Gigi Scaria’s City Uprise

By Mary Mulcahy, Curatorial Assistant

Twenty-seven photographs are arranged in a nine-by-three grid. In the background of each image is a blue sky, and in the foreground of each image is an old red brick wall. Read left to right, the images convey a narrative sequence. On the horizon line, cream-colored modern high-rise buildings appear to emerge upward step-by-step from behind the red brick.
City Uprise, Gigi Scaria (b. 1973, Kerala, India), 2006, inkjet print on paper, Gift of Drs. Umesh and Sunanda Gaur, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, S2019.6.11

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Gigi Scaria was born in 1973 in the village of Kothanalloor, Kerala. Moving in 1995 from his southern Indian home to New Delhi, the artist would develop a distinctive voice, offering his rural migrant’s perspective on the city. Across diverse media, Scaria explores both a fascination and a concern with the rapid and relentless change that characterizes India’s capital region. This theme is typified in his City Uprise, a single large photographic work composed of twenty-seven panels conveying a narrative sequence when read left to right. In each panel, a background of cloudless blue sky and a foreground of sturdy red stone remain static, while in the middle ground, a cluster of high-rise buildings inches upward, appearing to emerge from the ground as naturally and inevitably as the trees alongside it.

The artist achieved this unreal effect not with image manipulation but instead through a series of shots taken as he ascended the well-known Agrasen Ki Baoli stepwell in the heart of New Delhi. Stepwells—stairs leading to a well or reservoir—were designed to provide irrigation and water resources in ancient India. Agrasen Ki Baoli, or the stepwell of Agrasen, is named for the legendary king to whom the original structure is attributed. The landmark as it presently stands was rebuilt in the fourteenth century and designated a protected monument in 1958. Situated near the Connaught Place central business district, the historic site presents a contrast to the many new constructions that surround it. In City Uprise, Scaria captures this contrast between old and new as high-rise apartments progressively reveal themselves, separated by centuries from the wall of the stepwell that appears in the lower half of each panel.

In photography, video, sculpture, painting, and installation, Scaria devotes particular attention to city architecture as a site of transformation and flux. His characteristic towering structures recount literally Delhi’s story of urban growth, and, more significantly, in their sense of volatility and disequilibrium they become emblematic of the impact of that growth on an urban population, particularly a migrant one. Someone Left a Horse on the Shore, completed in 2007, presents rows of apartment windows in the shape of a Trojan horse, likening the onslaught of city expansion to a form of subterfuge or covert attack. The 2011 sculpture Steps to Predicament instead recasts a high-rise building as a spiral staircase, a commentary on the tendency of urban development to inscribe and reinforce socioeconomic hierarchies. The 2009 video Amusement Park reworks photographs into a mad parody of an overcrowded cityscape whose buildings themselves are in constant spiraling motion.

In this vein, City Uprise presents a Delhi skyline symbolically considered to highlight the precarity, even the absurdity, of unfettered expansion and redevelopment in the city, which is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Human figures or signs of intervention are conspicuously absent from City Uprise, making its tall buildings seem less of a built environment than an unstoppable force. It is the architecture itself that is in motion, the agent in the scene Scaria sets. The red wall of Agrasen Ki Baoli forms a boundary between the viewer and the action happening beyond, so that the city in its state of constant change becomes an unattainable, uninfluenceable horizon. Positioning the viewer within the ancient stepwell, Scaria conveys the senses of alienation and bewilderment common to many on the margins of city life.

As part of Gigi Scaria’s extensive body of symbolic urban landscape works, City Uprise invites critical and compassionate reflection on urbanization in India and beyond. Through architecture the artist calls attention to the impacts of an ever-evolving environment on the people who live in it. He conveys both the impressive material gains of urban growth and the negative effects of its unrelenting momentum, alluding to the compounding sense of instability and exacerbating inequalities felt most strongly by those already most marginalized. At the time of the work’s creation, Scaria had witnessed nearly a decade of rapid change in India’s capital region. As Delhi’s growth has continued exponentially in the years since, City Uprise retains its relevance as an expression of the urban experience and as an appeal for a human-centered approach to development.

See this work in Unstill Waters: Contemporary Photography from India