Bani Abidi’s work is published in our visual essay ‘High Noon’, a collaboration with Green Cardamom to showcase the work of contemporary Pakistani artists in our Pakistan issue. Granta’s Saskia Vogel spoke to Bani about artistic representations of Pakistan, and the role of new media in the changing artistic landscape of the country.
SV: Pakistan is often depicted – in the news, at least – through images of chaos and conflict. In your work, this is evoked through everyday objects and in-between moments. What draws you to this focus on quieter things?
BA: Yes, unfortunately Pakistan is actually only depicted in news media and almost never through film, literature or art. And worse yet, in recent times, the work of Pakistani artists, writers and filmmakers, seems to have become restricted to negotiating these very depictions which, as far I am concerned, have a very limited shelf life. I prefer to engage with things I may or may not find important at my own discretion, and feel a bit throttled by the world’s anxious curiosity about Pakistan. So I think I make a conscious effort to stay away from a flat definition of what is critical or political, both conceptually and visually. I guard my mental space quite strongly and prefer to home in on details that I observe, and to mull over the potential of those, rather than find images to convey pre-determined ideas.
In another interview I read that there are many female Pakistani artists, but very few working with video and photography. Is art considered to be women’s work, and why are your media of choice uncommon for women?
Art is not considered part of the female realm – it’s just not seen as being a particularly lucrative profession so men have therefore traditionally been encouraged to be architects and designers. Of course that’s changing a lot now, with the emergence of an art market both within and outside Pakistan. As for the media of video and photography, they are only now starting to be used by younger artists.
You’ve called the US art industry ‘conservative’, particularly in what they expect to see from female Muslim artists. In which ways do you feel your work didn’t fit in with expectations?
I was a student in the US in the 90s when the artist Shirin Neshat was being celebrated for her ‘feminist’ critique of a repressive Iranian society. And it was at that time that I started realizing there was nothing I was more wary of than a New York Times-mediated understanding of the world. And especially when it came to a benevolent, liberal gaze at ‘disenfranchised’ women of the Muslim world, I felt sick. This self-congratulatory championing of human rights elsewhere is so flawed. For instance, no one knows or cares that the rights of women in Saudi Arabia are infinitely worse than those of women in Iran, because Saudi Arabia is a solid US ally and there is nothing to be gained from making a case for the rights of women there. Meanwhile, I was interested in things like nationalism in the Indian and Pakistani Diaspora in Chicago, and did not have much to offer in terms of being ‘a Muslim woman’.
Your work seems inherently political. To what extent is being an activist part of being an artist?
At one point I thought I would create radio dramas, which would have a mass following, but that’s the closest I came to having activist sentiments. But I am more attached to the process of making art than actively attempting to bring about change. I don’t think that making work that is representative of political realities necessarily translates into being an activist. But there are activists, academics and writers who use images of my work when it has a relationship to theirs, and I guess that takes the work into a different space. I look at things through an aesthetic lens, whether it is the treatment of time in my films, the time of day and spaces in my photographs or a humorous moment in a narrative. So my interest lies first and foremost in manipulating form and seeing how it relates to what I am trying to say. But yes, my work is political in many ways because I am most drawn to anecdotes of power and social hierarchy, which are such a definitive part of the world I inhabit.
What are the most pressing themes for emerging Pakistani artists?
Apparently the pressing themes are religious fundamentalism, civil wars, military dictatorships, honour killings and the like. But I would hope that emerging artists feel confident to dismiss or complicate this bullet-point reality, so that we finally have something unexpected and profound coming out of Pakistan.