An ode to Nasreen Mohamedi by JNAF Mumbai

In the turbulent years before India’s independence, Nasreen Mohamedi moved from Karachi to Bombay (Mumbai). And so began her journey of self-discovery through prominent art centres in India and Europe. Mohamedi is widely regarded as the first female abstract artist of India. In the 20th century, she emerged as a trailblazer in the country’s art scene. A recent exhibition at Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) in Mumbai offers a glimpse into her life and artistic practice.

Nasreen Mohamedi: Vastness Again and Again, curated by Puja Vaish is the first major exhibition in Mumbai of Mohamedi’s works, since her retrospective in 1991, a year after she passed away. It is on view till May 28, 2023 at the JNAF Gallery, CSMVS Mumbai.

Here are 4 things about Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-90) that this exhibition reveals

An inclination towards Photography

Mohamedi embraced photography early in her career. Several of her photographic works reveal an eye for forms in architecture and landscape. After receiving a diploma in design from the Saint Martin’s School of Art in London (1954-1957), she spent time in Bahrain where her father had a business which traded in Japanese photography equipment. Her interest in photography, and her photographs of the arid desert can be attributed to her time in Bahrain and Kuwait.

Photos by Nasreen Mohamedi – Installation View / JNAF

Moreover, her photographs from travels to Turkey, Iran, Fatehpur Sikri and Corbusier’s Chandigarh provide us an insight into how Mohamedi perceived the architecture and landscapes around her. They are striking as they are not regular travel photos, but evoke how she sought forms in space. Her photographic work may be counted as one of the early forays in photography by artists in India, at a time when the medium was not fully explored or accepted as a medium in art.

Nasreen Mohamedi’s Inspiration and Influences (Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute)

After spending time in the Middle East, Mohamedi returned to her home in Bombay (Mumbai). Here, she was offered a studio to work the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial Institute. The institute was a multi-disciplinary cultural hub where artists, playwrights, musicians, dancers, poets and filmmakers came together to share the studio space.

While working at the institute, Mohamedi’s engagement with the abstract art of V. S. Gaitonde left a deep impression on her. He also introduced Mohamedi to the principles of Zen Buddhism. The monochromatic palette of her art along with geometrically structured elements that we see in her works, took root here.

Her time in Baroda – a centre of art in the 1970s

After her sojourn in Bombay, Mohamedi started working as a teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts in MSU Baroda (Vadodara) from 1972. By the 1970s, Baroda had emerged as a prominent art centre and a melting pot of artistic ideologies. Looking at Mohamedi’s time in Baroda is perhaps the most fascinating sections of this exhibition.

It showcases her personal ephemera (art material, a self-designed leather bag, diary entries, scribbled pages, correspondence letters) as well as candid photographs of Mohamedi with students and fellow artists in Baroda. This archival material sheds a light on her art practice and also provides hints about her personality. In an essay on Baroda artists, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh quotes Nilima Sheikh’s (a fellow artist and faculty at MSU Baroda) theory about Mohamedi:

Nasreen being a very clumsy person, deliberately brought herself to the straight line in her work. It is this that sustained her – to achieve something that which is most difficult for you.

Nasreen Mohamedi in Fatehpur Sikri, 1970. Courtesy: Gulammohammed Sheikh and Asia Art Archive

Majority of line art works that are seen in the exhibition were created by Mohamedi in her Baroda studio. The meticulously drawn array of black lines arranged in the blank space invite a closer inspection into her art, both physically in its presence and ideologically in its context.

Abstraction in art – a conscious choice

It is interesting to look at Mohamedi’s choice of working exclusively with abstraction in her art. This was a marked departure from the art of her female contemporaries like Nilima Sheikh and Nalini Malani who mainly worked with figurative art. This makes her work even more significant when we look at it in terms of post-independence Indian modern art. While abstract art was mainly a western concept, it resonated with Mohamedi on different levels.

At one end, it was her exposure to western abstraction while studying in Europe. On the other, it was the traumatic experience of partition and the personal losses in her life, as suggested by Emilia Terracciano in her essay Fugitive Lines: Nasreen Mohamedi, 1960–75.

Plainer surfaces with concentrated depths. Each line, texture (form) are born of effort, history and pain.

Several such quotes by Mohamedi dot the intermediate walls of the exhibition and a collection of it appear on one end of the hall. Since Mohamedi did not title or date her work (a minimal mindset going in here as well), her diary entries give us an insight into her thoughts and creative process.

Photograms, photo collage, photographs, stencils and film found in Nasreen Mohamedi’s Baroda studio. Courtesy: Sikander & Hydari family archives

Complementing these are her photographic explorations, calligraphic inspirations and outlook towards art in general. Eventually, all these factors came together to shape her art as we see today. Minimal line drawings were therefore a conscious choice, an engaging experience for her which could be not be expressed in any other form.

Nasreen Mohamedi today

A compilation of contemporary press coverage and exhibition catalogues offer another glimpse into her artistic career. Diving deep into these, we learn about her growing stature as an artist and her influences. Despite suffering from a neuro-muscular disease in the last decade of her life, Mohamedi trained her hand to overcome this by working on a drafting table with a scale, pen and ink in her studio. She died at the age of 53. One of the beauties of abstract art is that it remains open to interpretation of the observer. In the case of Nasreen, it is about reading between the lines quite literally! With abstraction as her mainstay, Mohamedi set herself apart from the mainstream in the short span of her life. She continues to stay relevant today by shining bright through this wonderful showcase at JNAF.

The exhibition is on at the JNAF Gallery, CSMVS Mumbai till 28th May 2023.

Archival section at Nasreen Mohamedi: The Vastness, Again & Again / JNAF

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