BY Allie Biswas in Profiles | 24 AUG 21

Lubna Chowdhary's Reinvention of Form

Allie Biswas visits artist Lubna Chowdhary to discuss sculpture, ceramics and fear of empty space ahead of a solo exhibition at PEER, London, opening in September 2021

BY Allie Biswas in Profiles | 24 AUG 21

The grey and white monochrome sculptures that Lubna Chowdhary shows me when I visit her home in southwest London are rarities in an artistic practice that has consistently used a vibrant colour palette. Displayed on a large trestle table, amongst ceramic works and gouache paintings, Blueprint (2017) and Grey Area (2021) both consist of numerous, free-standing clay objects, each about the size of a hand, which have been assembled in a group. Chowdhary tells me she developed them as maquettes for thinking about ‘micro architecture – small-scale built objects that you can inhabit’. Featuring medieval forts alongside futuristic urban structures, these intricate sculptural landscapes evoke buildings and furniture from disparate realms, although the pared-down forms are united in their patterned surfaces and embellished contours.

‘As ornamentation is at the heart of these works, keeping them white allowed for a clearer experience of such details,’ Chowdhary explains. In establishing her ideas in relation to what she considers the reinvention of form, these models led to the artist’s first sculptures in wood, which will be shown in a forthcoming exhibition at PEER Gallery, London, in September, before featuring in a larger survey of the artist’s work next year at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

multicoloured ceramics and artworks in studio
Lubna Chowdhary, Certain Times, 2021, ceramic, 300 x 60 x 1cm. Photograph: Alberto Balazs. Copyright: the artist

Constructed from uncoated oak and sycamore, the sculptures derive from Chowdhary’s research into furniture produced in Vishakhapatnam, India, during British colonial rule, which culminated in hybrid structures where, as the artist notes, something had been lost in translation during these points of cultural exchange. Echoing the shapes of daybeds and palanquins, along with their substantial scale, Chowdhary’s variations on these objects could be understood as the centrepiece of an exhibition that, in many ways, points to the importance of materiality in her practice. As with the artist’s other sculptural works, this new series exists between the handmade and the machine-generated, relying on a fabrication process that combines computer-programmed manufacturing with traditional woodworking techniques.

Other than wood, Chowdhary experimented with readymade tubing for the first time, resulting in compact forms that will be hung on the gallery wall. ‘I’ve always been interested in modularity’, she explains, ‘and in adapting industrial materials.’ A sculpture will be created with the rope, instilling a three-dimensional quality to what Chowdhary otherwise likens to a geometric drawing. Similarly, the artist has conceived the silver insulation as an installation reminiscent of decorative tropes seen in Islamic architecture.

In describing her use of malleable fabrics, Chowdhary raises the idea of horror vacui – or fear of empty space – which has occupied her since studying ceramics at the Royal College of Art in the early 1990s. Although captivated by the practice, the European modernist aesthetic that prevailed through her teachers was antithetical to Chowdhary’s objectives. ‘The idea of filling space was an alternative to what was being prescribed to me as an ideal,’ she recalls. Bypassing the conventional vessels that she was encouraged to pursue, Chowdhary sourced from material cultures and the built environment, merging her reference points to make, in her words, ‘objects that looked like they came from another world’.

Colourful woodwork and sculpture in studio
Lubna Chowdhary, Code 31, 2021, painting, 30 x 25cm. Photograph: Alberto Balazs. Copyright: the artist

Chowdhary’s seminal installation, Metropolis (1991–2019), is the earliest example in the artist’s practice of her exploration of a rich variety of overlapping sources. Comprising more than 1,000 small, handcrafted, clay sculptures extending across the floor, the monumental work draws on forms that are both vernacular and ubiquitous, based on memories of artifacts and cities around the world. 

This capacity for oscillating between different cultures has allowed Chowdhary to resist binaries, whether in relation to matters of excess and restraint, object and image, or geographical influence. ‘The work is always about trying to describe that in-between position,’ she explains. ‘I’m looking to find a middle ground.’ Chowdhary has likened her stance to the linguistic practice of code-switching (the theme of her exhibition at Jhaveri Contemporary earlier this year), in which a speaker alternates between two or more languages during the course of a single conversation. Elaborating on the act of cultural integration, the PEER presentation takes its title, ‘Erratics’, from the geological phenomenon whereby rocks are transported to a new context through glacial flows, while maintaining their material integrity.

'Lubna Chowdhary: Erratics' is on view at PEER Gallery, London, from 10 September until 20 November.

Thumbnail: Portrait of Lubna Chowdhary. Photograph: Peter Kelleher 

Main image: Image of Lubna Chowdhary's studio, 2021. Photograph: Alberto Balazs 

Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She co-edited The Soul of a Nation Reader: Writings by and about Black American Artists, 1960-1980 with Mark Godfrey, published in June 2021. She is based in London, UK.