Lubna Chowdhary has taken over MIMA – here’s why her largest solo exhibition is worth the hype
Born in Tanzania before moving to the UK at the age of five, Lubna’s latest (and arguably, greatest) exhibition explores themes of displacement, hybridity and purpose.
MIMA stages the largest solo exhibition of Lubna Chowdhary’s work to date – Erratics is on until 9th October 2022.
‘During my first visit to MIMA – witnessing the curious sight of Middlesbrough’s Transporter Bridge on the horizon – there was a sense of familiarity and of dialogue opening up,’ says Lubna Chowdhary of the origins of her new exhibition, Erratics.
Which, it seems, is the effect we tend to have on creatives here in the North East. Despite our take-no-prisoners sense of humour, our grit and our no-nonsense approach, (a hangover from our time at the centre of the world as the Industrial Revolution dawned, we’re told), there’s something in the region that encourages us to let down our guard and open up.
And now, staging the largest solo exhibition of Chowdhary’s work to date – at what experts are calling a critical moment in her practice – MIMA are calling on visitors to join in a conversation that far transcends the industrial axis on which it’s balanced.
For Erratics is essentially a conversation about place and belonging. About feeling as though we’ve sworn allegiances to one too many teams and yet aren’t eligible to play for any of them. It’s an exhibition that prompts us to consider what makes a home and how we can recognise it.
Even its title proves Chowdhary’s exhibition to be about more than merely appearances. Referring to large rocks or boulders that have been displaced from their original geological context through glacial flows – retaining their material integrity and yet, at the same time, permanently settling in a new, alien context – the artist is giving us a hint that her exhibition isn’t just about her latest body of work but also how and where it is displayed.
Which is a theme Chowdhary herself can identify with. Born in Tanzania, she settled in the north of England in 1970, dedicating herself to a career in the arts. Working primarily with ceramics, wood and industrial materials, Chowdhary has made her name in the industry by creating sculptural objects and site-specific artworks which at once marry up the manual, domestic processes she learned in her childhood and her memories of travelling in Pakistan and India with the major stimuluses of her art school training in England, heavily influenced by 20thcentury minimalism.
And for MIMA, it seems Chowdhary has reached the pinnacle of her artistic career so far. Bringing with her the ambition of her previous, public artworks and approaches to making into a gallery setting, Chowdhary has well and truly taken over the Middlesbrough art gallery – not least with an enormous installation that has completely recharacterized MIMA’s internal architecture.
Made from silver lagging, a pre-made material used to cover insulation for pipework, this six metre-by-six metre sculpture invites visitors to think about MIMA’s structures, both physical and conceptual. But it isn’t the only show-stopping installation in Erratics. Through her rope wall drawing, Clinch (2022), and Bind1 (2021), Chowdhary coils industrial rope around ceramic discs to create an unconventional continuous line drawing, while Erratics 1, 2 and 3, (2021), are a series of three large wooden sculptures made by skilled makers at the Jan Hendzel Studio, inspired by Chowdary’s research into hybrid decorative furniture in London’s V&A – which was made in the 19th century by craftspeople in India, who worked to a brief of wealthy British colonisers.
Chowdhary herself admits to a fascination with the subtle slippages in construction and functionality that occurred when European designs were translated by Indian makers. Echoing this cross-cultural collaboration in Erratics, and demonstrating a skilled approach to making that instantly references multiple cultures and times, Chowdhary tested out communicating through making – creating an exchange between contexts and approaches, both highly specialised.
Indeed, in combining ancient making techniques and the latest technologies, holding tensions between extreme ornamentation and minimalism, and drawing herself to moments of hybridity in art, design and architecture, Chowdhary is a master of the uncertain. Effortlessly, she takes the uncategorised around us and places them front and centre.
Which is something we will always celebrate. As will MIMA, who have included Chowdhary’s work as part of the Middlesbrough Collection since the 1990s.
‘Chowdhary is an important voice in British art,’ says Elinor Morgan, Artistic Director at MIMA. ‘Her work is singular, adept and joyful. She skilfully combines traditional craft production with the latest developments in industrial technologies to create beautiful artworks with echoes of many histories and tendrils into diverse disciplines.
‘MIMA’s programme is deeply rooted in its context and Chowdhary’s work connects with the histories of making, manufacture and migration that have shaped our location. This generous exhibition finds a fitting home in the Tees Valley, an area forged through industry which is emerging as a centre for digital innovation.’
A fitting home, indeed. As an artistic learning environment at the heart of the School of Arts & Creative Industries at Teesside University, MIMA has earned respect as a cultural hub and creative resource, supporting students from across a range of disciplines to address the critical issues of our time. A creative melting pot, if you will, in which Chowdhary sees only potential.
‘This setting felt like an invitation to draw on the language and iconography of heavy industry and to respond to my loyalty to industrial landscapes,’ Chowdhary says. ‘MIMA’s expansive space offers the opportunity to build ambitiously on previous creative developments with industrial materials.
‘Through Erratics, I’ve been able to push forward the possibility of working with modular systems to create a new work of scale and power.’
Erratics will be display at MIMA until 9th October, 2022.
MIMA’s exhibition is an expanded version of a presentation at PEER, London, 2021 and includes works co-commissioned with PEER.
MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), Centre Square, Middlesbrough TS1 2AZ