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A multi-media show by artist Bani Abidi is a telling statement on people in power.
Politicians are definitely not Pakistan-born artist Bani Abidi's favourite set of people. And they get lampooned, once again, in her latest multi-media art show at the Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata that opened last week. Abidi's three bodies of work on display are premiering in India and, like her earlier ones, are creatively loaded with historical, cultural and political statements and questions. Titled Then It Was Moulded Anew, the three video and photographic installations reflect on the politics of commemoration with an amused detachment.
Death at a 30 Degree Angle portrays a pompous politician making his way to the atelier of a sculptor who makes statues of politicians. Accompanied by his cronies and clad in a kurta-pyjama with a shawl draped over his shoulders, the bespectacled politico commissions a statue of himself to attain immortality. Shown imaginatively on two planks resting on a wall, the 15-minute video, shot in the Delhi studio of the renowned octogenarian sculptor Ram Sutar, makes fun of the political class in a subtle, yet scathing, manner.
The man gets on a platform for the artist to sketch him but can't decide on how he wants to be presented. He poses in various ways, keeps adjusting his shawl and tries different facial expressions while consulting his cronies who are at hand to prop his sense of selfimportance. The whole act, to the viewer, is highly comical.
Inspired by Polish journalist Rsyzard Kapuscinski's The Emperor, a seminal account on the rise and decline of the court of Ethiopian emperor Haile Sellasie, the video is also Abidi's take on former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati's obsession with commissioning her own statues. Her point of contention with the sculptor was the non-inclusion of her signature handbags in the first lot of statues she unveiled, resulting in dozens of statues being recalled. Incidentally, it is Ram Sutar who has been the primary architect of Mayawati's fantasies.
Abidi's past works also lampoon politicians and officials: her Section Yellow (2010) documents the harassment of travelers by immigration officials, and Reserved (2006) is a video of traffic in a city coming to a halt to make way for the motorcade of a politician. Abidi says the idea behind her works is not to create drama, but evoke a gentle critique.
Abidi, 41, married to Indian graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee, met Ram Sutar in the summer of 2011 while scouting around Delhi for locations to shoot her video. Her next body of work - Proposal For A Man In The Sea - is a telling photographic portraiture of this octogenarian sculptor and his statues of almost all the leading politicians of India. This photographic work was created in Sutar's museumlike studio, like her video of the politician. Here, Abidi looks at the brand of nationalism and utopian imagination experienced by the class that had witnessed the Independence and see themselves as the primary actors in nation-building.
The photographs in this body of work are the product of Abidi's conversations with the sculptor where she recognised Sutar's allegiance to early nationalist ideals and his struggle to keep those alive. Abidi's photos of Sutar's statues in various stages of completion and the installation-like arrangement of these framed photographs make a powerful, silent statement on the nation's changing political values.
A statement from Sutar completes the picture: he rues the Maharashtra government's rejection of his proposal to create a 300-foot statue of Mahatma Gandhi to be installed in the sea off Mumbai's coast while agreeing to another proposal to install a 309-foot statue of Shivaji at the spot.
Abidi's A Table Wide Country is a continuation of the ideas explored in her 2011 work The Speech Writer, a fictional video documentary presented in the form of 10 small flip books. It follows a day in the life of a retired political speech writer whose connection with the outside worlds takes the form of a daily broadcast of his old speeches by this man from inside his house through loudspeakers fitted outside. The depiction of this tragi-comic character who once formulated the rhetoric, visions, dreams and declarations of others is captivating. Passersby, accustomed to the array of loudspeakers wired to the outside of his house and his daily broadcasts, stop to listen for a few moments everyday.
In A Table Wide Country, Abidi looks at the make-believe worlds and human eccentricities that often serve as psychological cushions against life and memory. The imaginary character in the set of photographs is a collector of war models and top soldiers with sophisticated weapons who reacts to the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict with his own narratives that are uneasy and provocative but, also perhaps, therapeutic.
According to Abidi, HG Wells had imagined that games played with toy soldiers and wooden guns on parlour floors and tabletops, could be a possible deterrent to real wars. But, what was meant to be a therapy for war-mongering became a proxy for the glorification of violence with military hobbyists and war-veterans collecting miniature scale models of soldiers and armaments to commemorate North American and European military histories. A Table Wide Country is a poignant collection of photos of such miniature toy soldiers, mostly Israelis, guarding the infamous 700-kilometre long 'Apartheid Wall' in West Bank, and Palestinians.
In one particularly ironic photograph, some heavily-armed soldiers encircled by miniatures of the thick concrete slabs that make the real-life 'Apartheid Wall' are being pointed towards one direction by Moses. Nothing could make for a better depiction of the ironies and tragedies of the current crisis in that part of the world.
(The exhibition is on at the Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, till January 5, 2013)
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