– Summer 2009

Making the Maximum of the Minimum: A Close Reading of Nasreen Mohamedi

Anthony Huberman

We miss Her, not because We see -

The Absence of an Eye -

Except its Mind accompany

Abridge Society

As slightly as the Route of Stars -

Ourselves - asleep below -

We know that their superior

Eyes Include Us - as they go -

- Emily Dickinson1

It is, I feel, appropriate to enlist Emily Dickinson's poetry for my attempt to read and understand Nasreen Mohamedi's images. This poem, which almost becomes a prophetic epitaph for the artist and the superior images she left behind, was probably written in 1865. It appears as number 993 in the list of the poet's 1,775 known works. Some of the biographical facts about American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) and Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990) converge. Both were born to affluent parents and lived surrounded by extended families. Both led inner lives first and foremost. Both died in their mid-fifties, unmarried and without children. Less superficial similarities between them also exist. As artists they both were uncompromisingly devoted to the growth of their art and self-consciously aware of its exceptional quality. Their works are elliptical and reductive, but at the same time dynamic and opulent. Mohamedi expressly sought to make 'the maximum of the minimum' by employing a limited repertoire of straight and curved lines on paper. The same is true of Dickinson, who narrowed down her lexicon to a finite set of plain-looking words tested by intense poetic experience.

Significant divergences between these two remarkable women are just as easy to identify. Dickinson never published in her lifetime; her poetry remained secret even to those closest to her. Mohamedi, on the other hand, was an acknowledged and muchappreciated professional artist

  1. Emily Dickinson, 'Poem no.993' (c.1865), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas J. Johnson), New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1960, p.462.

  2. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.268' (c.1861), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.122.

  3. See, particularly, Altaf (ed.), Nasreen in Retrospect, Mumbai: Ashraf Mohamedi Trust, 1995.

  4. Geeta Kapur, 'Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved', When Was Modernism, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2000, pp.64-65. Emphasis the author's.

  5. Respectively, E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.544' (c.1862) and 'Poem no.816' (c.1864), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., pp.265 and 397.

  6. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.430' (c.1862), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.206.

  7. See Yashodhara Dalmia, 'Nasreen: Mutating Chaos', in Nasreen Mohamedi. Collected Works (exh. cat.), Mumbai: Chatterjee & Lal, 2004, p.2.

  8. See, respectively, G. Kapur, 'Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved', op. cit., pp.73-77; and Documenta Kassel 16/06-23/09 2007 (exh. cat.), Cologne: Taschen, 2007, p.113.

  9. 'Thus the coherence of words or sentences is the bearer through which, like a flash, similarity appears.' Walter Benjamin, 'On the Mimetic Faculty', One-Way Street (trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter), London and New York: Verso, 1979, p.162.

  10. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.69' (c.1859), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.36.

  11. The exhibition at the Drawing Center was titled 'Nasreen Mohamedi: Lines Among Lines'.

  12. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.546' (c.1862), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.266.

  13. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.269' (c.1861), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.175.

  14. For an elaboration of the notion of 'image of thought', see Gilles Deleuze, Cinéma 2. L'image-temps, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985, especially Chapter 7, 'La pensée et le cinéma'.

  15. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.974' (c.1864), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.455.

  16. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.764' (c.1863), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.374.

  17. E. Dickinson, 'Poem no.1695' (undated), The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, op. cit., p.691