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The Linear Thinking of Nasreen Mohamedi

Where detachment, photography, and drawing all take aim at the same notion.

In a pair of firsts, one of the inaugural exhibitions at the Museum’s new space for contemporary and modern art, The Met Breuer, also happens to be the first American museum retrospective of the Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. Understandably, the artist may not be a household name in the U.S., but the exhibition introduces visitors to Mohamedi’s whole career, featuring over 130 works from the 1960s through the ‘80s, including her photography and line drawings as well as her journals, which give insight and poetry to a body of work in conversation with twentieth-century modernism.

“One of our goals with The Met Breuer is to present thoughtful exhibitions that posit a broader meaning of modernism across vast geographies of art,” notes Sheena Wagstaff, Leonard A. Lauder Chairman of The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. “The poignant story of Mohamedi, a relatively little-known but significant artist, reveals a highly individual artistic quest, drawing on historic sources from across the world, alongside her evocative photography as an unexpected form of visual note-taking.”

As can be seen at The Met Breuer through June 5 or in the exhibition catalogue, Mohamedi’s work draws upon twentieth-century minimalism—patterns of lines and black-and-white photography. Brinda Kumar, a research assistant on modern and contemporary art at The Met, calls the work, “completely unexpected, especially when you think about the very colorful, figurative works, the long history of Indian painting, and then you come across Nasreen; it really makes us expand our understanding of what Indian painting and Indian art is.”

 

Indeed, her work seems to be the product of a singularly focused mind. Contrasting Mohamedi’s photography, painting, and line drawings, all media seem to be driving toward the same point. By the mid-1970s, with her pen, Mohamedi started making intricate, geometric shapes that look like the intersection or bending of planes. As a photographer, Mohamedi found the intersecting lines and patterns in the meeting of one roof with a neighboring roof, or along a coastline, which is to say, she sought a third-dimension in her flat drawings, and flattened space in her photography.

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It isn’t easy to extrapolate much about the artist’s personality from either medium, but the exhibition also features Mohamedi’s idiosyncratic journals that demonstrate that even when the artist was thinking the most verbally, her mind was drawing lines. Eschewing a typical journal for a date book, Mohamedi’s poetic or philosophical notes to herself—“the moon, a perfect circle such serenity,” or “waiting is a part of intense living,”—she filled in surrounding days in dark lines, creating pyramids into which her writing was entombed. Her journals are the rare splashes of personal detail, and also color, in this minimal, modern exhibition. They even contain a flash of personality that could almost explain the otherwise veiled artist—perhaps as a reminder or perhaps as a mantra, Mohamedi wrote: “detachment detachment detachment.”

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Mohamedi was born in 1937 in Karachi, in what is now Pakistan. Her family moved to Mumbai, then called Bombay, in 1944, where she lived for a decade until she left to study in London at Central Saint Martin. She returned to Bombay four years later, and had her first solo exhibition there in 1961. With a scholarship from the French government, she studied at an atelier in Paris from 1961 to 1963, and spent much of the next decade traveling through India, Iran, and Turkey, before moving to the Western Indian city of Baroda to teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts.

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The artist in her studio. Courtesy of Sikander and Hydari Collection, via The Tate

In February, one of her students told Blouin Art Info what Mohamedi was like as a teacher and artist.

“I’ve not seen another person so exhilarated by her own creative flow,” said Roobina Karode, now a curator at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. “The way she drew, it’s crazy. The complexity of lines that she would bring out would be mindboggling. I once counted more than 260 horizontal lines forming the base of something she was drawing.”

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One such demonstration of this focus, the image at the top of this post, is available as a poster from The Met Store.

While she may have been making an effort toward “detachment detachment detachment,” Karod said that, “no matter what genre she worked in, the preoccupation would be the same…the exploration was of the space from here to beyond. She was always in a trance, so immersed she would be in work.”

Mohamedi died in 1990 from complications of Huntington’s Disease at 53 years old, and was little known outside of a group of artist friends in India. While she may not have enjoyed acclaim commensurate with her talent during her lifetime, her profile has been on the rise. Her work appeared as part a 1998 group show at the Queens Museum titled “Out of India,” and her photography was featured at Talwar Gallery in 2003. She is now leading the way into The Met’s newest space.

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