May 22, 2011

The Wall Project: High Street, Oxford

In this second installment of The Wall Project, where I feature the walls that I have photographed in a bid to understand the canvases they unwittingly become, I present this particular wall that I spotted at High Street, Oxford.

During the time I pursued my Masters there, I remember christening one particular tree on the High Street as The Cherry Blossom tree; of course, there were numerous cherry trees across Oxford but I happened to see this one first and found it deserving of the rather grand capital initials. Having grown up in Oman and been largely familiar with cherry blossom trees only through the famous cherry blossom spring-time pictures in Japan, I was simply in thrall of the tree and must have several images of the tree in full bloom in my possession.

This picture was taken several years after though when I had gone to attend my graduation ceremony at Oxford; the wall happens to face the tree, still in full leaf of the summer. I was there in late September, a couple weeks before the term began and was curious as to what the Horatio represented. Hamlet's friend? Sure, there is also an image of a man playing a musical instrument stenciled below the Horatio, prompting me to wonder if it was a clever marketing tool for a musical event: marketing graffiti? Whatever it was, I cannot help but also think of the tree that stands in its vicinity on seeing this picture: its leafy branches shadow-patterning the walls, the tree invisible and yet not.

May 19, 2011

April Gornik: Fresh Light

April Gornik, Fresh Light, 1987, Oil on linen

American artist, April Gornik's painting, Fresh Light was probably the first individual painting that I ever appreciated. Up till then, I had been admiring of art in general and specific artists and their body of work, the Impressionists, for example. However, while on a trip to United States when I was thirteen, a cousin aunt gifted me a book about art, an introduction to art, rather, and I discovered the painting in that book.

I had never previously heard of the artist, April Gornik; yet, the painting thoroughly enchanted me as soon as I saw it. Having grown up and lived in the Gulf for so long, where the sky is inevitably cerulean-blue every day and the landscape generally stark, there is something about this painting that reminds me of the euphoria that would fill me whenever the skies turned gray and the air smelt of the promise of rain. In this painting, it appears that it is invisibly and quietly raining, the smells and sounds accompanying rain fall wafting up from the painting. You can almost hear the quiet, distant rumble of thunder and feel beads of water speckling the backs of your hands. For me, this painting would be synonymous with serenity.

Having serendipitously found this place, one would be truly reluctant to leave it.

Image courtesy April Gornik

May 14, 2011

Corinne Martin: Boutiques of Art

I recently got the opportunity to discover and interview the Saudi Arabia based artist, Corinne Martin through a piece I did for Khaleejesque.

I loved her retro-esque paintings of popular and iconic symbols of Arab pop culture. Having grown up in the Gulf myself, she depicts a world of images that I have more or less accepted as part of the visual scenery surrounding me - the familiar imagery of say, Miranda or Pepsi conveyed in the Arabic script, for example. The colors of her works are undeniably mint fresh and yet there was also this inescapable feel of vintage posters and labels, the colors having that hyper-real bleached quality. It makes you feel nostalgic - and yet, simultaneously able to re-live that past in the present.

One of my favorites was the Miranda with Border painting below:

Apart from exhibiting in galleries, Corinne's work is also displayed in boutiques such as Boutique DNA in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; it's an alternative to traditional exhibition spaces for art and I am always fascinated as to what happens to art when it's placed in spaces ostensibly designed for another purpose, away from the blank, white gallery space, for example. In the images below, the boutique itself is like a museum, judging from the meticulousness with which the items have been placed and arranged; the selection of the items and their arrangement are definitely not arbitrary and it seems that they are performing in a sense, vital, compelling stories hidden in them and which will only be uncovered when you look more closely. The addition of the paintings adds a further dynamic layer to the retail space: functioning as stand-alone pieces as well as engaging with the items in this boutique of a museum.

All images courtesy Corinne Martin

May 5, 2011

Camille Zakharia: Preserving Vanishing Cities within Cities

I have always nurtured a keen interest in architecture of the past; what essentially intrigues me is the fact that their inhabitants have long come and gone and yet, the buildings still continue to exist, a visual testament to the aesthetic trends and beliefs of the time and containing myriad unheard narratives within them. Even then, it is not as much as the painstakingly restored heritage buildings that catch my attention as ones in a state of ruin, their decaying appearance further contributing towards the drama of age and history that envelops them.

Given my abiding love for the old, my inclination towards urban architecture and photography may be surprising given that urban spaces are synonymous with modernity. Yet, even there, I gravitate towards older, static areas still existing within the dynamic city: apartment blocks in decline, anachronistic corner shops in times of glossy malls, and walls which have seen many a poster, graffiti scribble, and paint dribble upon their surface in their time. There is a particular atmosphere to such areas that individuates them from the rest in the city: the many cities within a city.

