An investigation of the body in public and private places through a South Asian lens is the focus of the Ishara Art Foundation’s upcoming exhibition. Including over 90 works by 16 voices such as that of established artists like Dayanita Singh and Ram Rahman, collectives such as CAMP and Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani, and critical new practices such as Umber Majeed and Halik Abdul Azeez, the exhibition explores the changing social fabric in South Asian cities.
The title might at first be misleading but references the structures around us, which are, in essence man-made bodily structures. “The title is a playful reference to the idea of the body in relation to architecture and really emerged from looking at the work of Ram Rahman,” says Nada Raza, the artistic director of the foundation. “You’ll see the black and white photos of hoardings from Indian streets, particularly images of actual wrestlers and body builders that are enlarged and exaggerated, and represent a sort of masculine ideal.”
Randhir Singh. Sector 12, NOIDA. 2016. From the series Water Towers (2015-2016). Photograph, pigment print on paper. 50.8x40.6cm
Courtesy of Ishara Art Foundation and the artist
Body Building is about dreams—the dreams that lead ordinary people to cities desiring a different future. They want a new job, a high-rise apartment, or to simply live up to certain ideas encapsulated by life in the big city. The works on show underline the “dreams” that fostered the consumer culture in the region from the 1970s to the present and the influence that Gulf cities have held on the South Asian imagination.
“Particularly on aspirations of how we might live, on housing and infrastructural development, and how Dubai has become associated with a certain model for urban living,” says Raza. “It also tries to think back to a time when the metropolis for those seeking their fortunes would have been modern New Delhi or the streets of Bombay or the new capital of Islamabad. While all the works in the show really refer to cities in South Asia, and each body of work by individual artists is quite distinct, it also notes moments of uncanniness and similitude.”
A familiar sight in Gulf cities is the water tower and in the work of Randhir Singh he documents them in New Delhi. “It’s a typological study of an architectural form,” continues Raza. “It’s something audiences here will recognise and relate to. It also appears in photographs by Vasantha Yogananthan, which show ordinary people reimagined as mythical heroes in photographs beautifully hand-tinted by Jaykumar Shankar.”
There’s the documentation of the transformation of Colombo in the work of Abdul Halik Azeez and depictions of new cities being built in the work of Zahra Malkani and Shahana Rajani. “The affinities are already there, we are looking to contemporary practitioners who are telling these stories and looking at urbanization through their eyes in this exhibition of mostly photographic works,” adds Raza.
The photographs on display reveal archival and documentary practices using photography from the 1970s and 1980s. Their slightly faded and hazy resolution refers to another time in the region’s history, referencing the exchange of ideas and aspirations between the Gulf and South Asia and how those ideas resulted in the cities that we have today.
Body Building runs until 7 December 2019. ishara.org
From the Autumn 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art