite of watercolours depicts protagonists seeking dubious fame of the ‘Guinness book of records’ kind, through whimsical and solipsistic feats of stamina. Their micro-level achievements draw attention to the absurdity of competition – a theme prefigured in her early video works, ‘Mangoes’, ‘The News’, and ‘Anthems’ (1999-2000) – characterised by doubled selves that fracture embodied enjoyment by jingoistic one-upmanship. We are asked to recognise ourselves in the interrupted attempts to eat a messy, juicy mango or dance freely and joyously or, indeed, paint obsessively a series of security barriers.


‘Security Barriers A-Z’, 2008-2018. Photograph by Mathias Völzke, Courtesy: die Künstlerin & Experimenter, Kolkata


Looking at the dates of the works on display, it emerges that Abidi’s practice leaves the bourgeois interiors and subjectivities depicted or suggested in those earlier close-up videos, to embrace vaster canvases that magnify the public spaces of the Pakistani city, usually Karachi. In the exhibition, these larger works are presented in a sequence of rooms that allow viewers to immerse themselves in the sounds, sights and size of the metropolis, contrasting with the intimate scale of the watercolour suites and other videos. This arrangement generates a complex and multi-directional experience for the viewer. The intricately detailed, miniaturised ‘Security Barriers A-Z’ provide a satisfying counterpoint to the multi-channel ‘Reserved’ (2006) and ‘Locations in the Garden of Love’ (2014), both of which envelop us in narratives of competition, contestation, policing and escape. Slices of the everyday are lifted up and spliced together as artistic provocations for a world where power speaks through random redirections of civic flow (‘Reserved’). In ‘Locations’, a similar theme unfolds through the prying eyes of fellow-citizens turned voyeurs, who obsess about the perceived impropriety of a couple seeking snatched private moments in Karachi’s public gardens. In both cases, social actors collude with structures and manifestations of power to bring to a standstill or at least constrain the plans and desires of others. The absurdity of this collusion – whereby society collectively constricts itself and thereby reduces individual agency—is offset nevertheless by glimpses of transgression – the lovers who flit through Karachi’s gardens unfettered by the rumours, speculations, and castigations that pursue them; and, in ‘Reserved’, the children who – placed in an orderly queue in anticipation of the VIP car that will flash by, welcomed by their coordinated flag-waving – break rank and file at the sound of the ice-cream man’s van.


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‘Funland’ (from ‘Karachi Series II’), 2014. Copyright Bani Abidi, Courtesy: die Künstlerin & Experimenter, Kolkata

Abidi’s aesthetics make the bombastic collide with the fragile and the fleeting. The ensuing contrast between the sublime and the ridiculous triggers laughter, but it also makes us ponder the pathos of the absurd. This convergence is specially marked in ‘The Karachi Series I and II’, photo and video installations that take up an entire room within the exhibition. Series I consists of smaller photos of a particular kind of citizen – members of Karachi’s Parsi and Hindu middle classes – going about domestic chores and acts on streets deserted during Ramadan. The empty streets, eerie light and self-absorption of the figures, exude a Matisse-like surreal quality. ‘Funland’ or ‘Series II’ is a set of a gigantic screens, on which vignettes of desolation, disorder, and neglect congeal around once-vibrant urban spaces for collective enjoyment – the beach, a library, a cinema hall and an amusement park. Contextual clues confirm the predictable mixture of religious extremism and rampant commercial agendas that ensure the contemporary ruination of a mercantile cosmopolitanism, with stray attempts at salvage triggering a now-familiar mixture of ridicule and affection. As with several other works, Abidi presses out irony through the title, ‘Funland’, as a transformative lens through which we view, assess, and respond to the image. A camel, richly festooned with pompoms and fringes, teeters and looms, dwarfing the lone human in the background of a near-empty beach. Awaiting a rider, it holds out a promise of fun that is also a lament. The beautiful melancholia of the Karachi series is all the more sharply felt because it is permeated by what Milan Kundera once described as the kind of laughter ‘which declares everything is meaningless.’

