Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
North East England

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, currently at 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 is a more subtle highlighting of 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 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 transpires to be for some kind of visa or travel documents. 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 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 form no influence of control 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 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.

Two 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 is 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 to 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 a poking of 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.

Rebecca Travis