Beyond the line: 30 years on, Nasreen Mohamedi's work continues to mystify with its minimalistic, sensory approach
The exhibition at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal gallery traces Nasreen Mohamedi’s shift towards a sparse form of abstraction, which coincided with her struggle with a fatal illness.
More than 30 years after she made them, the artist’s intense absorption with the form of line continues to be mystifying, much like her personality.
A solo exhibition in Mumbai traces the Karachi-born artist’s shift towards a sparse form of abstraction, which coincided with her struggle with a fatal illness.
Seen in today’s context of burgeoning art fairs and biennales, which have produced a culture of eyeball-grabbing “Instagrammable art”, Nasreen Mohamedi’s art should be able to confound viewers.
Nasreen Mohamedi’s abstract works have very little to do with the use of colour. She had abandoned the medium of oil during the initial phase of her practice, in favour of the fragility of paper and the frugality of lines and shapes. Some of her paper works have acquired a yellowish tint, giving a subtle illumination to a visual language intertwined with personal turmoil. Neat markings of geometrical forms seem to levitate in these paper works, seen as a reflection of the artist’s spiritual inclinations. More than 30 years after she made them, the artist’s intense absorption with the form of line continues to be mystifying, much like her personality.
These later works, part of a solo exhibition in Mumbai, trace the Karachi-born artist’s shift towards a sparse form of abstraction, which coincided with her struggle with a fatal illness. The exhibition, on view at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal gallery, begins with her early ink works and a collage, from the 1960s. The cluttered nature of these works is sharply contrasted with an undated abstract photograph, probably taken at a beach, along with a large number of uncluttered graphites and inks.
In the latter, there is a clear mathematical rhythm to her vocabulary as geometric forms tend to shrink, and the volume of space suddenly expands. Neat patterns of lines, oval shapes, ellipticals, grids, triangles and curves float in the middle of these works, promptly dislocating the viewer from their real, physical context. While moving from the chaotic-looking ink works and collage of the 60s to the sophisticated geometric forms of the 70s and 80s, the artist demonstrates a dramatic sharpening of vision as she moved closer to death, because of a brain-related disorder.
The debilitating neuro-muscular disease, which also claimed the lives of her two elder brothers, severely impeded her body functions. Despite her condition, she continued to make art, switching to architect tools during the last two decades of her life. The dynamic arcs, ovals and diagonal lines, seen in the exhibition, point to the use of such tools. And yet, as a paper work shows here, stray marks of a pen, droplets of ink and the stain of a cup or a glass suggest the artist’s struggle with hand movements.
According to Mortimer Chatterjee, who runs the Mumbai gallery, these drawings show Mohamedi’s attempts to assert control over the line. “There's a kind of strange intersection in the way her body and the practice were moving in the same direction. Her aesthetic was becoming sparser, which can be seen as a logical move from one phase to another. Strangely, her body was also moving towards that end point of the dot or line.”
For an artist who hardly spoke about her practice, Mohamedi’s personal diaries and notebooks, discovered after her death in 1990, reveal her fascination with lines, patterns, textures and shadows. This was especially true during her travels. She marveled at the abstract sights of the beaches and deserts of Kihim, Baroda, Jaisalmer, Bahrain; and the Islamic architecture of New Delhi, Agra, Kuwait, Istanbul and Iran. One of the diary entries reads: “what geometry one finds on the beach.” But her discoveries, frequently documented through her camera, are mostly tinged with a state of mind that speaks of “storm”, “abyss”, “despair”, “shooting pains” and “blood’s road”.
One of the oft-quoted extracts from her diaries, written during the late 1960s as she began to come to grips with her failing health, reads:
My lines speak of troubled destines
Talk that I am struck
By lighting or fire.”
In a diary entry from Kihim, near Mumbai, where she now lies buried near the family home, she wrote in 1986:
“Lines, circles, dots, traces of texture, beatings on the beach…each wave a destiny which ends in one breath, a swaying of the palms and in one sway – all, everything.”
The references to “one breath”, a suggestion of her impending death, and “swaying of the palms”, where she probably speaks about her physical condition, reflect an inner turmoil.
Despite the illness, she remained committed to her work and retreated into the solitude of her austere studio in Baroda, where she taught at the MS University, from 1972 to 1988. She had an acute sensitivity to her surroundings, especially nature. Once, during an outdoor drawing class, she was able to sense a leaf’s falling, much to the surprise of her students. Some of these details are vividly narrated by curator Roobina Karode, the artist’s former student, in a curatorial walkthrough at The Met Museum, New York (2016). The floating forms in the Mumbai exhibition go back to what could have been a brief, mid-air suspension of the falling leaf. A diary entry shares insight into this uncharacteristic perceptiveness, when she writes: “Drop paper from height and examine the whole process / culminating in a drawing.”
Her journals attest to a deep engagement with spirituality and metaphysical thoughts, when she talks about “nothingness”, “digging the inner energies”, and “an eternal moment of existence.” The floating shapes in the exhibition, imbued with an astral quality, mirror the transcendental nature of her writing, suggesting a flight towards the realm of the outer space. Her writing and art seem to be distilled into a desire to transcend her own condition, from which there was no escape other than death. She died at the age of 53.
In 1991, on her first death anniversary, the artist’s family mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery. In 2004, her photographic prints, early figurations and later geometric drawings were part of another retrospective in Mumbai. Internationally, her work has received more attention in the past two decades, through major group and solo exhibitions at Documenta 12, Germany (2007), Tate Liverpool (2014) and The Met Breuer, New York (2016).
Chatterjee first came across Mohamedi’s work during a group exhibition in London in 2000. The gallerist attributes the wider visibility of her art to the “breaking apart of a New York and London-centric understanding of the modernists’ history”. He adds: “This has led to the re-appraisal of artists like Mohamedi, while generating interest among museums and curators to discover practices which may have fallen by the wayside.”
During a short career of more than three decades, Mohamedi transformed her vocabulary from the early nature-based abstractions to collages, grid patterns and the final concentration on line. These rapid shifts reflect a shedding of form and an austere language that stand apart from the figurative and abstract works made by her artist friends and colleagues, such as MF Husain, Nilima Sheikh, Tyeb Mehta and others.
Born into a liberal and well-to-do family, Mohamedi was a cosmopolitan figure, who studied art in London and Paris. She was drawn to the works and theories of Western abstract art pioneers such as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, apart from being mentored by VS Gaitonde, one of India’s foremost abstract artists. These influences also explain her interest in Sufism, Zen Buddhism, like Gaitonde, and the poetry of Albert Camus and Ghalib. Because of her international outlook and the uniqueness of her abstraction, it is difficult to situate her in a particular art movement or style, even though critics have drawn parallels of her work with Gaitonde and some western modernists too.
Seen in today’s context of burgeoning art fairs and biennales, which have produced a culture of eyeball-grabbing “Instagrammable art”, Nasreen Mohamedi’s art should be able to confound viewers. Not only because her language is profoundly minimalistic, but also the sensory experience that it evokes, eschewing the need for words and communication.
The exhibition, at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal gallery, concludes on 13 July, 2019.
Ankush Arora is a Delhi-based writer.
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