Exhibition brings together nearly two decades of the work of the multidisciplinary Pakistani artist Bani Abidi

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Exhibition brings together nearly two decades of the work of the multidisciplinary Pakistani artist Bani Abidi
Bani Abidi,; Still from An Unforeseen Situation, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata.

CHICAGO, IL.- The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is presenting Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared, an exhibition that brings together nearly two decades of the work of the multidisciplinary Pakistani artist Bani Abidi. Organized by Sharjah Art Foundation and originally presented in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2019, the exhibition uses humor to explore transcultural connections. Informed by her upbringing in Karachi and experiences in other metropolitan cities including Chicago, where she studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Abidi approaches cultural hybridity and cosmopolitanism as a master storyteller, using video, photography, sound, and installation to uncover the influence of cultural and political power struggles on everyday life. Abidi’s unexpected protagonists blur the lines between actors and non-actors, scripted and spontaneous moments, exposing the absurd theater of our social fabric. Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared takes place at the MCA from September 4, 2021 to June 5, 2022 and is curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation; Natasha Ginwala, Associate Curator at Gropius Bau, Berlin; and Bana Kattan, Associate Curator at MCA Chicago.

Over twenty years of her career, Abidi has become internationally recognized for her satirical critiques of those who hold power and the many ways they wield it. Drawing inspiration from history, literature, mass media, and current events, Abidi’s practice explores the construction of sociopolitical realities and the impact of these narratives on individual experiences.

The exhibition presents several of her formative video works, such as Mangoes, The News, and Anthems, that feature the artist playing a semi-fictional version of herself on camera, as well as more recent works that show the evolution of the artist’s practice and interests over time. Abidi explores the spectacle of state authority and uses her work in film and other media as a potent, sometimes subversive means to address problems of nationalism and militarism and the elaborate drama of control.

A commission for Sharjah Art Foundation, Death at a 30 Degree Angle was featured in documenta 13 and marked a major international debut for the artist. Showing this work for the first time in North America, the multimedia installation constructs a fictional narrative about a small-time politician who commissions a monumental sculpture of himself. Power, self-aggrandizement, inauthenticity, and paranoia are explored in conversations between the politician and the sculptor, Ram Sutar, who in real life is renowned for his monuments to historic figures and national heroes.

The exhibition also features the debut of a new work, The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men (2021). The series features gestures and traits that create the image of power and are often associated with masculinity, such as charisma, comradeship, and patriotic fervor.

Another highlight of the exhibition, The Address is displayed on television monitors at multiple sites throughout the MCA. The work features a single static image of an empty politician’s office with blue curtains, a desk, and a microphone. While the scene suggests the politician’s arrival and an impending announcement, the politician never arrives.

Similarly, in Reserved, crowds anxiously await the red-carpet entrance of a state dignitary and his motorcade. One side of the two-channel projection displays scenes of children waving paper flags, a street vendor selling balloons, and police managing traffic. The other projection shows the motorcade arriving, but never the dignitary himself. Through Abidi’s critical lens, these works reflect the uneasy, nervous waiting associated with bureaucracy and the production of public image.

Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared explores Abidi’s deep engagement with various mediums. The exhibition features works on paper with her series of watercolors The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared, which lends its title to the exhibition, as well as prints and installation with works such as Security Barriers A-Z and Exercise in Redirecting Lines. The latter work involves intersecting queue lines on the gallery floor, building on the theme from her film The Distance From Here. Abidi shows that reality is sometimes stranger than fiction—and that humor, when shared collectively, becomes a way to understand each other.

Bani Abidi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1971. She studied painting and printmaking, earning a BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan, in 1994. She later attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, earning an MFA in 1999. She completed residencies with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Maine (2000), Fukuoka Art Exchange Program, Japan (2005), and DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program (2011–12). Solo exhibitions of Abidi’s work have been presented at V. M. Art Gallery, Karachi (2006 and 2010); Oberwelt, Stuttgart (2006); Gallery TPW, Toronto (2007); Gallery SKE, Bangalore (2008); Green Cardamom, London (2008 and 2010); Project 88, Mumbai (2010); Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, United Kingdom (2011); and Experimenter, Kolkata (2012–13). Important group exhibitions include: Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial (2005); Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves, ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe (2007); Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, Gwangju Biennial, South Korea (2008); Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, Asia Society, New York (2009); The Spectacle of the Everyday, Lyon Biennial, France (2009); Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland (2010); The Global Contemporary: Art Worlds After 1989, ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe (2011); Making Normative Orders: Demonstrations of Power, Doubt and Protest, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt (2012); and Documenta 13 (2012). Abidi lives and works between Karachi and New Delhi.

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