One of the highlights of this year's Edinburgh Art Festival is Bani Abidi’s Memorial to Lost Words
The work, housed in the Old Royal High School, is a very different kind of memorial — no ineradicable stone engravings or statues, but rather a sound installation comprised of two different sets of voices bearing poignant testament to the tragedy of the First World War.
Below we have an exclusive Q&A with artist Bani Abidi, who discusses the emotional resonance of the piece, as well as the political themes that run through her work—and reveals how she created her first sound installation. In a video interview with Sorcha Carey director of the Edinburgh Art Festival, we hear about Bani Abidi's work in the context of the festival, and Sorcha reveals the fascinating history of the debating chamber that provides the pertinent setting for Bani Abidi's installation.
This commission was supported by the British Council.
Q&A with Bani Abidi
CAN YOU TELL US BRIEFLY ABOUT YOUR EARLY LIFE AND HOW YOU BECAME AN ARTIST?
I grew up in Karachi in the 70s and 80s. It was a default decision to become an artist because I could draw well, so it was assumed that is what I would do. But drawing was just a way through which I made inroads into a vast world of learning how to see and think and represent ideas. I went on to study art in Lahore and Chicago.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE CONCEPT BEHIND YOUR WORK AT EDINBURGH ART FESTIVAL, MEMORIAL TO LOST WORDS? HOW DID THE COMMISSION COME ABOUT?
Memorial to Lost Words is a song installation based on letters and songs from the First World War. They are not the well archived memoirs of European and British soldiers, but the words of Indian Soldiers and their womenfolk back home in India. Even a hundred years after the fact, it is a little known fact of WWI history that more than a million Indian soldiers fought in this war. So, clearly, official accounts and memorials are very rarely truthful transmitters of history. This memorial draws from letters that were written home by Indian Soldiers and folk songs that were sung by their wives, mothers and sisters at the time but were censored or forgotten because of their candid condemnation of the war.
WHAT WAS YOUR STARTING POINT FOR THE WORK, AND HOW AND WHY DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN TELLING THIS STORY?
I became interested in the character of the Indian soldier after reading Weary Generations, by Abdullah Hussain. It’s a book (translated from Urdu) that charts the lives of a set of characters in India in the first half of the twentieth century. The first half of the book is about young men in Punjab who get whisked away overnight from India to the Western front in Belgium. It’s a very humane and nuanced narrative about their confusion over this journey, which is coupled with excitement, fear and a sense of deep, nonsensical displacement. The brutality of that bit of history really hit home.
TELL US ABOUT THE PROCESS OF MAKING THIS WORK AND HOW YOU SOURCED THE LETTERS AND SONGS.
I researched these texts in various academic publications that have recently come out. Then I came across the work of Amarjit Chandan, a poet in London, who has advocated and spoken widely about the huge injustice that was the conscription of colonial soldiers in the Great War. He had this wonderful archive of women’s folk songs from a hundred years ago, that had ceased to be sung after the war. It made absolute sense to get them sung again. I also commissioned him to write a fresh folksong, based on letters that were written by the soldiers, which was then performed by the male singer.
YOU RECORDED THE FOLK SONGS IN PAKISTAN—CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT EXPERIENCE?
I commissioned Ali Aftab Saeed to compose and sing the song. He is a singer in Lahore who is known for his very satirical music band called Beygairath Brigade. I know his music and thought that he would be a good candidate given his knowledge of Punjabi and also his politics. The female voices are 3 sisters in Lahore—Harsakhian—who are friends of mine and train in traditional music. Two of them are artists and the third a lawyer and they have an interest in traditional artforms. I brought these two sets of people together, they recorded a dialogic song, and I sat with them as they assembled all the instruments and layers of sound together.
HAVE YOU WORKED WITH SOUND ART BEFORE? WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF BUILDING AN INSTALLATION FROM SOUND LIKE FOR YOU?
