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The visual narrative that characterizes Bani Abidi’s practice takes a historical turn in the series The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing (2006), which is made up of two photographic sequences and a video. Through these related elements, the figure of Mohammad bin Qasim, considered Pakistan’s early colonial founder in state history, is brought to life in a lighthearted and candid portrayal that provides an opportunity to reflect on the history of the South Asian nation. A young general from Umayyad (an early Islamic caliphate), bin Qasim rose to prominence as leader of the successful capture of Sindh in 711 CE. Attributed to this conquest is the introduction of early Islamic practice and philosophy to the region, which in Pakistan’s history is credited as predicating the destiny of the nation. The significance of this narrative resides, firstly, in its status as an alternative to Western-centric postcolonial narratives of independence that privilege European expansionist forays in South Asia since the 17th century and, secondly, in its circumvention of the complex conditions under which Pakistan’s independence as a modern nation-state was achieved—via a separation of the Muslim League from the Indian National Congress in 1943 through to the triumphant and traumatic aftermath of the partition of South Asia on August 14, 1947, which established East and West Pakistan. Beyond its geographical specificity, the work suggests the challenges of such singular narratives, and the inevitability of the contestation of multiple historical narratives.
Abidi explores historical and contemporary representations of the figure of bin Qasim, and the proliferation of this narrative in state history and shared culture, through her fictional depictions of the hero in his emblematic form—wearing the Arabic keffiyeh, brandishing a sword, and riding a charging horse. In The Boy Who Got Tired of Posing, the artist plays on the trend of popular studio photography in 1980s Pakistan, which saw parents encourage their sons to dress up as bin Qasim for portrait shots. In the work’s final image, the subject, tired of performing, mischievously elects to exit the frame. In This Video is a Reenactment, the artist recalls Labbaik, a televisual dramatization of the colonial founder’s conquest, by excerpting a sequence showing the hero’s momentous horseback ride. In Abidi’s video, however, the act is slowed down, accentuating its histrionic impact on the nation. Finally, in a suite of eight monochrome photographs, The Ghost of Mohammed Bin Qasim, the artist monumentalizes the figure, who appears to haunt various sites of national significance around Karachi including the Lahore Fort, the tomb of Emperor Jahangir, and the National Mausoleum of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, or Mazar-e-Quaid. Yet on closer examination, these glimpses of the return of the historical figure contain various incongruities and awkwardnesses. A short fictional text reveals the story of how the haunting began with the conversion of a young man, Yusof Masih, to Islam, and his imagining himself as bin Qasim. The figure, juxtaposed with iconic contexts, raises questions of the roles of nationhood, nationalism, and narratives of origin in the trajectory of history.