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Seher Shah

Pakistani-American Contemporary Artist
Born 1975, Karachi, Pakistan
Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York

Seher Shah works with monochrome, using both painting and architectural forms. Her hybridised cityscapes are a comment on the domination imposed by brutalist architecture on social life. Shah’s use of archival images, geometric forms and religious symbols as a permutation of personal nostalgia and spatial memory alters the nationalist and religious framework of viewing art works.

Education

1998

Bachelor of Architecture, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, Rhode Island, USA

1993

Fiorella LaGuardia, High School of the Arts and Performing Arts, New York

 

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LIFE AND WORK

UNDERSTANDING Seher Shah

Landscapes are cartographed with personal nostalgia and spatial memory

Shah makes use of symbols associated with religions, the cross and the crescent being the key icons noticeable in her works. She then strips these off their religious affiliations and puts them all on the same plane. The black cubes seen in her drawings refer to the Kaaba, the holy stone for Islam. But using the principles of physics (Shah acknowledges in an interview that she believes in the process of physical transformation), that things deconstruct only to reconstruct once again, she draws the process of the cube transmuting into the cross after it is spliced open. She chooses certain motifs based on her own personal experiences, her association with the symbols, her interaction with the courtyard space and later she dribbles the notions of public and private.

Shah’s Interior Courtyard Drawings, 2006, vividly engages with her views about the intersection of the private and the public; the landscape here is created by the tombs (extremely private), but these tombs are placed amidst the courtyard (a public space).

Seher Shah, Interior Courtyard I, 2006, graphite on paper, 50 x 120”.

The architectural drawings show precision and symmetry and a play with perspectives

With a cursory glance, her recent works with Brutalist architecture look like futurist buildings often associated with sci-fi novels and films—monochromatic, highly rigid and symmetrical and lacking any show of sensitivity of the creator. However, a closer look would allow the viewer to realise that behind the simple reductive components of her “drawings” (Shah refers to her works as that); the wall, grid, threshold, block, courtyard, is the idea of perspectives. The fact that one object can be viewed from different facets is captured very well in the sharp breaks and rigidity of the buildings. Her seminal work Capitol Complex, 2012, is replete with this idea of perspectival viewing of one object—one part of the building is razed off and another is forcefully introduced in its space. Often an erasure of a part is followed by a close focus on one of the remaining.

Seher Shah, Capitol Complex, 2012, collage on paper, 11 x 14”.

Public memory and visual archives operate the frames of Shah's works

Shah’s works repeatedly traverses the worlds of architecture, history and personal memory. In Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force, 2009, she uses negatives of the archived photographs of a fairground hosting a 1903 Delhi Durbar, a ceremonial occasion to Crown Prince Edward VII of England and reframes those with her own hand drawn contemporary monuments to depict the spaces, both inside and outside the ceremony. The juxtaposition of the old and new ties together as Bakirathi Mani suggests,...memories of the British Empire in South Asia with the domestic expansion of empire in the United States... this perversion of the archival photograph sutures the divide between a colonial past and postcolonial present and fractures iconic topographies of the Indian subcontinent and the United States . The looming presence of violence and the perpetuation of oppressive structures is seen outlined in the silhouettes of the British Viceroy, his army, and memorials to war alongside Shah’s own drawings of skyscrapers, pillars, and cenotaphs covered by the American flag.

Seher Shah, Geometric Landscapes and the Spectacle of Force, 2009, archival giclee print, 58 x 120”.

Landscape-object dynamics in architecture is a referential point

The starting point of Seher Shah’s works is 20th century modernist and Brutalist architecture especially that of Le Corbusier’s Unite de Habitation(Housing Project) as a utopian city living designs. About her photo collages, Capitol Complex, 2012, in which she takes images of Chandigarh, an Indian city with utopian architecture designed by Le Corbusier—and slices them into inorganic abstract strips. Shah says,“The role of the architect, the use of scale, and the contradictory principles inherent in these plans are a few of the reasons I was attracted to the two projects. Aside from the aesthetics of the architecture itself, it is the ambiguous relationship between landscape and object that I am interested in within Brutalist architecture

Seher Shah, Capitol Complex, 2012, collage on paper, 11 x 14 inches each, 28 x 36 cm

Shah's methodology steers around both traditional and modern

Seher Shah makes use of public libraries, archives especially British public archives to gather photographs and negatives for her major collage works, like Ornamental Age, 2009, and views the photographs using lantern slides. She acknowledges the integral part played by digitization in easing and adding newer dimensions to her work. The digital process helps in, as Shah remarks...cutting...piecing together, creating newer intersections and dialogues between drawings and photographs . When creating her drawings, she physically sits on her large scale sheets as she believes in the organic relationship between the artist and her piece of art work, adding to the process when the artist’s body moves over the drawing and her arms reach out to create certain dimensions on paper. She uses the simple medium of graphite on paper as she says, “The purity of graphite on two-dimensional surfaces allows for many references, oppositional and parallel to inhabit the same plane”, and it is the different lead weights that create the different shades of black on white paper.

Seher Shah, Ornamental Age series, 2009, archival giclee prints, 30 x 20”.

Bibliography