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Issue 235

The Cosmopolitan Camaraderie of Nasreen Mohamedi

In the artist’s hometown of Mumbai, the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation presents a survey of her work contextualized within the broader artistic community of post-independence India

BY Emilia Terracciano in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across The World | 28 MAR 23

A number of expansive exhibitions of the last decade or so – including at the Met Breuer Museum, New York, in 2016 and Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi, in 2015 – have shed light on the elusive persona and career of Nasreen Mohamedi, who died in 1990 aged 53. Invariably, curators have noted that her minimal, linear, non-figurative practice emerged against the grain of contemporary trends within the context of post-independence India.

An abstract work: sharp black points underlines by lines
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, c.1975, ink and graphite on paper. Courtesy: the artist and Sikander & Hydari collection

‘Nasreen Mohamedi: The Vastness Again and Again’, curated by Puja Vaish at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, is the first exhibition to bring paintings, photographs and sketches by the artist to her hometown of Mumbai since 1991. Importantly, the exhibition also includes a series of delicate, tightly curated displays and a selection of works created by Mohamedi’s friends and peers. As a result, the show offers a feel for the rich and exhilarating atmosphere of the city during the late 1950s and early ’60s, situating Mohamedi’s initial forays into the language of abstraction in the specific context of the professional and informal networks that shaped her career following her graduation from London’s Central Saint Martins in 1958.

An abstract work: lines that overlap in a vague shape of two arrowheads meeting in the middle from the left and right
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, undated, ink on paper. Courtesy: Sikander & Hydari collection

On view are Mohamedi’s familiar linear compositions created in pencil, pen and ink from the late 1970s and early ’80s. In an untitled pencil drawing (c.1975), taut, fine lines of differing lengths, widths, diagonals and textural accretions, traced at various angles and pressures, fill the page. Evoking a sun dial or the raked lines of a Japanese karensansui (sand garden), the carefully drawn graph figures impermanence, the core Zen principle Mohamedi sought to master. Whether on the shorelines of Bahrain, on Kihim Beach near Mumbai or in the Sahara Desert, Mohamedi observed the forces of sea and wind at play on the landscape, registering the perpetually shifting geometries of the sands, internalizing each movement. Erasure became an abiding concern, even an ethos.

Installation view down a hallway of a mix between abstract and figurative work
Nasreen Mohamedi, ‘The Vastness Again and Again’, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Vaish singles out two spaces that Mohamedi frequented as a young artist: the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute, an informal cultural hub located in a seafront bungalow in Breach Candy, and the short-lived Vision and Exchange Workshop (VIEW), set up in 1969 by painter Akbar Padamsee. At Bhulabhai, leading filmmakers, playwrights, musicians and poets operated in synergy. We find an untitled photograph (c.1966) Mohamedi took of the painter M.F. Husain, posing like Christ on the cross against a backdrop of castle ruins. At the time, Husain was shooting Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) in the desert landscape of Rajasthan, and Mohamedi travelled with him. The photograph is playful, even performative; it illustrates the complicity and trust between Husain as a mentor to the younger Mohamedi. Also on display is Sabarmati River (1961) by the artist’s friend Dashrath Patel, an aerial photograph that resonates with the same restrained formal language as Mohamedi herself pursued. Patel engages with the abstractive possibilities of photographic technology: hundreds of colour-coded rows of dyed sarees laid out to dry by the riverbanks resemble technicolour pixels.

An abstract photograph with jagged zigzags of blacks and grays, vibrating up and down the page
Nalini Malani, Untitled III, 1970, photogram. Courtesy: © Nalini Malani

Alongside these works is a vitrine displaying materials recovered from Mohamedi’s studio, including photos of architectural maquettes, polyhedrons and black and white collages. At VIEW, Mohamedi and fellow artist Nalini Malani shared a darkroom set up by photographer Bhupendra Karia, where they tested ideas and conducted experiments on photosensitive papers. In a large photogram by Malani, Untitled III (1970), jagged cones or shards of light and shadow reveal a shared concern and investment for the reductive properties of photography – its potential for arresting the impermanent. The camera altered the scope of Mohamedi’s vision: through the crop, close-up and unconventional angles, she eliminated the middle ground, as with the untitled image (ca. 1970) of Delhi’s Jantar Mantar complex. Via such curatorial couplings, this sensitive and imaginative exhibition does much to demystify Mohamedi’s life and corpus, tethering her singular vocabulary to the cosmopolitan island of her hometown.

Nasreen Mohamedi’s ‘The Vastness, Again & Again’ is on view at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, until 30 April.

Main image: Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, undated, ink on paper board. Courtesy: Sikander & Hydari collection

Emilia Terracciano is an academic and writer based in London and Oxford. Her research interests lie in modern visual art and photographic practices with a focus on the global south. Terracciano’s book Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-century India is forthcoming with I.B.Tauris.