Three days after Seher Shah’s show opened in New Delhi, Muslim-owned shops and a mosque in a northern neighborhood of the city were illegally bulldozed by the Hindu-nationalist-BJP-led municipal corporation. This act of politically motivated urban destruction lends an intense charge to an exhibition oriented around architectural forms and archaeological heritage.
Play with negative space and dystopian themes have long been part of Shah’s practice. “Notes from a City Unknown,” 2021, is a series of thirty-two screen prints of monochromatic diagrams accompanied by lyrical annotations seemingly describing the many incarnations of Delhi, from the “City of Quiet Souls” to “City of Bootlickers and Murders.” Reminiscent of Zarina’s woodcuts, the geometric compositions suggest a dialectic of light and shadow, with the city revealed in the gaps. On the opposite wall, the series “Ruined Score,” 2022, features the marks and clefs of musical notation. Dislodged from their bars and swept into dense cobwebs or stray squiggles, these notes make for an unplayable composition.
Single Utopias (Hall of Nations III—New Delhi), 2018, is a large graphite rendering of one of India’s finest examples of modernist architecture. Its demolition in 2017 was interpreted as another attempt by the BJP government to erase the country’s secular-humanist heritage. Argument from Silence, 2019, offers a portfolio of ten photogravure prints of Gandhara sculptures at the Chandigarh Museum, which was set up in 1947 just after partition. The objects are framed in ways that deflate their grandeur and overlaid with oil marks that, like graffiti, draw attention to their interstices. By emphasizing the artifacts’ relationship to their display site, Shah reminds us that they represent not just the subcontinent’s civilization, but its divisions.