Developed in collaboration with Sharjah Art Foundation, this major survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) presents new commissions alongside two decades of the artist’s practice in video, photography and sound.
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, Bani Abidi approaches social imaginary 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 theatre of our social fabric. Over 20 years of her career, Abidi has become internationally recognised 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 socio-political 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 Abidi 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, Kassel (2021) 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. Characteristics such as megalomania, inauthenticity and paranoia are engaged in this work while foregrounding the sculptor, Ram Sutar, who in real life is renowned for his monuments to historic figures and national heroes.
The exhibition also marks the debut of a new work, The Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men (2021). The series features the physical gestures and traits of men that create the image of power and are often associated with masculinity, such as charisma, comradeship and patriotic fervour.
Another highlight of the exhibition, The Address, is displayed on television monitors at multiple sites throughout the MCA. The work adopts the familiar backdrop of a televised presidential address in Pakistan, which includes a framed portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah—founder of modern Pakistan. From this unoccupied space, Abidi contemplates codes of leadership and its absence as well as the dramaturgy surrounding a ‘presidential address.’
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 artistic mediums. The exhibition includes works on paper with her series of watercolours, 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 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 humour, when shared collectively, becomes a way to understand each other.
The Chicago exhibition builds on Bani Abidi’s first solo institutional survey at Sharjah Art Foundation in 2019, co-curated by Foundation Director Hoor Al Qasimi and Nastasha Ginwala and titled Bani Abidi: Funland.
Running from 4 September 2021 to 5 June 2022, the MCA Chicago presentation of Bani Abidi: The Man Who Talked Until He Disappeared is organised by Sharjah Art Foundation and curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation; Natasha Ginwala, Associate Curator at Gropius Bau, Berlin; and Bana Kattan, Pamela Alper Associate Curator at MCA Chicago.