EXHIBITION: ODE TO THE DISAPPEARING CITY

Published January 16, 2022
Is It Beautiful Enough?
Is It Beautiful Enough?

Several artists from the developing world, particularly the global South, favour addressing urbanisation and its human and environmental consequences in their work — land reclamation, vertical and horizontal expansions, mega architecture, transport and housing scheme projects.

These incentivised activities adversely affect the climate and local populations. They disturb the sea line, deplete natural resources, push the flora and fauna to the risk of extinction and dislocate vulnerable local communities.

Lahore, known for its quaint architecture and vast green spaces, is undergoing a rapid cosmetic transformation, under the guise of replicating Western metropolises such as London or New York. High-rise buildings cast a shadow over the city’s former image. Cheaper and readily available resources such as concrete, fibre and glass increasingly eclipse the iconic red-brick façades.

Silent Takeover
Silent Takeover

Projects around road infrastructure and public transport displace settled inhabitants to claim space and endanger various heritage architecture. Such plans often compromise human movement, ignore access for underprivileged communities and annex natural environments, resulting in lasting damage to the climate, made worse by the swelling population.

In a recently concluded solo exhibition at the Canvas Gallery titled, ‘How Little I Understand About Me’, Noor Ali Chagani shares his observations of the ongoing change in Lahore. The show, curated by ceramic artist and curator Sarah Mahmood, comprises sculptures made from concrete and scaled-down terracotta bricks — a sight ubiquitous in Punjab because of the locally sourced clay.

Noor Ali Chagani captures the transforming architectural landscape of Lahore

Chagani was born and raised in Karachi. He currently resides in Lahore, where he also formally trained in miniature painting. He draws his inspiration from his lived and relocated experiences and the constantly changing architectural backdrop of his surroundings. Consequently, the city awarded the artist the red brick as a medium to work with, to which he applied his understanding of miniature in a three-dimensional language.

For Chagani, the brick manifests a metaphor for shelter, strength, and home — traits that our society expects men to strive for. Chagani drastically shrunk the size of those bricks, turning them into pixels. He rearranges the bricks to reminisce about the facades of the built environment he witnessed most of his adult life.

Embedded Imprint
Embedded Imprint

Chagani has recently introduced concrete in his sculptures. He selectively strips his pieces of the distinct red colour and excavates the bricks to expose the underlying tones of murky grey concrete slabs. The material seemingly emerges from beneath, taking over the entire frame and abrading every terracotta hue it encounters.

The familiar sight of concrete’s burgeoning rise as a material for construction discernibly echoes from his pieces. Chagani also uses corroded metal plates, iron rods and black acrylic paint to resemble asphalt — other common materials used in post-modern construction. The uneven and dull facades are not pristine. They look damaged and weathered. He draws from actual sights of neglectful frameworks that are dismally executed and seldom appreciated for their aesthetic.

The transformation is also a symbolic reflection of the artist and ourselves. We evolve every day and continually shed our former selves for personal growth. It is almost as if the city has an introspective consciousness, like humans. It metamorphoses, similar to our psychological changes driven by awareness of self and history. Perhaps the self-aware artist is projecting his personal growth on his artworks and aligning his state of mind with the evolving nature of his adopted hometown.

Poeticising the city’s former image, he makes us recognise the charm we risk losing by shunning the materials that built the original landscape. This sentiment becomes more apparent through the picture frames that mount some of his pieces. Chagani cast a few of these frames entirely from concrete. They are cracked and decrepit.

Nude
Nude

Contrarily, he enhances those pieces with red bricks still prominent with metallic gold frames. The polarity between the seemingly gloomy and neglected concrete frames and the celebratory and reverentially framed terracotta pieces is evident.

Chagani captures moments in action, preserving them for future remembrance before they disappear entirely from existence. These works are sequential portraits of a mutating city — what it once was and may become. They are soulful reminders of the places — homes and neighbourhoods — demolished from existence for urban development.

Chagani perfectly encapsulates this poignant ode in the piece, Desire. Situated in the gallery to be viewed last, the work depicts a rosary bead made entirely from bits of terracotta and concrete. Hope and pray is all Chagani can do. He wants us to join him in counting prayers, ensuring that we leave with the image and spirit of a city that he dearly cherishes, instilled in memory.

Emanating from his pieces is the imprint of the distinctive cultural aesthetic that may be fading in the real world, but which will remain unforgotten in our minds.

‘How Little I Understand About Me’ was displayed at the Canvas Gallery in Karachi from December 27 to December 30, 2021

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 16th, 2022

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