This Friday, March 18, marks the opening of The Met Breuer on the Upper East Side in New York City, a new space for modern and contemporary exhibits by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its opening shows are “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” “Relation: A Performance Residency by Vijay Iyer” and “Nasreen Mohamedi“. The latter is a retrospective of the drawings, photographs, and personal diaries of the late Indian artist, Nasreen Mohamedi. The inclusion of the exhibition in the opening shows at the Met Breuer is perhaps an apex in a recent revival of Mohamedi’s work in the Western world.
Throughout her life, Nasreen Mohamedi was unknown to the art world outside of India. Soon after her death, her friend and art critic Geeta Kapur published an essay about her life and work titled, “Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved,” alluding to this invisibility.
Recent years have seen an outpouring of interest in and exhibitions of her work at major museums like the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Spain and the Tate in the United Kingdom. The Met Breuer will only be the fourth institution in the United States to publicly display Mohamedi’s work — the other three being the Talwar Gallery, Modern Museum of Art (MoMA), and The Drawing Center.
Today, she is placed firmly within the canon of influential modern artists of the twentieth century. Mohamedi’s most notable body of work is comprised of abstract drawings, rendered meticulously with pencil or ink on paper. She experimented with ever-so-slightly varying amounts of space in lines and grids to give the appearance of rhythmic, undulating movement.
In her photography, she played with patterns and angles for perspective, making, as one critic put it, “the world… both larger and smaller than we normally experience it.”
Mohamedi was born in 1937 in Karachi, British India, to a relatively wealthy family and moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) at the age of seven. Her father had a business that produced photography equipment in Bahrain, allowing her to travel and cultivate an interest in photography at an early age. She studied in both London and Paris and throughout her life, traveled extensively, visiting Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Turkey, Japan, and the United States. She died in 1990 at the young age of 53 from a neurological condition similar to Parkinson’s disease.
“Mohamedi was one of few artists who departed radically from norms of the time.”
Of her Indian contemporaries, Mohamedi was one of few artists who departed radically from norms of the time. Most Indian art produced in this period was influenced by realism and anthropomorphic figuration, an endowment of the colonial period.
Mohamedi not only eschewed this style, but created a unique form of abstraction borne directly of her experiences. She drew inspiration from natural forms like the deserts and seas encountered in her travels as well as features typically found in Islamic and urban architecture. She was influenced equally by Sufi lyricism, Indian classic music, and Buddhism.
In her essay, Geeta Kapur summarizes Mohamedi’s artistic sensibilities concisely:
‘Maximum out of the minimum,’ Nasreen wrote in her diary, and spent a life working it out.
Nearly sixteen years after her death, “maximum out of the minimum” is a fitting metaphor for the impact of Mohamedi’s too-short life on modernism and the monumental stage it has found in the Met Breuer.
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The Met Breuer’s Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition runs from March 18-June 5, 2016. Visit its website for more information: http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2016/nasreen-mohamedi.
Jill Shah is Bombay-born and NYC-based. She likes Bollywood and chai, and you can tweet at her @jillrshah.