This was my first time working with sound, and it has been quite a revelatory experience. More than sound, working with a song has given me a sense of what a popular form like music can do. Coupled with the fact that it was installed in a dramatic and evocative location like the New Parliament, I’m quite stunned, frankly, at how strongly people reacted to my piece. I usually work with short videos which are quite subtle, so this has been a very different experience.
THE WORK HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS 'ANTI-MONUMENTAL'. DO YOU FEEL THAT 'OFFICIAL' AND MORE TRADITIONAL MONUMENTS ARE WANTING SOMEHOW? IF SO, CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHY AND WHAT YOU FEEL THIS ALTERNATIVE PROPOSITION FOR A MEMORIAL ACHIEVES THAT MORE TRADITIONAL MONUMENTS AND MEMORIALS FAIL TO?
Traditional monuments are a bit like history textbooks that commemorate edited, established memory. You very rarely find something out of the ordinary that casts light on a forgotten or overlooked person or event. Besides, a physical monument goes through so many layers of bureaucratic approvals that something gets lost along the way. Compare this to the idea of benches which are simply dedicated to people who have passed away or the cobble stones in Berlin with names of members of the Jewish community—there, you literally stumble upon the past. But the most intriguing aspect of memorializing for me lies in oral histories and rituals, which are enacted regularly but are totally intangible.
WOMEN'S VOICES ARE ALSO CLEARLY AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF THE WORK. WHAT EFFECT DO YOU THINK THE INCLUSION OF THE SONGS - AND THE 'DIALOGUE' THAT IS CREATED BETWEEN THE SOLDIERS AND THEIR LOVED ONES - CREATES IN THE SPACE? WHAT DOES IT BRING TO THE NARRATIVE?
The women’s songs that I was working with open up one’s imagination of a completely different realm: that of the home and the village from which all the young men were taken away. These were songs of dissent that were never heard outside of the domestic contexts in which they were sung, and it was very important for me to get them into a political arena like a parliament debating chamber.
THE GRAND SPACE THAT THE INSTALLATION INHABITS ALSO FEELS SIGNIFICANT TO THE READING OF THE WORK—HOW DID YOU COME TO WORK IN THE DEBATING CHAMBER AT THE VENUE? AND WAS THIS SETTING INTEGRAL TO THE WORK FROM THE START? WHAT EFFECT DO YOU THINK IT HAS?
I had decided what I was going to do, but the space made many things clear. I was undecided, for instance, about whether there would be a video accompanying this piece, and this space which was all about speech and representation made it clear that it would just be voices. So experiencing it there has a very particular meaning, and it won’t be the same when I install it elsewhere.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE BROADER CONTEXT OF THE WORK BEING SHOWN IN EDINBURGH?
Edinburgh is known for its monuments, my favourite one being Greyfriars Bobby, which is the sweetest monument I have come across. So the curatorial premise of the whole festival was a very well chosen one, and I feel my piece in particular, which is about an ex-colony of the British empire will have a particular resonance in Scotland. What do you hope the installation will evoke in visitors to the gallery? I hope to evoke an aesthetic and emotive response, which it seems to have done. The song is composed as a lament, so the audience is drawn into it for very formal reasons, and once that is experienced people engage with the context.
THE WORK THROWS LIGHT ON PREVIOUSLY UNTOLD HISTORIES FROM WORLD WAR ONE, AND SPECIFICALLY DRAWS OUT THE SHARED HISTORY OF THE UK AND INDIA OF THIS PERIOD IN A WAY THAT HAS PERHAPS OFTEN BEEN OVERLOOKED IN THE HISTORY BOOKS. WHY DID YOU FEEL IT WAS IMPORTANT TO BRING THESE HISTORIES TO THE FORE?
The Indian foot soldiers of the first world war are only—if ever—commemorated for their valour and loyalty to the crown. But this is a brutal part of colonial history, and needs to become popular knowledge. We live in times of expediency where histories, peoples and places are discarded when they become inconvenient. Let alone this history of an event that happened a hundred years ago—it is happening under our noses right now. So it’s important to popularise many histories.