Review of 18 Dimensions: Sculptural Manifestations

A heavy mix of old and new works, this group show brought together 35 sculptures by 18 artists. Presented by Palette Art Gallery, and curated by its gallerists, the fashion designer duo Rahul Khanna and Rohit Gandhi, the exhibition seemed muscular in its execution, and was so in effect. Attempting to recast sculpture in response to the ‘radical meltdown’ of our moment, it sought to assemble works that were varied. Formally, it went beyond the binary affordances of traditional sculpture-making: relief/ground, object/armature, symbol/materiality. Sudarshan Shetty’s grand skeletons of bovine lovers/enemies, attached by foot and hung from the ceiling, blithely excited humour through the subject proposed and its scale. This sense of bare-bones monstrosity found manifestation in stone in L.N. Tallur’s “Chomatophobia”, a sculpture where a heavy-set Buddha statue was plopped down by a thick log of wood. Valay Shende’s chrome-plated “Rhino” in addition to Arun Kumar H.G.’s elephants in “Impinged” and “Dark Rain” constituted a menagerie that responds to the ecological crisis. Gigi Scaria’s stark portrayal of an impending blow in the bronze sculpture “Unavoidable”, Vibha Galhotra’s concrete and ash-brick document of erosion in “Presence of an Absence”, and Riyas Komu’s reminder of Vasco da Gama’s still persistent domination in the bronze “Everything for SAIL” were inconveniently bundled together in one room. Mrinalini Mukherjee’s hemp-hewn “Yakshi” was not only stellar, but also a relief from the overwhelmingly quarried and metallurgical aesthetic. It was aptly lit and located at the deep end, as if in some sanctum sanctorum. Himmat Shah’s bronzes and Manjunath Kamath’s painted terracotta, evocatively drew out organic life-faces twisting or masked, and grafted bodies melding the human and animal, which were unfortunately part of the pathway’s slew of fixtures. For all suggestions of material and formal diversity, the exhibition focused on heft and monumentality, discrediting many of its wonderful constituent works.

Review of Hostile Witness

One only has to look closely to find history lessons everywhere. In Baaraan Ijlal’s painting “Diwan-e-Aam” (Court of the People), a panoramic view of the pavilion at Delhi’s historic Red Fort seemed to hark back to the sepoy mutiny of 1857. With a closer look, one noticed severed heads flying in the air, a congress of eminent politicians, Gandhi spectacles and Ambedkar blue, gunmen and liveried soldiers, bloody bodies tipping into the water, and a menacing pistol-man in suit and tie. Ijlal signposted everything, leaving little to be said, and invited the viewer to scour out every shard of history that she had pieced together in this fantastical realm called Zaman.

The exhibition Hostile Witness, presented by Shrine Empire, showcased large-scale tableaus painted by Ijlal, which were fitted into wooden sculptural frames by her brother, Moonis Ijlal. Elegant, ornate, and astoundingly minute, these paintings tracked a personal archive of sites and memories, while essaying out the perilous drama unfolding in an imagined land. Flung into this realm called Zaman, all that was known was made strange, and stranger. Chaos and fear reigned in the thrall of monsters, and a diminutive crow-woman, Zaagh-e-Zaman, steadily moved from scene to scene, offering help, solace, and sustenance.

The peripatetic career of Zaagh-e-Zaman took us to the cities of Bhopal, Lucknow, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, and their iconic buildings, inflected by Ijlal’s own experiences in these cities. The buildings became the chosen sites of painterly exegesis, their vastness making room for Ijlal’s numerous people, symbological motifs, and a smattering of historical traces. It wasn’t sufficient to simply look, or further, read these paintings; one had to dive in and mine through them. In “Bhopal, Iqbal Maidan”, the building was a fortress peopled by malevolent mercenaries, toting guns and firing into the skies. In the foreground, people thronged the maidan. A row of people held up placards saying ‘no’, while the mercenaries spread out barbed wires. A huddle of women shared oxygen cylinders, trying to breathe as the pistol-man sprayed fumes that spread across the field. Solitary figures bore bags of scissors, seemingly to cut through these laid wires. Zaagh-e-Zaman was among the people, helping them out.

Set out thus, this force of narrative recurred on every canvas. In the midst of a disorder of planetary proportions, a seraphic figure emerged whose gentle and unwavering heroism leavened the ground, and reminded people of the promise of dialogue and an eventual solidarity. The reference to the immediate present did not fade out in any of these works. If in “Bhopal, Iqbal Maidan”, viewers were reminded of it through direct invocations of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, in “Diwan-e-Aam, Delhi” one saw a reflection of large-scale worker migration back to villages with long lines of people trudging along wearily, carrying their belongings on their heads. What struck one was how the cultural history of each city was summoned, and supplanted itself with the narrative. In Bhopal, the gas tragedy at the Union Carbide plant was recalled, and in Lucknow, the imperial sport of quail-fighting. The urban sprawl of Mumbai accommodated within it its distinct signs of working-class life while Calcutta was marked with traces of the region’s once-dominant parliamentary and revolutionary Leftist forces. Like most fables, Ijlal’s works rallied up universal archetypes of good and evil, and employed them in narrating the still unfolding current of history. The litany of symbols she cast swung from the universal to the particular, in service of this very history. Scissors portended unity, masses lifting placards were defiant, and women generously weaved safety nets. Ijlal’s villains were rendered in the image of the violence they imply. Besides the mercenaries, the pistol-faced man, without a doubt, evoked horror. But it was in the skin of his business clothing that his monstrosity was realized. The face of neoliberal onslaught, he was almost louche in his presence, callously surveying the damage wrought by the more militant mercenaries.

It is the attention to detail and the evident labour behind these paintings that made one exhale in wonder. But the fantasy often gave way to the weight of history and seemed too stagey. The figures were too literal, and the narrative's registry of references almost appeared as flat-footed shorthands congregating over the canvas. The tableaus came close to but ultimately grazed past the whimsical enchantment at the heart of a genre such as tilism (magical world), abandoning allegory for virtuous citationality, increasingly common now incontemporary art. This reimagined world felt very much like ours, and almost painstakingly so. Perhaps the most fantastic thing of all was the earnest simplicity of the show’s faith in human virtue.

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