There is a story in the Quran that tells of divine abaabil birds dropping pebbles on an invading army, thus saving the sacred Ka’bah shrine. Over time, the legend surrounding the birds has evolved, and they have transformed into gigantic, predatory birds with dog-like claws. This conception of a phoenix-like creature is the inspiration for the central installation in “Congregation,” Saad Qureshi’s new exhibition at Gazelli Art House.
The immense installation reinterprets the story with 313 bird-like sculptures standing on 99 cement blocks, arranged in a military grid. Assembled in army ranks, the standing figures are ominously uniform and amorphous, suggesting they are the product of psychological imaginings. “I thought these are not just any birds, these are special birds. I’m referring to the power of knowledge,” says Qureshi. “I didn’t know these birds, but as soon as I had this piece of information planted in my head, it took on a whole new meaning for me.” Constructed from plaster, clay, and straw, making the birds look ossified, their material substance gives them new meaning.
Alongside the installation is a series of charcoal, graphite, and ink drawings on plywood. The sepia tones and woodgrain texture almost make the work appear burnt, which parallels the barrenness of the apocalyptic landscapes Qureshi depicts. They appear both real and imagined, further clouding the distinction between fantasy and reality. Though the references in the series are religious, themes behind the work are secular. “Congregation” meditates on the relationship between aura and matter, evoking cultural and religious myths that exist collectively only for the individual to deconstruct them.
“Congregation” is on view at Gazelli Art House, London, Oct. 10th–Nov. 23rd, 2014.