A Movement of Ideas.
The Latin phrase Memento mori" has been used for centuries as a warning against the vanity of material life a bringing-to-consciousness of mortality. The term loosely translates to Remember you must die." In art history the most readily recognized era of memento mori is found in sixteenth and seventeenth century still-life vanitas painting. These still-life paintings depicted material possessions side-by-side with objects like the skull clock and flowers that symbolized death and the transience of life. Viewers were reminded of the ephemerality of human life and the vanity of earthly beauty. They were encouraged to consider their own mortality and rethink the indulgence of their lives.
Naima Dadabhoy in her latest body of work appropriates and re-imagines memento mori symbolism. She presents her viewers with three dimensional sculptural versions of vanitas still life. Human skulls are placed on a pile of vintage books. These antique books which have all outlived their authors seem to be mocking the brevity of human life. Dadabhoy pairs the traditional memento mori symbol of the skull with the body of an eagle. While the former speaks to death and mortality the bird ready for flight symbolizes speed and mobility. Through this combination Dadabhoy's sculptures bring together the binaries of life and death of movement and stasis of strength and decay.
For Dadabhoy the impetus for this series came from a bird sighting: watching an eagle gliding through the sky. This image of the eagle's agility stayed with her in months to come prompting her interest in bird anatomy. She started investigating its skeletal structure and muscles to understand its movement. This studious process is reflected in her large screen-prints on display (Fig. 1) wherein the artist has reproduced some of the anatomical illustrations that she studied.
In the midst of her research Dadabhoy suffered a personal familial loss. Movement as the coming into presence of a potentiality was all of a sudden halted by death. While every movement by its very meaning entails not yet having reached that toward which it moves death disallowed ever reaching that potentiality. Death became an inevitable inescapable end to movement. The anatomical studies of skeletons took on a different meaning for Dadabhoy as she was forced to ponder on mortality and the transience of life. Her admiration for the wonders of nature as apprehended through the imperial movement of an eagle was challenged through the macabre reminder of impermanence and temporality. Her screen-prints became increasingly multi-layered; they celebrated the joys and pleasures of movement as an intrinsic part of life but also portrayed a darker study of mortality.
The life-size reproduction of a skull is plated in gold. The use of gold a color of wealth and luxury reminds us that material possessions cannot change the facts of mortality. In the vanity of our daily lives we forget our own vulnerability to death. Crowning the skull is a cluster of preserved butterflies. Historically butterflies have been used as a symbol of the soul which cannot be destroyed by physical death. However it is also a symbol of empty vanity and nothingness due to its short lifespan and ephemeral beauty. Hence the viewer is free to make their own associations whether it be the ephemerality of life or a new beginning through death. In another sculpture (Fig. 3) the artist has screen-printed the skull with letters that she had written to her father. Imprinted on the skull these indecipherable words represent an emotional struggle and longing for communication. Death was not an abstract concept but a painful reality of an eternal separation from her father.
Naima Dadabhoy refuses a simplistic representation of life and death. Movement becomes a central theme through which both concepts can be dynamically apprehended and understood. Her representations are embedded in personal experiences which embrace and celebrate the contradictions of life. Like the historic vanitas paintings she offers her viewers a chance to reconsider their own mortality to think about death and personal loss side-by-side to the vanities of life.