In new Dubai exhibition, both artists and animals examine a changing world

The show is running at Ishara Art Foundation until until June 1

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How can two people who live in the same city, even in the same house, occupy two very different spaces? The opening artwork of a new Ishara Art Foundation exhibition titled Sheher, Prakriti, Devi asks this very question.

Buildings and Trees presents a grid of 36 artworks by curator Gauri Gill and her mother, Vinnie. Gill’s photographs depicts structures across Delhi, many of which, with their post-globalist architectural tendencies, can perhaps be seamlessly transplanted anywhere else in the world. The monochrome archival prints are juxtaposed with paintings by Vinnie Gill. The works present blossoming trees found throughout the city and, having been painted with watercolours and pastels on rough paper, provide a sharp textural and colourful contrast to the photographs.

Both Gauri and Vinnie Gill have dedicated a significant part of their careers to studying Delhi within their respective art-forms. While Gill has been exhibiting internationally since 1995, and has participated in some of the world’s most prestigious institutions and arts event, including the Venice Biennale, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Tate Museum, her mother’s practice has been a relatively private one.

“[Vinnie Gill] has been a self taught and practicing artist for the past 40 years, but she’s never had gallery exhibitions or anything like that,” says Sabih Ahmed, head curator at Ishara Art Foundation. “She's a different kind of a practitioner, who's been studying the trees, flowers, birds, shrines of Delhi and wherever else she goes.”

Buildings and Trees clearly displays the diverging themes and practices of Gill and her mother. Their contrasting studies of Delhi, however, becomes all the more interesting when considering they live in the same house.

“Both of them are studying the city,” Ahmed says. “And I think what struck Gauri is how [they’re] seeing two completely different worlds in the same city. For Gauri, the city is [made up of] rigid lines, concrete forms, glass and metal. For her mother, it is generative, abundant, seasonal and colourful.”

This juxtaposition is a pivotal theme throughout Sheher, Prakriti, Devi – and it accounts for not just a human-centric perception of natural and urban spaces. The title of the exhibition is drawn from the Hindustani words for city, nature and deity.

Running until June 1, the exhibition marks Gill’s first major curation. The show draws from themes prevalent in her own practice, specifically from her documentation of urban and semi-urban spaces in India – a practice she began in 2003 and continues today. Depicting contrasting perspectives of lived spaces is a seminal preoccupation within Gill’s work.

However, between the varying mediums and methodologies of the 12 participating artists, Sheher, Prakriti, Devi presents a multifaceted perspective of urban and semi-urban environments, accounting for mystical as well as natural perceptions.

In Pigeon as Metaphor, for instance, Mariam Suhail depicts airborne pigeons across several pencil drawings. Suhail observed pigeons who occupied colonial homes across South Asia, and saw within them a sort of protest or takeover by nature. One drawing in the series, showing a flock of pigeons are taking flight along a long vertical space. The drawing reflects upon the tendency of pigeons to occupy the chute often found across colonial homes in South Asia.

“A lot of pigeons, uninvitedly, occupy these chutes,” Ahmed says. “A lot of times, they remain unclean and just birds inhabit them.”

Suhail’s drawing are displayed perpendicularly to a three panel work by Shefalee Jain. Entitled My locust with round cheeks Why don't you fly away now?, the work draws inspiration from a Hindi short story, where locusts witness a city under devastation. Jain’s pen-drawn panels depict bulldozers clawing at the earth, chimneys belching out smog, there are protesters rallying against the swathes of pollution, as well as construction workers and soldiers. Watching this mosaic of industrial destruction are giant man-faced locusts and flocks of birds.

“Shefalee is also an illustrator for children's books,” Ahmed says. “There's a language of really playing with drawing and illustration. What she's done quite remarkably here is shown an expansive view of the city where you’d have the shrine, factory owners deciding what to do, protesters, but what she’s done interestingly is, based on the different vantage point, the creatures seem bigger than the machines.”

As its title suggests, Sheher, Prakriti, Devi also takes the sacred into account. Hindu deities are found throughout several works. In Das Mahavidya (Ten Great Wisdoms), for instance, Chamba Rumal weavers employ a 17th century embroidery technique to depict each of the 10 tantric goddesses. The minute level of detail, as well as the scenes the silk embroideries depict, are striking. The works are displayed on a glass installation, making it possible to view from the other side and appreciate the nuances of the craft.

“In any weave, you have a lot of frayed threads coming out the back, this has none,” Ahmed says. “This weaving tradition has been developed in such a way that you take a thread and keep looping it, so that there are no frayed threads. It’s a tradition that began in the 17th century and was primarily led by women. It had sort of died out but in 1990s, it was revived again by the Delhi Craft Council.”

Hindu deities and the notion and nature of the sacred comes across several other pieces, such as the works of Emily Avery Yoshiko Crow, who depicts the goddess Tara in watercolours and natural pigments, whereas Chiara Camoni alludes to the mystical and the sacred with her Tent, an artwork that comprises large vegetal prints hanging in the centre of the exhibition space.

It is chiefly through how many of these works are displayed and contrasted between one another that the exhibition succeeds in revealing the kaleidoscopic nature of perspective. The focus and themes presented in Sheher, Prakriti, Devi effortlessly ripple beyond cultural and social boundaries so that as you leave the exhibition, you do so with a heightened awareness of the many eyes – human and non-human – that are watching over the space you are inhabiting.

In this way, Sheher, Prakriti, Devi is an almost transcendental exhibition that provides ample food for thought that you’ll find yourself nibbling at long after your initial visit.

Sheher, Prakriti, Devi is running at Ishara Art Foundation until June 1

Updated: April 24, 2024, 2:31 PM