Bound by geography and history

Five artists, all of whom originate from the Indian subcontinent, come together in their common explorations of identity through memory and modernism in architecture

Published - September 28, 2017 09:21 pm IST

Photocredits: by special arrangement

“My earliest memories are of architectural space and the built environment,” says Lubna Chowdhary. Firstly a ship I travelled on across the Indian Ocean and then a well in the village.” Chowdhary, a part of the ongoing group show, Windows at Jhaveri Contemporary is referring to the fascinating link between memories and their association with built, lived environments that we inhabit or have inhabited in the past. “We all have memories of place(s) which are created through our physical and emotional sense of architectural environments we have experienced. The smell, the sound, the light. The way a space unfolds. For each of us, the built environment plays a huge part in our memory and become(s) part of our history”. History here, as Chowdhary mentions, alludes to the personal histories that cut across generations, geographies and socio-political contexts.

Chowdhary’s work in ceramic revolves around the abundant use of clay as well as colour. Her affinity to clay, moulded by hands, demanding a constant connection with the physical self and her confident use of an exhaustive colour palette are both in turn reflective of her Indian and Pakistani roots.

Ingrained in memory

It’s this vein of origin that strings together the rest of the artists as well, who are all originally from India or Pakistan with long or brief associations to having lived abroad. The exposure to these mixed cultures and spaces and their individual artistic responses to each place they have journeyed through, is what Windows encapsulates.

From the work of the oldest of the five artists, Anwar Jalal Shemza to the youngest, Ayesha Singh, another commonality that emerges is their encounters with the ‘Modernist’ or the ‘International’ style in architecture, or some derivative version of it, as it evolved over the years in different parts of the world. From its beginnings in the early 1900s, through the two world wars and the revolutions in technology and hence lifestyle that they brought about, Modernism as an ideology in architecture withstood it all. As it sought functionality over frill, it resonated with most emerging new societies around the globe that were recuperating after the shambles the world wars had left them behind in. As it flourished, evolving and transforming along the way, newer strains of it emerged, that retained traces of its earlier traditional styles as well. In pre-Independence India, the Gothic complemented the Mughal and gave rise to what we know as Indo-Saracenic style of building. As a result, most government institutions like hospitals, schools, place of worship or governance were built in this fashion, as symbols of the new ruling authority.

Through Partition and the emergence of newer developments across all spheres, and as people’s lives drastically changed on both sides of the border, what remained ingrained in the memory was a sense of the old ways of life. Motifs, symbols, outlines; colours, textures, designs and patterns remained, and perhaps newer learnings gathered from mobility and wanderings were applied to these, that together created a smorgasbord of nostalgia with a smattering of the new. Returning to Chowdhary’s work in the show, we see distinctly a Modernist skyline in both ‘Edgeland 1 and 2’, where structure, design, patterns and colour are at play to create what could be facades of buildings, doorways, towers or water-tanks in smooth, glazed ceramic shapes. In ‘Landscape’, her other body of work, she steps away from her patent glazed style to create objects that resemble wooden toys from a distance or perhaps mechanical bodies like cameras or transistor radios. Although closer inspection reveals them to be a bunch of Modernist style building models, the fact that modernist architect Le Corbusier believed the house to be “a machine for living in”, Chowdhary’s tiny 3D creations as machines of utility make perfect sense.

Visual puzzles

Artist Seher Shah on the other hand explores malleability of a different kind. In her work ‘Flatlands’ that plays with perspective drawing, she repeatedly constructs and erases structures with the use of lines and markings. A deeper understanding of architectural language and academic insights might be required to truly enjoy this work of art that otherwise resembles a “complex visual puzzle”, as Iftikhar Dadi, artist and professor of art history at Cornell University, describes it best in his introductory write-up on the show. Her second work, ‘Capitol Complex’ uses photographs of Le Corbusier’s well known structure and reimagines them through new perspectives by exercising an interesting craft routine of cutting out, re-pasting, certain parts of the image in order to restructure the whole form. By the end of it, the image before you looks more like that of a book or a box, turned around, inside out than that of a building in concrete, steel and glass.

An essential feature of Modernist architecture is also flexible open interior spaces which find close resemblance in its exteriors. In artist Simryn Gill’s photographs, where, through rectangular cut-out windows in what looks like bare, abandoned homes, one can literally see the outside foliage entering into the inside, so there is hardly any delineation between the two. Gill uses light to help define the geometry within her frames, bringing in another important element to the aesthetics of good architecture. Her images of just these bare, vacant spaces, stripped down of any other distractions of a lived experience hardly remind one of a home and yet the space lives and breathes, with organic light and life. Her works opens up a conversation between concrete and plant, and hinge on this co-existence of the natural and the manmade, something that happens often, all around us and even in our absence as humans.

Framing the city

Singh’s wrought iron ‘Hybrid Drawings’ is an installation that is more an outline or a framework of a skyline. Singh invites the viewer to experience the work through and through as one can literally step in and out and circle around the structure. “…when I was doing my BFA, I used to take photos of the streets and buildings in Delhi and carry them back to London. I began noticing how some of the structures I may have considered quotidian had extremely peculiar forms, and that started my research into similar buildings that may contain heterogeneously distinctive elements,” says Singh, elaborating on the process of her creation. An amalgamation of her sketches over time, of different buildings, “…that are constructed using appropriated features and fragments from structures in various countries and cultures” she has visited, her work in the show is “an iteration of a way in which the drawings from my imagination can be physically experienced by the viewer”. At the gallery, the work is akin to a facade, a doorway or a window into the sea beyond which in itself juxtaposes the work against the city’s original skyline on the other side of the water.

Anwar Jalal Shemza’s work at once spells nostalgia, with his patent Indo-Islamic patterns that one can still find a sense of, in the older quarters of the city, peeping out from age old shops and homes. Shemza’s search for identity through a merger of his education in the West and what he imbibed from his own Eastern roots were what lead to the creation of his unique work, rich in symbols, colours and textures. Playing with both the Urdu and the English alphabet as well as a style of imagery that’s heavily dependent on motifs gleaned from tradition and memory, Shemza’s work is quaint and full of personal flavour.

Windows provides the viewer with a window into a past which has managed to fight complete erasure, finding its way into the present. The show then, is an opportunity for the viewer to step into this present made of its many pasts.

Windows is currently ongoing at Jhaveri Contemporary, Walkeshwar until October 7

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