House of resilience
In a garden of defiant women
Poetry and bodies against a brutal state
—Note: City of the Garden of Falcons
These words are written on a screen print. There is an abstract image in black and white. This artwork is a memory of the 2019-2020 protests at Shaheen Bagh, a neighbourhood in South Delhi. Led by women who were protecting their democratic right to exist, the protests shook the very core of democratic discourse in the country. This memory is preserved in a memoriography titled ‘Notes from a City Unknown’ by artist Seher Shah.
These ‘notes’ were written between 2014 and 2021 when Shah lived in Delhi. The memoriography is a record of her time in the city and binds places both real and imagined. Thirty-two such varied memories—screen prints juxtaposed with text—have traversed from Delhi to Kochi.
The theme for this Biennale is ‘In Our Veins Flow Ink and Fire’. In her concept note, curator Shubigi Rao writes: “Even the most solitary of journeys is not one of isolation, but drinks deeply from that common wellspring of collective knowledge and ideas.” Shah’s screen prints add to this wellspring of collective knowledge and become the process of memory creation that is eternal, irrespective of the morphing landscape in which it is born.
In ‘Notes from a City Unknown’, each composition on paper is born out of a calculated fusion between writing and architectural forms of collected moments. “At the core of the notes are questions of home and belonging, and how we navigate the city with our bodies through constellations that bind or erase,” Shah says.
The artist tries to fuse language, form and logic that leave the viewer drawn to each of the stories playing out through the prints while being crucially aware of being part of a narrative that isn’t their own. The alienation is key to help the audience strip the images of preconceived meanings and try to find new meaning in old images–unfamiliar images of a familiar city.
Shah, who has been working with printmaking, poetry, sculpture and form for over two decades, was born in 1975 and has spent some of her formative years growing up in some of the biggest modern day megapolises—London, Brussels and New York.
The artist moved to Delhi in 2013 when the country was undergoing significant ideological, political and social transformation. The changes around her impacted her art which began to focus on “relationships between interiority and architectural spaces”. She explores the “poetics and fractures” through which one views the architectural landscape around them, be it through the lens of the historical and the intimate.
‘Notes from a City Unknown’ develops on the same tonality and questions the political and juridical aspects of the “polis” by dissecting form with text, shadows with greys, to create still-life portraits of a city in motion—to create a moment of pause in the seemingly historic bustle.
In cities, local contiguities compete with kinship as the drivers of politics. We help our neighbours and try to be good citizens. These acts of civic duty are not necessary to take the bloodline forth but instead substantiate belief in the function of political activity as serving communities rather than kin. Seen in that sense, cities revolutionised the way humans thought and allowed for “civilisation” to flourish from the pre-city primitive society.
‘Notes from a City Unknown’ breaks down these civilisational parlances into micro-moments of pain, fear, anger and solidarity. It is as much personal as political. Many of the notes that make up the piece are based on the artists’ own questions about home and belonging in the region. “The nightmares from our past continue to speak to our present and question citizenship, belonging and identity of minorities,” she says.
The dark undertones of communal majoritarianism and the menace of lurking vicissitudes colour the black-and-white prints and the notes.
Shah had been writing small notes on the unfinished capital and its unfinished fragments, fleeting moments, or observations of the historic mobilisations of minority communities long before she merged her words with form. “I do not know what drove me to write, but I have questioned what is the measure of violence in erasing architecture, language and history. How do cities speak to us? And how memory acts as resistance in defiance of a brutal state,” she says.
The ominous threat of a ‘brutal’ police state and spatial majoritarianism flows through the narrative of the reclusive Shah’s notes, sometimes ostentatiously, sometimes as a quiet hum in the background. “Set against the backdrop of a brutal nationalism and pervasive surveillance”, Shah states that these notes are a record of her time “in a city both distant and familiar”.
In her 2014 paper ‘Memoriography: The Anarchival Impulse’, researcher Gitanjali Pyndiah had worked extensively on “anarchives” created by some artists which are “small, unofficial, anti-monumental memory practices”. Shah’s work is perhaps such an anarchivistic memoriography, a narration of the fragments. “Fragments from the past are continually within our present orbits, whether visible or unseen. Timeless, turbulent and, at times, violent. I feel many of us live with the past, and the traces of those that came before us as we navigate our lives,” Shah says.
Like Pyndiah’s paper that looked at “remembering and the retelling” as a “process of becoming”, Shah’s notes become her memories while also becoming part of collective post-memory and physical history. In Shah’s words—‘As the sun burns skin and memory clean/the Gulmohar returns’.
(This appeared in the print edition as "CITIES Speak to Us")