Hormazd Narielwalla is an Indian artist living and working in East London. His practice includes the full spectrum of disciplines including drawing, printmaking, and sculptures. His intricate paper collages and assemblages, which repurpose antique, vintage and bespoke tailoring patterns explore ideas of abstractions, memory and migration.
Narielwalla’s recently-released artwork and publication, titled Diamond Dolls, is published by Concentric Editions and celebrate his passion for David Bowie’s work and life.
Growing up as a gay man in India during the 1980s and 1990s, Bowie offered escapism and artistic inspiration. Based on a series of signature images, the book creatively examines themes of adornment and transformation. Here, Narielwalla talks to Art is Alive about this project, his career and Ziggy Stardust.
How did you first discover David Bowie? What triggered your fascination for Bowie?
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. Despite my family’s initial ambivalence towards my sexuality I had been encouraged to consume material from Freddie Mercury because as a Parsee, he shared our Zoroastrian heritage. “Apro Freddie (Our Freddie)”, was what my family would say in front of the TV. Then I saw the vision of this pale, skinny, eccentric looking Englishman, part human – part alien, dazzling the screen. I did not, at the time, understand constructs of gender neutrality or sexual fluidity, things that I recognise now. Bowie showed me a different kind of masculinity in the character of Ziggy Stardust – the hair, the make-up, the costumes, in addition to his music and stagecraft.
How did you start thinking about the book and did you approach the creative process?
The decision to make an artist’s book from the collages was influenced both by the uncertainty of when I might be able mount physical exhibitions again and the opportunity to collaborate with two publishing imprints – Concentric Editions and EMH Arts. Collaboration with others, albeit remotely, brought a vital sense of creative connection. We saw the book as a kind of portable exhibition space, curated and enhanced by our individual approaches to craft. Conceived as a sculptural object in three parts and designed to stand like a series of shoji screens, it reflects many aspects of Japanese aesthetics that Bowie admired. The original images are reproduced both front and back to reveal the ‘artifice’ of cutting and pasting involved in their construction. Details – including the distressed silver foiling of the page edges and abstract patterns de-bossed into the surfaces of the covers – gives the opening and arranging of the book, a performative quality. It is completed, in a sense, by its audience. I wanted the book to be beautiful, playful and profound. It has been made during a time that has brought questions of human fragility to the forefront – a period that has made me question, as an artist, the idea of legacy. The objects artists make have a life of their own once they pass out of their maker’s hands. All cultures preserve almost above anything, the artefacts that express and embody what is most important to them.
Did Bowie help you find answers related to your identity and sexuality?
Yes he did. I’m constantly asking myself – who am I, and who do I want to be. Growing up in India knowing you are different and think in a different way was putting yourself in a corner, where you cannot relate to the people around you. Watching the Ziggy Stardust character as a late teenager gave me an alternate way of knowing who I could be. I was never going to be a theatrical performer, but the character suggested that the centre stage moment for ‘the other’ was possible.
Your favourite Bowie role / personalities in music or film?
Bowie developed a kaleidoscope of shifting personae in part to escape feelings of dislocation engendered by his upbringing, ultimately metamorphosing into the enduring icon he remains. His Ziggy Stardust character remains my favourite. The idea this part man part alien looking creature excited me, when I first saw the character all those years ago. In India, at that time, we were not fed constant imagery from an artist, and I wouldn’t have the same image repertoire or knowledge as you would. Diamond Dolls is about capturing the moment I first encountered Bowie’s image on my television screen, which happened to be Ziggy Stardust.
How did you curate the upcoming exhibition that will coincide with the launch of the book?
I have worked closely with Emma Hill of Eagle Gallery in Farringdon for a couple of years now, and this is the second book that has been jointly published under her EMH Arts Publications and Concentric Editions. We wanted to convey the notion that the book when closed sits quietly in its box, where the viewer has no idea what it can do. Like a performer on stage when everything is silent for a moment before the performance begins. We designed an acrylic stand where all three acts sit on top of each other and the viewer is given the opportunity to see all 36 collages at the same time. The pandemic and lockdown have influenced the making of the book – we could not visit an exhibition, so the idea is that the exhibition comes to you. We will also have a certain amount of original works on display to give the viewer context of scale, dimension and the multiple textures of the works.
How did your general practice as an artist inform the making of this book? Was it difficult to come up with something that hadn’t been done before?
During the Pandemic I thought about legacy a lot, and the things we leave behind. “What would my own artistic contribution be when I die?” I asked myself. Bowie is one of those people, who may physically not be with us, but his spirit always remains. The series of collages and book tries to convey that message. Towards the end it becomes less about ‘Bowie’ the physical drawing, but more so I was trying to capture his spirit. His physical body in the works resemble parts of a body, but in an abstract sense. Tailoring pattern shapes made for covering the body are used to depict an arm or a leg. In others it could be a geometric circle. He transcends the human form to become a worshiped icon. I looked at images from the Ziggy Star dust period as references, and then deleted the folder. I was adamant to not capture literal clothing he wore, or poses he was photographed in. I wanted the works to have an alternate view point from the traditional Bowie that you have seen. We also decided to incorporate the backs of the original artworks that look like the absent body. Strips of tape and paper suggest a human form, this reinforced the idea that it was Bowie’s spirit that I was interested in depicting in the work.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a series of collages made from lingerie patterns inspired by the poem – Birds of Passage by Henry Wadsworth. Birds have often been depicted in my practice. I work with lingerie patterns a lot, and the euphemism that men call women chicks. The lingerie patterns are interesting objects as they are much smaller and often made on colourful card taking the practice into new territory. I have also made a series of 24 works inspired by a story in colour linking them to extracts of Virginia Woolf.