It can be said that human civilization truly began when the first people began to settle down as communities along the rivers during the Neolithic period. To truly comprehend the amount of change and development that has happened since then is incredible; mostly because we take the advanced states of our current-day settlements, that have stretched beyond just housing structures, for granted. In the process, we also fail to understand how structures and building materials have been shifting to create higher buildings at a fast pace— the outcome is something that is not always appreciated. However, Noor Ali Chagani, through his latest exhibition, provides a space for contemplation on such matters.
Curated by Sara Mahmood at Canvas Gallery, Chagani’s newest solo display titled, How Little I Understand about Me follows the trajectory of his previous oeuvre; this time bringing forth new and stimulating developments. Chagani has become synonymous with the intriguing three-dimensional small-scale pieces he creates through the amalgamation of his training in miniature painting and sculpture. The title itself is titillating, wanting the viewer to go into the exhibition space prepared to dig deeper into the innate and the subliminal. Looking at the sculptures makes it clear that there is a broader story, one that goes beyond Chagani’s initial narrative.
As a Lahore based artist, the fiery red of terracotta brick (a prominent building tool used in the city) has long inspired the miniature structures of Chagani. The artist creates miniaturized versions of walls, pillars and a variety of other structural and architectural elements out of existent building material. However, by substantially scaling down a sight that is otherwise common in the metropolis and then placing it within the white walls of a gallery space, the artist probes the viewers to give these objects another look, one that requires more time and effort. The stature of these sculptures also allows the audience to dominate the conversation, as they tower over these otherwise massive objects; in turn, creating a new dialogue— one that is nuanced with grief and change.
Throughout the exhibition the viewer can notice a striking shift from the enticing red hue of the familiar terracotta brick to the drab gray of cement. The artist explains that this comes as a reflection of the plummeting state of Lahore’s architectural feat. Many contemporary construction projects have opted out of working with terracotta brick to replace it with concrete and cement. In turn, the spirit of the city, which for decades was visualized by the historic ruddy buildings, has faded into monotonal grays.
Chagani furthers his visuals by adapting his constructed sculptures to fit into picture frames. In It Was Not Outside But Within series two oval-shaped portrait frames encompass brick and cement. Ornamented with golden detail, the frames mount the brick and cemented wall, making them more than just construction material; there is an acceptance of transition and evolution. While the first frame is completely made of red brick, the second surrounds a wall where most of the red brick has been replaced by cement. While this aligns with the artist’s observation of Lahore, it also creates a space of self reflection. Looking into the two frames is like looking at our own personal journeys; perhaps a joyous past was eventually forced into the harsh gray reality of our present lives.
However, a gray reality may not always signify something negative. In Reminiscence the cemented frames though intact, display prominent cracks that spread across each sculpture. At first, there appears to be a loss in the aesthetic of each piece as all lack the perfection expected of an artwork, but soon another layer reveals itself. This one, however, is not traditionally beautiful; it appears to be truthful and that in itself is a new kind of beauty. The works stand, therefore, as metaphors of the beauty of truths and imperfections; each crack is completely distinct, there-in making each frame unique. This can be understood as a representation of anything in life, be it people or buildings; true beauty lies in embracing peculiarities and understanding that you are complete and perfect because of them.
Chagani goes on a journey with his latest works, one that begins with the outward, but ends with personal reflection. He invites his audience to join along. As the beauty of the red dissipates with each piece, the artist unfolds the unattractive monotony of reality. This can be seen as an act of pragmatism as we are no longer distracted by facades. Instead, we can now clearly look at the present reality of the concrete jungles we live in, as well as, the personal individual realities we all must face on our own. His work has the ability to be direct, but also invite new personal interpretations, and this, as a result, envelopes the viewer in ways they would not expect.
‘How little I understand about me,’ was a solo exhibition by Noor Ali Chagani at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, which took place from 27- 30th December 2021.