Amba Sayal-Bennett

Amba Sayal-Bennett

Amba Sayal-Bennett’s multidisciplinary practice is grounded in a visual language that speaks to the exclusionary and performative nature of abstraction. Spanning drawing, projection and sculptural installation, the London-based British-Indian artist uses translation as a methodology to unpack the movements of bodies, knowledge, and forms across diverse landscapes, echoing processes inherent to collective consciousness and the diasporic experience. 

Recently, she has been investigating the migration of modernist forms and their associations with fascism and brutalism – notable solo shows centred around these themes include ‘Architectures of Excess’ at Carbon12, Dubai (2023), ‘Geometries of Difference’ at Somerset House, London (2022), and ‘A Mechanised Thought’ at indigo+madder, London (2020). 

1)In what ways does your practice look to the future?

Recently, I have become fascinated with futurity, particularly in relation to architecture. During my residency at the British School at Rome I examined the appropriation of modernism by fascism. Fascist architecture simultaneously looked to both the past and the future – deploying materials like Travertine in order to allude to a connection with Imperial Rome, all the while incarnating a modernist aesthetic –- clean lines and glass surfaces – to surreptitiously impose narratives of order and transparency. In this way, architecture became a Trojan horse in an attempt to reshape society.

While my grandfather is from Southern Italy, my maternal grandparents are from Northern India. In much the same way, modernism was sometimes used as a political machination for control in their homeland: most famously in Le Corbusier’s purpose-built city Chandigarh. It was commissioned by Nehru in 1950 post-partition as an almost utopic gesture, looking towards the future by cutting out the violence of India’s past. I am interested in these failed utopian projects, and the role of modernism in the expression of their ideologies in both these contexts, where architecture was a kind of experiment in future imagining and controlling.

My work also has a sci-fi aesthetic, a genre which has long been criticised for its colonial overtones and veneration of imperial adventure. I am interested in tropes from this genre in relation to diasporic experience. For example, entanglement – the condition of being in two places at once – or teleportation devices which work to rematerializing and reconfiguring bodies in different locations.

2)How might your work be considered a reflection of our times?

My work has shifted as new technologies and manufacturing methods have become accessible to me. Among other techniques, my work is formed from Laser Cutting, CNC Milling, and 3D Printing which is evident in my pieces for the show ‘Zil’ and ‘Dioptrique’. ‘Zil’ is made from a lost wax casting method, in which a PMMA print is cast in Bronze. ‘Dioptrique’ features elements of colour printed plaster powder. I am interested in the agency of these technological processes and how they can often lead to a hybridised aesthetic, they act as a set of restrictions which determine how forms can be articulated.

For my recent solo show ‘Architectures of Excess’ at Carbon12 in Dubai, I focused on contemporary ornamental practices. The works were fabricated using the same digital manufacturing methods as have ushered in an ornamental renaissance within contemporary architectural practice – CNC Milling, 5 Axis Laser-Cutting, Robotic Brick Laying. These techniques enable intricate and complex forms to translate from digital modelling into the built environment, while also overcoming the cost and labour intensive nature of antiquated craft methods.

3)How does your practice speak to the past?

My practice connects to the past by exploring questions around inheritance. For example, how do we critically engage with problematic architectural legacies? I have devised different strategies to address these histories within my practice, such as misuse as a form of refusal, and abstraction as a protective mechanism – a way to encounter traumatic histories from a safer distance.

My commission ‘Geometries of Difference’ at Somerset House responded to the layered architecture and rich history of the site. It has complex ties to colonial histories, having been designed by William Chambers, a former supercargo for the Swedish East India company who was behind England’s first mosque and Chinese Pergola, and having been home to the Royal Navy and the Royal Society as the quest for scientific knowledge began to align with British aspirations for Empire. In the 18th century, the mapping, charting and exploration of the seas served science and state. By mapping the pacific, laying claim to ‘virgin lands’ and experimenting with naval technology, the researchers of the Royal Society extended the mental boundaries of the British imperial vista and provided practical help in gaining control over it. Abstraction, here in the form of mapping, was used as a method of division, carving up space to consolidate power.

In both these instances, I was interested in how methods of abstraction were informed by the colonial imagination – firstly in the de-contextualisation, appropriation, and extraction of certain architectural forms for the representation of non-western cultures, and secondly through the cartographic practice of mapping. My designs for the commission, which drew directly from Chamber’s plans for Somerset house, used translation as a strategy of misuse, framing misuse as a form of disobedience and refusal.