There is a general consensus that the reinvention of the miniature as a contemporary art form is commendable but its influence on non-Wasli painting artists, who employ photography, installation and sculptural art, is no less amazing. Noor Ali Chagani features among this small crop of artists who reconstruct technical and structural features of miniature as part of their varied practice. His art gained international acclaim when it was first shown in the 2010 group exhibition Beyond the Page: The Miniature as Attitude in Pakistan, at the USC Pacific Asia Museum. His minimalist sculpture, an undulating brick carpet, was fabricated out of hundreds of tiny kiln-fired bricks.
In 2011, he was shortlisted for the Jameel Prize and was a guest resident at the prestigious Rijksakademie ,State Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam, in 2012. During a later residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in 2016-17, he researched the museum’s collections of Mughal miniature paintings, jewellery and armour to create protective body vests configured out of bricks titled ‘The Weight I Carry’, which comment on the male responsibility to build a home. Today, with a career trajectory on an incline, Chagani continues to hold solo shows and participate in group exhibitions at home and abroad.
Working in a reductive vein, Chagani extrudes the miniature grid into three dimensions to construct his tiny brick pieces. The miniaturisation of the brick and its fluent use as an art alphabet has been applied by him as a unit of strength, power and support. His tiny erect structures representing vandalised, graffiti-splattered walls, fortifications guarding private and disputed properties and dividing walls talk about, conflict, discontent and the politics of land acquisition. He sees the brick-to-brick wall-configuring process as the struggle to blend with the masses or make a place for oneself in a system. At the 2016 House of Bricks exhibition — his first solo at the Leila Heller Gallery in New York — Chagani created various foundational structures such as a roof, floors, walls, stairs and pillars, in addition to home utility objects such as a mirror, a console and books. This collection explored the sentiment of belonging and the struggles, efforts and savings that go into building a home.
Noor Ali Chagani reaffirms his fidelity to the brick as his creative device with the addition of concrete and rusty metal as defining elements
The recent show, Grey Spaces at the Koel Gallery reaffirms his fidelity to the brick as his creative device but with the addition of concrete and rusty metal as defining elements. A colour palette largely of cement-plastered shades of greys, with some brick-browns and rust, relate to the title Grey Spaces. The floor exhibits comprise small foundational house-building structures like pillars with protruding beams, roughly cemented plaques, unfinished walls and corrosive metal and concrete tablets. Staged as a construction site scenario, this work speaks of the most preliminary stages of erecting a house and appear as another strand coming out of his concept of building a home.
Manipulation of scale and its visual impact is the distinctive feature of Chagani’s work. It is the nature of much small-scale sculpture to disorient the viewer, inducing a Gulliver-like self-consciousness and a sense of relocating ones perceptions. By focusing the viewer’s attention on the space around it, an artwork’s diminution of scale can lend it greater resonance.
In Chagani’s work, it is not just the use of scale that piques viewer interest but also the fact that it is pregnant with historical and cultural meanings. Such rescaling infuses the reading of his art with original interpretations. He sources miniatures’ traditional frameworks to reflect on society and the issues relevant to him and his immediate environment taking a wholly contemporary stance.
In the amplification of Western contemporary art beauty has suffered a demotion. From its position as a fundamental value in art, it has been reduced to a frivolous issue or, worse, a carrier of tainted ideologies and clichés. But artists, who source the classical miniature, even if it is just its structural form, have an advantage of ready access to a revered art form and its refined aesthetics. It is an advantage to be availed.
Invested with tactility and rhythm Chagani’s woven brick carpets/rugs and body armour are unusual and attractive to look at but the discourse-driven Grey Spaces is low on aesthetics. Its geometric severity and concreteness does not lift the spirits — but then, the Western art market abounds with blue-chip contemporary art that make for good investments but are not necessarily visual delights.
“Grey Spaces” was displayed at the Koel Gallery in Karachi from February 13 to February 23, 2018
Published in Dawn, EOS, March 18th, 2018