Bani Abidi’s Pakistani roots are inextricable from the art that she creates. The
sensibilities of the nation in which she was born have always inspired her
practice, and her first UK solo show, ‘Section Yellow’, which is currently showing at the Baltic Centre for
Contemporary Art, is no exception.
Previously shown at Project 88 in Mumbai, ‘Section Yellow’ features work made in
the last five years, and centers on the notion of waiting. Abidi sees Pakistan’s years
of political unrest as resulting in a nation of ‘waiters’ conditioned to be patient,
as numerous regimes are implemented, only to be swiftly replaced. However,
rather than commenting on wider political issues, Abidi’s work more subtly
highlights the smaller aspects of citizenship, resulting in an intimate observation of
the characteristics of her home nation.
The central work in ‘Section Yellow’ takes the form of film piece called The Distance From
Here (2010). The film is shot between two settings; an outdoor security check area
and an indoor waiting room. What the characters are waiting for is not immediately
clear, but as the film develops, it appears that they wait to receive some kind of visa or travel
documentation. It is important here to clarify that this is not a documentary, but a film
entirely staged, with every scene carefully choreographed and constructed. The
situation Abidi has created is very much based on observation and her own personal
experiences of the complicated bureaucracy concerning travel as a Pakistani citizen.
In the early outdoor stages of the film, a crowd is filtered into different queues
before going through a seemingly pointless security check. Yellow lines mark paths
in which people are allowed to stand and act as an example of another of Abidi’s
subjects of interest – barriers and markings of social control.
Once through the security check, the focus shifts to the stark interior of a typical waiting
room. The relentless drone of the air conditioning and feedback of the tannoy
system convey a much staler environment than the relative ambience of the outdoor
setting. People are slowly called away – where to, we do not know – until the waiting
room empties. The office closes and a final shot of a guard walking across the yellow
demarcations outside shows that beyond working hours, painted lines have no
controlling influence at all.
Accompanying the film are the photo series’ Untitled, One of Two and Two of Two.
They pick up on details from the film, providing a more intimate observation of
the particular characters and props that appear. Untitled sees plastic folders, previously
clutched by characters, photographed on their side. They display a precise and
minimal aesthetic and are installed in a line, creating a horizon in the corner of the
gallery. Despite their simplicity, the images convey a deeper meaning as each folder
contains paperwork detailing past, present, and future hopes of the owner. These
minimalist photographs of objects therefore come to represent discreetly complex
portraits of the individuals they belong to.
One of Two meanwhile appears as a more conventional and visually arresting form
of portrait. A passport photo of a particularly striking elderly man from the film has been
enlarged, prompting the viewer to single him out and question his situation. As we
ponder where he has come from, where he wishes to go and why, we ironically
begin to ask similar questions of the authorities that decide his fate.
As previously mentioned, Abidi’s other key subject within this exhibition is that of
barriers and markings used to exert control. This is obvious in her series of digital
drawings of different security barriers observed in the Karachi area of Pakistan. As
the images are computer generated and taken out of any context, they appear as a
catalogue of designs. The subject’s varying appearances (some with foliage planted
on the top, others spiked and more intimidating) render the collection almost
comical as the variation of designs verge on absurdity.
Indeed, despite many of the works in ‘Section Yellow’ prompting a compassionate
response to individual character stories portrayed through film and photography,
there is a sense of playfulness and an element of poking fun at the ridiculous nature of the
system they find themselves in. Rather than confronting issues in an overtly political
manner, Abidi cleverly critiques the frustrating state of affairs with a wry sense of
humour, creating a thought-provoking exhibition that questions relationships to
political, social and literal structures of control.
‘Section Yellow’ is displayed at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art until 12/02/2012.