A year ago, when covering the exhibition, Kan Ya Ma Kan (Once Upon a Time) for Gulf News, I was able to meet the acclaimed Bahrain-based Lebanese photographer, Camille Zakharia, who has exhibited at Victoria and Albert Museum, London and participated in the Venice Biennial,to cite a few of his accomplishments. His website will reveal his impressive body of work and his multiple areas of interest; however, in context to Kan Ya Ma Kan and his urban photography displayed there, what interested me was the way he perceived and navigated the urban landscapes surrounding him (I must say here that I was fortunate enough to hear him share the back-stories behind the photographs). A city is undoubtedly an evolving being and he exactingly pinpoints the intersection of the old and new through searing images such as the one of newly razed buildings: the rooms were nonetheless still present with intact jarringly pastel-hued walls. The ceilings were long gone though, the sky having become their substitute instead.

I also admired the meticulous detail with which he photographed the interiors of this particular landscape, almost akin to the diligence that of an anthropologist documenting a culture that is in danger of extinction along with its habitat; like poetry seeks to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary and illumine its many facets, I believe that Mr. Zakharia does just the same with his photography narratives of Gulf urbanscapes.

Take this image, Interior of Shop - Qatar, above, which is verily a portrait of the shop inhabitant's head-space: the black and white portrait (the added interest of the photographer photographing a photograph),the presence of calendars, and objects of religious significance. The cracks in the wall, the wires, and the pipes further contribute towards us imagining as to what the entire shop looks like. In this day of plastic-perfect,assembly-line and therefore, anonymous mall shops, shops such as these are as much retail as personal spaces, thus becoming valuable repositories of personal stories. What will happen to those stories if the shops disappear?

Mr Zakharia's photography of Gulf urbanscapes thus functions as a means to preserve these personal spaces and stories in a time when those landscapes rapidly changing. The sights surrounding us that we take for granted are in danger of disappearance; there is no permanent reality anymore, it seems, everything existing in a state of improvisation. In fact, our own memories are nebulous, quickly accepting the new status quo: it's up to technology such as photography to prove even our own memories correct.

Image provided with the kind permission of Mr Camille Zakharia

May 1, 2011

Delhi 6 - The Bell Tree

I had been eagerly anticipating Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 after the cinematic maelstrom that had been Rang de Basanti. The reference to ‘6’ in the film title is to the postal code of Old Delhi, where the film was set and I looked forward to seeing what Mehra would make of the story possibilities contained with contemporary Old Delhi. The trailers looked promising and A R Rahman’s music was superlative, especially the playful Masakali and the haunting Maula Mere Maula. Yet, I experienced a lingering disappointment and even bewilderment as the film credits concluded with the film's eccentric coterie of characters (indeed, the characters do much to transfuse much needed life into film) peering into film's all important symbol of the mirror. Perhaps, the dissection of the film awaits another post.

In the meantime, what with this blog dealing with all things visual, there is lots to take away from Delhi 6 on that front: the vivid portrayal of the mohalla (neighborhood) ethos, the courtyarded old homes (yes, including havelis), mohalla inhabitants' interactions on the roofs, the roofs being crucial spaces of play and action in the film, temples, mosques, and dargahs, and jalebi shops and Ram Leela performances, and more.

This was Sonam Kapoor's second venture post Saawariya, where Anuradha Vakil had dressed her in a more subtly dramatic interpretation of traditional Indian wear, keeping in tune with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's operatic sensibilities; here, Anamika Khanna dons the costume designer's hat and I loved Sonam's earthy-hued outfits, especially the kurta she wears in opening shots of Masakali ** (plus, Abhishek's preppy look suited him a lot better here than his earlier sartorial outings as in Dhoom 2, for example).

Without giving away too many details, there is also that wonderful sequence in the film where characters and haunts of Old Delhi suddenly arrive in and colonise Times Square in New York, telling us of the extent to which spaces or more specifically, spaces we call homes can blur in our minds without us even realising it. The French writer, Anais Nin's quote (which happens to be one of my favorites) perhaps best encapsulates this: 'We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.'

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one depicting a bell tree, where you tie a bell around the branch to have your wish fulfilled; as one can see above in the picture, the tree is weighted down with bunches of bells. It reminded me of the fascinating concept of tree shrines in India (although by no means restricted to merely India for it appears to be a global phenomenon) and this bell tree in particular inspired this short story of mine.

** Sonam Kapoor stars in another film set in Delhi, Aisha (2010), which is a radically different cultural universe to that of Delhi 6's Old Delhi - and as evidenced by Sonam's Blair from Gossip Girl meets vintage wardrobe in the film.

Image courtesy Bollywood Hungama