In Chicago, during the anti-racism protests against police violence in the summer of 2020, river bridges were raised and steel barricades erected by police to corral demonstrators. These very same barriers, now painted bright red, greet visitors as they enter Bani Abidi’s survey at the MCA, in its third iteration after stints in Berlin and Sharjah. The exhibition includes video, performance, sound installation, and print-based work spanning over two decades, and draws together her long-standing interest in power, securitization, and everyday life, marked by moments of humor and absurdity. Collectively, Abidi’s practice might be seen to illustrate Henri Lefebvre’s suggestion that “the critique of everyday life involves a critique of political life, in that everyday life already contains and constitutes such a critique: in that it is that critique.”11
Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 2014), 92.

A trio of split-screen videos that Abidi made as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago form the core of the exhibition, clustered together and displayed on box monitors. In each video—The News (2001), Anthems (2000), and Mangoes (1999)—the artist plays two characters—an Indian and a Pakistani—whose identities emerge from sartorial, discursive, and linguistic differences, revealing the codes that constitute their differentiated national identities. The viewer is forced to reflect on their own assumptions, and on the means by which identity is constructed—by ourselves and by others. In Mangoes, the friends chat with one another as they eat mangoes with their hands, audibly stripping the flesh from the skin with their teeth and sucking it off the gutli. The Pakistani character begins by asking after her Indian friend’s favorite variety of mango: “Have you had Anwar Ratols? I don’t know what you call them in India…” The origin and name of the beloved fruit is fought over with nationalist fervor across social media and in the streets—the story is that a man named Anwar carried a tree clipping when he left his home in northern India and migrated to Pakistan during Partition, and the same variety is known by different names across the border. The short video ends on a comical note, with each friend now claiming their country has more varieties of mango than the other.

Through a series of drawings and photographs, from Security Barriers A-L and M-Z (2008–19) and Intercommunication Devices (2008) to Karachi—Series 1 (2009), Abidi asserts that practices of securitization and racialization are both discursive and material, reinforcing national and imagined borders between people and nation-states alike. Security Barriers is a portrait of Karachi’s public spaces told through the barricades that proliferate across the city. Each type of barrier is accompanied by its location: a blue barricade used by the city’s traffic police resembles the red ones installed in the exhibition, while the corrugated metal container near the American consulate in Karachi is unique. Mounted across a corner on the opposite wall is the ironically titled Reassuring Hand Gestures of Big Men, Small Men, All Men (2021). The work consists of sixty-four cropped photographs of the hands of various presidents who use the same gestures to punctuate their speeches—a closed fist, raised index finger, and open-handed salute—a corporeal study of power and patriarchy.

Karachi—Series 1 (2009) consists of six staged photographs mounted on light boxes. Each individual is shot from behind while engaged in quotidian tasks that usually occur indoors but are here displaced to the street. In one incongruous image, subtitled Pari Wania, 7:42 pm, 22 August 2008, Ramadan, Karachi, a woman in a red gown irons clothes in the middle of an empty road. In another, John Fernandez, 7:45 pm, 21 August 2008, Ramadan, Karachi, a man wearing slacks and a button-down shirt sits and reads the newspaper with one foot raised to rest on a concrete median. While the sitters’ faces are concealed, their names hint at their religious identities—all are non-Muslim religious and caste minorities, photographed at dusk during the month of Ramadan, as if to counterpose their occupation of public spaces with the fact that at that same time, just after sunset, Muslims are indoors breaking their fast.

One somber work, a meditation on endless war, home, and the trauma of displacement, is separated from the rest of the exhibition. Memorial To Lost Words (2016) is a mixed-media installation where the room’s only illumination comes from a vitrine that holds replicas of archival letters translated from Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu to English. Abidi evokes Muharram majlises, with their darkened rooms and melancholic incantations, to memorialize the unheralded soldiers from the Indian army who fought and died in the service of the British Empire during World War One. A sonic backdrop animates the letters: a musical score sung in Punjabi by alternating male and female choruses, created in collaboration with Lahore-based musician Ali Aftab Saeed and London-based poet and archivist Amarjit Chandan.

In one letter, Baghal Singh faces the fact that he will never return to India. Ram Prasad instructs his friend to smuggle him hashish in tin boxes, and Ser Gul asks only for a flute. Rulda Singh writes from Basra in 1916 to his beloved, reflecting on the futility of imperial wars and recognizing that the men he has killed were fathers, brothers and sons too: “It was hard enough when we were starving, in tatters, our feet without shoes. Now we are booted and well fed, these goras have brought us a false greatness. It is like this: my train never left our village station. I am still there saying goodbye; it is as if the whole village traveled with me across the seas.” The music seems to reunite the poor, young men sonically with their homeland, through the voices that sing in their memory more than a hundred years later. Abidi’s works reveal the ways in which identity is constructed by tracking absurd, minor differences that build to the catastrophic effects of majoritarian nationalism and perpetual war. Her critique of political life foregrounds the everyday affects of humor and sorrow, reminding us that we often laugh to keep from crying.