The quest of ordinary Pakistanis to carve out their ‘Funland’ from the contested metropolis is offset by the video works ‘An Unforeseen Situation’ and ‘Section Yellow’. Their large-scale projection format magnifies, to comical effect, the determination of those in power to manipulate their constituents into proclaiming the grandeur of the nation and its rulers. These explorations of competing struggles over civic space are framed by Abidi’s long-standing desire to hold up to scrutiny the absurdities and futilities of Southasian nationalism. Her smaller-scale video works – including the Address (2007), which foregrounds the iconography of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – are particularly successful in piercing through the façade of the aggressive competition that constitutes the core of both India’s and Pakistan’s being, in order to reveal the frailty and hubris therein— but always in a manner that raises a smile, if not a laugh of ironic recognition, in the viewer. These works have all been shaped as much as Abidi’s razor-sharp acuity as by her personal circumstances, which have involved a lived familiarity with the fantasies, longings and frustrations of middle-class, urban India as well as its counterpart in Pakistan. An early manifestation of these shaping themes is the single-channel video work, ‘…So he starts singing’ (2000), on Bollywood as a shared language shaping the expression of Southasian desire.


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Portrait of the artist by Schokofeh Kamiz

It is suggestive, therefore, to note Abidi now responding increasingly to her life in Berlin, a city shaped and reshaped by history and contemporary migration flows. These experiences allow her to triangulate the Pakistani urban life-worlds with which she is intimately familiar, with elusive but insistent flows of dialogue and desire between Pakistan and India, and an excavated relationship between Southasia and continental Europe. Two works included in the retrospective attest to this development: ‘The Lost Procession’ (2019), and the minimalist ‘Memorial for Lost Worlds’ (2016).

‘The Lost Procession’ is a single-channel video documenting the persecution of one of Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, the Hazaras, in the city of Quetta, and the remaking of their lives in Berlin, where a Hazara community of migrants and refugees has been growing in recent years. The emotional centre of the work is a procession in Berlin to mark Ashura (the peak of Muharram, commemorating the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE). Abidi’s voiced-over narration, in English, notes the contagion effect of this procession – with the Hazaras of Berlin ‘beating their chests in a rhythm only known to them’– that leaves her ‘feeling at home in their midst’. Even as the procession forges a continuum between the city of their shared present and the ‘cities the rhythms came from’, it pulls her Shia sensibility out of a presumably modernising dormancy.

More rhythmic encounters await. As we move through the exhibition space towards the exit, we hear the unmistakable cadences and melodies of Punjabi folk song, which is revealed as part of the last work on display, ‘Memorial to Lost Words’. As with British Bengali dancer Akram Khan’s 2018 production, Xenos, this work attests to a new interest amongst creative intellectuals of Southasian heritage, to reclaim the Great War as connective tissue between Europe and its others. The reactivation of collective memory through creative processes simultaneously provincialises and globalises Europe, while challenging artists to rework their established practices to bear witness to this buried part of a once-shared past. Abidi moves to a different relationship between text and sound here while diminishing the representational capacity of the visual dimension.


‘Memorial to Lost Words’, 2016. Photograph by Mathias Völzke, Courtesy: die Künstlerin & Experimenter, Kolkata

We hear the folk song as we follow, reading, a circle of quotes from letters home translated into English and German. Offering this soundtrack to the cold text provides a synaesthetic trigger to our own embodied memories of the flute, the pickles, the charas and the quilts requested in the letters. But the memorial remains, in the end, imprisoned by monumentality—a paradox that we imagine Abidi’s future work wrestling profitably with. In the meantime, one senses a cerebral and witty artist entering a new relationship with words and worlds, through an uncanny familiarity of rhythmic connections that Berlin has enabled. She follows the Hazara procession in Berlin to recall Quetta in a way that she may not  otherwise have cared to know; the archive of letters from the War Front takes her to the Zehrensdorf Indian Cemetery some 50 km from Berlin, where over two hundred Indian soldiers are buried, who died in captivity during World War I. Laughter of any kind is suspended in these two works, though the body as the source of new knowledge about old things, remains a constant. This continuity is elegantly manifested in the fact that Abidi cites as inspiration for the work that gave the exhibition its title, ‘They Died Laughing’, Abdullah Hussein’s magisterial Urdu novel Udaas Naslain (‘The Weary Generations’, 1963): more precisely, its macabre yet poignant scene of Punjabi soldiers cracking jokes in their language while in the trenches of Europe’s Great War.


~Ananya Jahanara Kabir is Professor of English Literature at King’s College London, currently affiliated with the Department of English, Freie Universität Berlin, as winner of a Humboldt Prize. An Infosys Prize Laureate for the Humanities (2017), she has published extensively on Southasian cultural histories of conflict, identity and belonging.

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