One of the goals of ancient science of alchemy was to purify, mature and perfect certain materials—the transmutation of base metals. Everything in the universe was thought to be made up of the four elements namely., earth, fire, wind, water, and it was thus inferred that the rearrangement of the exact amounts of these elements would transform one into the other as all components were already present. We now know this conception doesn’t have much basis as fact, but it does have certain metaphorical, spiritual and philosophical implications pertaining to self-reflection, personal growth and the perfecting of the human body and soul.
These musings are provoked as one reads through the quote by John Michell from his book The Dimensions of Paradise: Sacred Geometry, Ancient Science, and the Heavenly Order on Earth which is presented to contextualize a recent exhibition held at Koel Gallery, modestly titled Copper Steel Iron Silver 1080 666, and featuring metal based sculptural artworks. The enigmatic quote invokes concepts of sacred geometry, speaking of the connotations of the numbers 1080 and 666 in ancient natural sciences. While representing the dichotomous receptive lunar and the positive solar forces respectively, the two numbers together create the golden ratio of 1:1.62 and are at the center of the alchemical formula and “also served to combine in harmony all the correspondences of those forces on every level of creation.”1
Noorjehan Bilgrami, who organized the show, relates Michell’s passage to alchemy and the fusion of metal and other materials; and meant for it to motivate the participating artists to push their practices further, explore the limits of the medium and experiment with new possibilities. For this purpose, Bilgrami chose multidisciplinary practitioners evidenced by the inclusion of Arshad Faruqi and André C. Meyerhans, who are architects and designers, and Zohra Rahman, who is a jewelry designer. It is an interesting lens to view the works through, considering that the role of an artist is perhaps akin to that of an alchemist, fusing elements and transforming materials both physically and metaphysically working within certain harmonies and proportions.
I find the works of Affan Baghpati most pertinent within this framework, where objects are transported through time and transformed through hybridization to acquire new meanings and purposes, losing their original functionality for the sake of form. Unlike the reshaping of raw metal in the rest of the works, here we see preexisting found objects matured into a different version of themselves dictated by the artist’s own vision. These relics of the past are reborn, their narratives now speaking to the present moment.
In Keep Calm And Carry On we see a Ken doll’s head attached to what seems like an intricately adorned vintage container, its mouth and nose covered with a metal mask fashioned possibly from the same object— a reference to our new reality. There is a dark humor in this piece, the humanoid object hangs helplessly, constricted and resigned to its new normal. Lullaby is more intriguing, with a taxidermy rooster with a baby doll’s head perched atop an antique hookah, nature’s alarm clock put to sleep and perpetually silenced by an emblem of juvenility and consumer cultural.
Transformation also seems to be a narrative in the work of Nurayah Sheikh Nabi, but more in concept rather than material. Her floor-to-ceiling sculpture is accompanied by a poetic passage that seems to speak of the female experience in a male dominated world, vying for equal footing and negotiating her space with those that react in the offensive. Dragon dance; a repositioning in dispersal itself is a circular womb-like vessel, a very feminine shape, from which fly out delicate little dragonflies that scatter above and below. The title of the piece invokes the dance of adversaries, or perhaps a mating ritual? According to the artist, the piece represents the various roles a woman plays in life. The dragonfly itself is a symbol of transformation, perhaps from the “weightage of the values she embodies, handed to her, within her and through her” 2 and through an “ongoing learning path, that being her life.”3
Munawar Ali Syed’s series of sculptures cast in aluminum build upon his ongoing dialogue about class disparities and access to (or dearth of) knowledge and education in our society. The black buffalos with their heads trapped in a nameless book seem to challenge our notions of education and the current educational system, rote learning facts and figures without creating wisdom, attempting to make us more intelligent and refined, yet turning us blind, deaf and mute instead, like a herd of cattle. “It is a metaphor for knowledge that cannot be accessed because of what we have consciously denied ourselves. Knowledge devoid of an intellectual quest is replaced by consumption of the material. Materialistic satisfaction is more important than the soul,” says Syed about his work.
In Noor Ali Chagani’s work we see a section of a half-constructed wall, iron rods sticking out of a cemented slab in a grid, much like we have seen at many construction sites. In the context of this show, it makes one think of our built spaces, what holds them together and the precisions with which the ratios are used to create a perfect harmony of materials. Metal pervades all levels of the built environment, our cities’ covertly iron structures transformed from one stage to the next until they can serve certain functions. This work becomes one unit of the structure.
Looking back at the quote by Michel, one can see the success of certain works in channeling its spirit, while the same cannot be said of all works. While some artists have definitely acted as the alchemist, transmutating material and by experimenting and reflecting on the mind, body and soul to go beyond the basic and the familiar, others have not quite achieved this. Thus, diffusing the relevance of the show’s premise. The show succeeds in adding extra layers to an otherwise upfront concept of material exploration so that the viewer may dig a little deeper, reflect, and excavate meanings beyond the obvious (and intended) and find reasons for the work to not just exist but exist within the premise of the show.
“Copper Steel Iron Silver 1080 666” was showcased at Koel Gallery from Tuesday 13th July, 2021 till Wednesday 28th July, 2021.
Title image: Keep Calm And Carry On. Affan Baghpati, Assemblage: copper and brass alloy, beads, yinyl Ken Doll. Size: Variable, 2021
- John Michell, The Dimensions of Paradise: Sacred Geometry, Ancient Science, and the Heavenly Order on Earth, Published January 7th 2008 by Inner Traditions (first published 1971), taken from the excerpt used as an introduction to the show in the gallery and the e-catalogue
- Nuraya Sheikh Nabi, artist’s statement, e-catalogue of “Copper Steel Iron Silver 1080 666”, Koel Gallery.