The poster-boy for Ishara Art Foundation’s current exhibition is Dara Singh. A real-life superhero and star of the vernacular, Dara Singh was a professional wrestler whose image was plastered onto huge billboards ahead of his fights, giving him an iconic and legendary status. It is fitting then, that an image of one of these billboards should adorn the cover of the catalogue for Body Building. Much as Singh represented far more than the fights he won, in this instance, Singh’s image is a decoy for what lies beneath. “The title is a play on words,” explains Nada Raza, the in-house curator at Ishara, Dubai’s non-profit space dedicated to South Asian art. “My focus is looking at the South Asian body and identity in relation to urbanisation and architecture of the Gulf region as well as recognising that the South Asian body is a feature of the Gulf city that sometimes gets occluded or written about in very stereotypical ways.”


Gents Urinal, Delhi 1991 Photograph, inkjet print on paper 111.7 x 116.8 Courtesy of the artist
Gents Urinal, Delhi 1991 Photograph, inkjet print on paper 111.7 x 116.8 Courtesy of the artist

The show comprises 16 practices from across South Asia from the 1960s until today – and examines the idea of the urban dream both in utopian and dystopian forms. Raza has highlighted the aspirations of a so-called modern life for those who have historically flocked to cities and simultaneously addressed themes of economic transformation, architectural development as well as life in private and public spaces. Opening with an introduction of the work of Ram Rahman, whose images include the striking portrait of Dara Singh and open up the conversation about identity and physical presence, the show continues with the work of Rajyashri Goody, whose project Eat With Great Delight disseminates the caste-based stigmas that still exist in modern India. From here, Abdul Halik Azeez (perhaps better known by his social media handle of @colombedouin) captures viewers’ attention with his 10-minute video diary of six months in his native Colombo.

In the centre of the gallery, architecture and the built environment take centre stage with Randhir Singh’s Water Towers project and Arthur Crestani’s Bad City Dreams riffing off each other to create a dialogue about public spaces and human interaction. The heart of the show, according to Raza, are a set of two videos shot by Pramod Pati, a filmmaker who lived and worked in Bomba (Mumbai) in the 1960s. The films were commissioned by the Films Division of India and were publicly screened to deliver awareness and socially progressive messages. In Six, Five, Four, Three, Two (1968) a young couple go into a concrete high rise building and imagine their future life in this building. The other Trip/Udan (1970) uses time-lapse photography to show the city as a prosperous metropolis. “These films have been in my mind for a long time,” says Raza, “and they are from where my thinking of the show develops. It strikes me that the ideas of high rise living and progress being measured by the growth of the nuclear family were being planted in India in late 60s but these are the lives that we now live in the Gulf.” This exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into socioeconomic shifts and real politic inside a vast and nuanced region. An unmissable treat.

Body Building, Ishara Art Foundation runs until December 7, 2019. Ishara Art Foundation, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.