Global design histories and contemporary art practice (2): Lubna Chowdhary in residence at the V&A

September 15, 2017
Lubna Chowdhary in her V&A studio, © Penny Wincer

Ceramic artist Lubna Chowdhary is nearing the end of her residency at the V&A. Her research into the V&A collections has explored how histories of migration and Empire register in designed objects. But an enduring interest in architecture equally drives her ceramic art practice. During her residency, she has produced an assemblage of two-dimensional ceramic pieces, sculptural objects and architectural models, which will be on display this month in the residency studio and in the adjacent Asian and European Ceramics study gallery during London Design Festival.

Tableau: two-dimensional ceramic pieces and architectural models on display in Lubna
Chowdhary’s studio in the V&A Ceramics Galleries. © Lubna Chowdhary

Chowdhary’s ceramic installations meld Western European visions of modernist minimalism with high colour and high ornamentation in reference to the horror vacui of Middle Eastern and South Asian art and design traditions, in what she describes informally as a maximalist approach.

Lubna Chowdhary’s ceramic installation Metropolis on display in the V&A Ceramics Galleries for London Design Festival 2017. © Ralph Day

Chowdhary’s research and practice reveal a particular interest in the relationship between the body and architecture (and the micro-architectural possibilities of designed objects). In our conversations in her studio at the V&A, we discuss the influences on her work, including interior spaces of places of worship, like the mihrab and the confessional, and designed objects in the V&A collections like the reliquary and talismanic shirt shown below, which were designed to protect and enshrine the body.

Reliquary, 1250-1300, Belgium (possibly). V&A M.353-1956. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Talismanic shirt inscribed in Arabic with religious phrases and quotations from the Quran, 1750-1900, Iran. V&A T.8-1945. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

As a Master’s student at the Royal College of Art, she was awarded The Paolozzi Scholarship for a six-week solo trip to research architecture in South India. During her research trip, she recalls seeing handprints in the walls of rural houses, and she was struck by the ways in which everyday encounters with the material world resonated with faith and spirituality, recalling for instance how statues of deities would be fed milk and butter. And even while her work makes use of industrial design practices and references industrial architecture, she invests carefully in manual interventions, often recalling the domestic rituals of her childhood, making sure that her work has manual traces.

This exhibition of Chowdhary’s recent work includes tableaux that bring together handmade ceramic architectural models and bold, colorful, water jet-cut and hand-glazed ceramic pieces. Many of these forms were inspired by sketches that Chowdhary made while studying the V&A collections, as well as by photographs of industrial and religious architecture. In fact, the series began with a ceramic model of a cottage that Chowdhary made in response to a Visakhapatnam workbox, which she discovered in the V&A South Asia collection while investigating how colonial histories leave traces in designed objects. Chowdhary made the series of architectural fragments by rolling out large sheets of clay and hand-decorating them before working them into three-dimensional models. In this way, ornamentation is at the heart of the project.

Ceramic rendering of Adolf Loos’ Villa Müller, on display in Lubna Chowdhary’s studio in the V&A Ceramics Galleries. © Lubna Chowdhary

Building on the themes of this series of architectural models, a centrepiece of Chowdhary’s exhibition in the V&A Ceramics Galleries is an elaborately decorated ceramic sculpture of a house designed by modernist architect Adolf Loos. A fierce proponent of minimalism, during the early nineteenth century Loos (b. 1870) published a number of provocative essays defending his approach to architectural design. Chowdhary’s ceramic rendering of Loo’s Villa Müller in Prague, Czech Republic, was made in response to the following extract from Loos’ 1908 essay ‘Ornament and Crime’:

The ornament disease is recognized by the state and subsidized with state funds. But I see in this a retrograde step. I don’t accept the objection that ornament heightens a cultivated person’s joy in life, don’t accept the objection contained in the words: “But if the ornament is beautiful!”

Ornament does not heighten my joy in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person.

Chowdhary’s ceramic model is a playful intervention, which invests an icon of Western minimalism with forms and patterns inspired by Middle Eastern and South Asian art, designed objects and architecture. She suggests that this piece might be the first in a series.

Lubna Chowdhary at London Design Festival 2017:

As part of London Design Festival 2017 at the V&A, Chowdhary will be hosting a series of open studio events daily from 16 – 24 September, 13:00-16:00.

Her installation Metropolis, which brings together over 1,000 handmade ceramic sculptures, will be on display in the V&A Ceramics Galleries, G.137, from 16 – 24 September.

On Wednesday 20 September at 15.15 Lubna will be discussing her work beside her installation Metropolis in the Ceramics Galleries with V&A Residency Coordinator Laura Carderera.

Text by Ralph Day, September 2017

Supported by Maurice and Rosemary Lambert

About the author

September 15, 2017

I am the Residency Programme Assistant at the V&A, managing our artists in residence and their studios. I also project manage many events, displays and installations run by our Learning...

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