Berlin-based artist Nadira Husain began her career as a painter on canvas. Her mainly large-format works contrast European and Eastern imagery, combining motifs that allude to Indian miniatures (she has both French and Indian roots) with comic-like figures. She samples decorative, abstract-geometrical patterns and, inspired by feminist theory, paints portraits of women whose androgynous looks confound conventional representations of gender. Her pictorial spaces also have a decidedly non-hierarchical structure, avoiding perspectives that distinguish between foreground and background (with their implied levels of importance) as in Pique-nique: Babethjan (2013). High and low cultural motifs, autonomous and decorative elements, are also treated equally.
In her more recent installations, Husain has gone a step further, from flat canvas to actual three-dimensional space, emphasizing the aspect of physical experience traditionally less privileged in art. Whereas looking at a picture always requires a certain distance (one gained by ‘standing back’), these installations involve the viewer in a mobile and haptic experience that establishes a comparatively direct relationship with the work – a dialogue that both reflects the role of the recipient and supercedes the work’s objectivity.
Although Husain’s floor piece Fragments and Repetition: Onomatopoeia (2012–13) is two-dimensional, an important aspect of this carpet of coloured tiles is that is must be walked on in order to see the details painted on it. In entropic abundance, they include comic motifs (Smurfs, speech bubbles) as well as the repeated silhouette of a cat and monochrome spots of colour in the style of a poppy tachisme.
Husain’s more recent step into three-dimensionality came with the environmental Mon jardin est un tapis (My garden is a rug, 2014) for her solo show at Berlin’s PSM gallery earlier this year. Husain covered the walls with full-scale prints of the gallery’s unplastered brick ceiling before it was converted into an exhibition space. This provided a setting for marbled polystyrene sculptures alluding to stone sculptures dating from India’s Mughal dynasty era (1526-1857). Covering the floor, powdered Indian paint was scattered through stencils to create a painting consisting of various elements – icons depicting artist’s tools such as scissors and brushes, as well as silhouettes of babies. Over the course of the exhibition, this unfixed work was walked on, blurred and partially destroyed by visitors, charting a precarious relationship between the work and viewer.
The title of Husain’s installation at Künstlerhaus Bremen this summer, BEUGEN STRECKEN (BEND STRETCH, 2014), hinted at the importance of physical activity for the perception of the work. Moments of movement were the subject of wall stencils that featured monochrome silhouettes of copulating animals. This zoological Kama Sutra, full of contortions, introduced different types of actions, like the adjacent jumping and flying frogs. As an additional element, rods painted with abstract designs and placed on the walls, floor and ceiling, recalled the Barres de bois rond (Round Wooden Bars, 1970–78), made (and carried) by André Cadere in the 1970s – works that levelled the distinction between sculpture and painting while making the claim that artworks could be portable and mobile. In Husain’s show, the rods were fixed, quoting and negating the intended movement. Some of the rods hung so low in the space that they forced visitors to bend down to pass under them. Above all, however, movement was introduced into the three-dimensional pictorial space by three empty frames cutting across it. These passepartout-like wooden structure linked the space, pictures and sculptures to one another – visitors could climb through them on their way around the show. Here, looking on the move replaced admiring, static contemplation.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell