Nasreen Mohamedi: Lines Among Lines

Nasreen Mohamedi Untitled 500 x 700 mm Graphite and ink on paper   © Courtesy Chatterjee & Lal

Co-curator of Tate Liverpool’s current top floor Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition, Eleanor Clayton gives insight into the artist’s world: one which aimed to create purity, balance and unity through abstraction…

Nasreen Mohamedi was a pioneer of Indian modernism in the twentieth century, pursuing a distinctive visual language of minimalist line and form at a time when her peers focused on figurative and narrative styles. Although reasonably well-known in India during her lifetime, her work has only relatively recently received international recognition, notably featuring in MoMA’s 2005 exhibition On Line in New York and Documenta 12 in 2007. The current exhibition at Tate Liverpool is the most comprehensive in the UK to date, encompassing her early large-scale oil paintings, as well as the intricate and delicate line drawings for which she has become known.

Mohamedi was born in Karachi in 1937 as it entered what would be the last decade of British colonial rule before becoming the capital of independent Pakistan. In 1944, the family moved to cosmopolitan Mumbai, where she was raised before travelling to the UK a decade later to study Fine Art at Central St. Martin’s in London. She continued her education at a Parisian printmaking atelier from 1961 to 1963, before returning to India to teach at the Bhulabhai Institute for the Arts in Mumbai; an artistic hub where she met many significant figures such as Tyeb Mehta and M. F. Husain. These artists had also travelled to European urban centres such as Paris and London, combining international and local influences within their practices.

It is difficult to chart Mohamedi’s artistic development chronologically, as the artist rarely dated (or titled) works. Remembrances by friends and colleagues have enabled a rough sketch of phases, grouping works together as ‘early 1960s’ or ‘late 1980s’.

“As her work became increasingly abstract, she stripped back detail from her drawing, representing nature simply through one single line designating the horizon”

Early works reveal the natural world as a dominant inspiration, and anecdotal stories from Mohamedi’s students at Bhulabhai support this, recalling how she would encourage the observation of trees over time, noting how the shifting light would create different shapes and forms within their branches and leaves. As her work became increasingly abstract, she stripped back detail from her drawing, representing nature simply through one single line designating the horizon, and a number of verticals representing trees.

Nasreen Mohamedi, 1937-1990, Untitled (detail), early 1980s, 200 x 270 mm. © Collection of Gayatri Jhaveri & Priyam Jhaveri. Mumbai, India

In 1970, Mohamedi moved from Mumbai to Delhi, a move which seems to coincide with her completely abandoning naturalistic forms in favour of working within the geometric rigidity of a modernist, grid-like structure, extensively explored by Piet Mondrian some 40 years previously. During the early part of the decade, she worked within a square framework, always with the same format of paper and sometimes actually using graph paper as the base. Her lines could subvert this strict lattice structure, weaving within it to give the impression of a shifting surface. The word weave is particularly apt, as these delicate wavering lines have been likened to domestic crafts; in some cases, the use of perspectival illusion causing the eye to mimic the action of a loom, and relating to patterns in traditional Persian weaving. It is this phase of Mohamedi’s work which has been most likened to western artists such as Carl Andre and Agnes Martin, particularly the latter who also seemed to subvert the strict nature of the grid by making visible a human, wavering line.

“Through abstraction, Mohamedi aimed to create purity, balance, unity — all words which recur repeatedly in her vividly poetic diaries”

In Mohamedi’s work, this tension between the mechanic and the hand-made also mirrors the tension between internationally modern and traditional Indian aesthetics, with her work relating to both. This is nowhere more evident than in her photographs, which seem to have been an almost diaristic account of her experiences in the world, and which she refused to display, sell or even give away to friends as gifts during her lifetime. These images reflect the pluralist cultural climate in post-independence India in which Mohamedi lived. The modernising agenda of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, involved bridging dichotomies within Indian society by attempting to create a fusion between tradition and modernity; for example, by enlisting Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh in Northern India, the capital of both Punjab and Haryana that was to be an example of a modern and secular city.

Mohamedi’s photographs take as their subject modernist architecture like Chandigarh and Kuwait’s water towers, as well as historic Arabic architecture such as the Persian-influenced city of Fatehpur Sikri; finding in all these buildings the lines, geometric shapes, and balance of form which characterise her artwork.

In 1972 she settled in Baroda, a middle point between Mumbai and Delhi, where she taught Fine Art at the Majaraja Sayajirao University until her death in 1990. From the later 1970s, Mohamedi abandoned the gridded structure entirely, tending to work on rectangular paper to create constructions in which the line seems to break free of the ground itself — floating forms reminiscent of early 20th-century constructivist designs by El Lissitsky, Malevich, Klee and Kandinsky. In her diaries, she wrote how she was ‘reassured by Kandinsky’, having noted previously that she had found an affinity between her work and Klee’s writing.

This art historical connection to the utopian idealism of the constructivists also gives context to her broader artistic ambition. Through abstraction, Mohamedi aimed to create purity, balance, unity — all words which recur repeatedly in her vividly poetic diaries. This is the great universal appeal of her work, a sense in which beauty is not discovered through particular representations of the world, but found instead through spare and precise interactions of line and form, aspiring to find, in Mohamedi’s words, ‘the maximum out of the minimum’.

Eleanor Clayton

This essay is taken from Tate Liverpool’s new seasonal publication Compass. Available for £1, exclusively at Tate Liverpool, it features articles exploring the exhibitions on each floor of the gallery. Find out more information about the latest issue of Compass here 

Nasreen Mohamedi: Lines Among Lines continues at Tate Liverpool until 5 October 2014 — Adult £10 / Concession £7.50. Tickets include entry into Mondrian and his Studios!

Main image: Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, 500 x 700 mm, Graphite and ink on paper © Courtesy Chatterjee & Lal. Centre image: Nasreen Mohamedi, 1937-1990, Untitled (detail), early 1980s, 200 x 270 mm © Collection of Gayatri Jhaveri & Priyam Jhaveri. Mumbai, India

Read “An alternate way of viewing the world”: Suman Gopinath on Nasreen Mohamedi

Read The New Art The New Life: Piet Mondrian Examined

Posted on 14/08/2014 by thedoublenegative