Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi: Tilism
tilism: talisman; an inanimate object transformed into its own world
Tilism is a series of large-format photographs of tiny plastic toys, scaled up to 30X, that reveal the objects' unusual materiality — marbled plastic, strange fluorescent colors, and irregular form. The objects are machine-molded but appear uncannily to be handmade, rendering uncertain the division between the craft object and the industrially manufactured commodity. Created in small workshops in the informal sector of the megacity of Karachi, they use inexpensive recycled plastic granules to which new colors have been added. The irregular molds have been used far beyond their capacity for reproductive fidelity, and they are freely and multiply repurposed from previous iterations or existing objects. Their branding and origin are either missing or a mystery — a tilism — that points to discrepant dimensions beyond bourgeois life.
In a standard macro photograph, much of a 3D object is rendered out-of-focus due to a shallow depth of field. But here, each photograph is digitally stacked combining 20 or more separately focused exposures into a single final image, resulting in uniform sharpness across the whole object. The original scale is rendered uncertain, collapsing the distinction between the miniature and the life-size. The photographs are presented surface-bonded with acrylic, creating a high-gloss finish reminiscent of slick advertising of high-end branded commodities. By phenomenologically dwelling with these humble objects represented at a much higher aesthetic register, the viewer is invited to reflect on the relationship between material aesthetics and the lifeworlds this evokes.
Globalization is often understood as a process in which transnational brands replace local products. But this view overlooks its shadows — the largely invisible processes of labor, production, and consumption that transpire in the vast informality of the Global South. This is a realm of superexploitation, but also one of immense productive capacities, in which branding and intellectual property regimes are constantly challenged by those who seek to fashion a world from affordable materials and designs they find at hand or create anew.
Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi have worked collaboratively for 20 years. Their practice investigates popular media's construction of memory, borders, and identity in contemporary globalization, the productive capacities of urban informalities, and the mass culture of postindustrial societies. Their work has been widely exhibited internationally, including at the 24th Bienal de São Paulo, Brazil (1998); the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial, Brisbane, Australia (1999); Let's Entertain (2000–01) at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Miami Art Museum; Liverpool Biennial, Tate Liverpool (2002); DETOX at Bergen Kunsthall-Bergen (2004), Moderna Museet-Stockholm (2005); Queens Museum of Art, New York City (2005); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2010); Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai (2015); Dhaka Art Summit (2016); Office of Contemporary Art Norway, Oslo (2016); and Lahore Biennale (2018). Elizabeth Dadi is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute. Iftikhar Dadi, the author of Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), is an associate professor in the Department of History of Art, the director of the South Asia Program, and codirector of the Institute for Comparative Modernities.