Hormazd Narielwalla works across a number of artistic disciplines including printmaking, sculpture and artist’s books, but he is best known for his intricate paper collages and assemblages, which are created on the surfaces of antique, vintage and bespoke tailoring patterns.
Viewing the utilitarian, graphic templates as “beautiful abstractions of the human body, that carry with them not only an outline of a garment but also a representation of the individual that wore it,” he reinterprets the long-discarded patterns, overlaying their delicate geometries with forms of his own, to express ideas about identity, memory, migration and diaspora.
“Outwardly abstract…nevertheless suffused with something innately human and personal.”
~Claire Wrathall, Christie’s Magazine, September/October 2018
Born in India, Narielwalla moved to the U.K. in 2003 to study fashion design. His practice is influenced by cross-cultural perceptions that he explores in a number of ways. Fascinated by the transformative power of clothes as a means by which to project notions of character and identity, the idea of bodily adornment and costuming is a recurrent motif. Who are we? Where do we come from? and Who might we become? are themes that reverberate throughout his work.
Working intuitively and often in extended series, his abstract compositions recall Cubist traditions with condensed, accumulated fragments of visual information laid out over the two-dimensional surfaces of the paper supports. The poised arrangements of line and plane can suggest fluid arrangements for the human form, exploring the dynamics of a body’s movement in conjectured three-dimensional space, or play with suggestions of the body as sculpture or icon. Freed from function, the patterns provide a network of abstract marks that are the architecture upon which he constructs images that are often a subversive play with notions of gender—whether reimagining himself as a Geisha or celebrating the vagina in 3D collages that recall the flower images of Georgia O’Keefe.
“Just like the humble yet beautiful stamp, which travels the world on a paper envelope, Narielwalla’s work bears a global imprint. His fascination with human adornment also encompasses the traditions of West Africa and India, pairing European dress patterns with Indian printmaking techniques and architectural conceits to suggest new multicultural identities.”
With their locus in the human figure, Narielwalla’s images incorporate references to aesthetics and cultures from throughout the world. Following the instructive points and lines of the original pattern, the blocked planes of cut papers are selected for their associative and decorative qualities. From modest material starting points the work articulates an eloquent range of subject matter.
Dead Man’s Patterns—a 2008 artist’s book inspired by the bespoke suit patterns of a deceased client of a Saville Row tailor—offers an elegiac reflection on mortality; while a commission for the Crafts Council in 2013 used military uniform patterns from 1850 to 1947 in a sculptural installation that examined colonial narratives of the British Raj. Lost Gardens—an ongoing series of collages that resemble delicate cartographic remnants embellished by passages of vivid color—is inspired by the memory of a vanished rose garden of the artist’s childhood. Rock, Paper, Scissors (2020)—a sequence of 100 small-scale works made on the pages of a 1906 sewing manual—responds to the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth, referencing her signature pierced forms with apertures cut into the layers of applied paper.
In a number of works that reference iconic figures Narielwalla fuses ideas of form and decoration, transforming the human figure itself into a kind of abstract sculpture. A print commission published by the Victoria and Albert Museum for the exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up” in 2018 was based on a sequence of collages that celebrates the Mexican artist’s use of traditional costume in forging her distinctive and lasting visual identity. Coco Chanel (whose radical designs did so much to liberate the female body) is the focus of images that layer together intricate arrangements of pattern papers in an allusion to the skills involved in couture. Diamond Dolls (2020), a recent series of collages and a limited edition artist’s book, depict a repeated motif of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” persona that celebrates the singer’s shape-shifting ability to project different identities through dress, makeup and performance. Each figure is defined by highly individual, sculptural costuming that alludes to the gender-fluid traditions of kabuki and onnagata, which influenced Bowie in his approach to challenging conventions about sexuality and gender.
“As a young gay man growing up in India, Western culture hardly permeated. It seeped in very gently, drop by drop. Then in the 1990s, MTV started broadcasting music videos from the West and my first glimpse of David Bowie was from the 1970s, with his bright red hair and green, glass-like eyes. His beauty captured my imagination immediately, He showed me a different kind of masculinity in the character of Ziggy Stardust—fhe hair, the makeup, the costumes, in addition to his music and stagecraft.
“Bowie’s shape-shifting ability to create different personas was the starting point for images that, at their basis, explore ideas of transformation into another self. My dancing dolls are a form of celebration: highly decorative and drawing on an extensive collection of papers I have sourced from all over the world, ranging from Japanese Chiyogami, Nepalese Lokta, Dutch gold and hand-blocked papers. Beauty as a form of seduction.”