– Summer 2009

Passage and Placement: Nasreen Mohamedi

Grant Watson

Little known outside of her home country until recently, Nasreen Mohamedi was a unique figure in the Indian art world, and the author of an oeuvre that is belatedly finding its place as a key component of the Modernist canon. Her most important works, modestly sized drawings in pen and pencil on paper, would fit almost in their entirety into a single drawer - and indeed that is how many of them were found after her death, stored in her studio and apartment along with her diaries. Born in Karachi in 1937, Nasreen Mohamedi moved with her family to Mumbai (then Bombay) at the age of seven. In 1954 she enrolled at St Martin's School of Art in London, and after graduating joined her father and brother in the Persian Gulf, where the family had business interests. She returned to India in 1958, and settled first in Mumbai, then Delhi and finally Baroda, where she became a faculty member of the Fine Art Department of the M.S. University in 1973. She died in 1990 from Parkinson's disease.

Mohamedi's abstract art was not without precedent in India. On her return to Mumbai she joined the Bhulabhai Institute, where she came into contact with the city's avant-garde. A decade after Independence, Mumbai was - as it is now - an important artistic centre and an economic hub: a diverse and cosmopolitan metropolis, home to a group of artists who practised a bold, abrasive and self-proclaimed Modernist style. The Progressive Artists Group, founded by F.N. Souza in 1947 and including M.F. Hussain, S.H. Raza, Tyab Mehta and V.S. Gaitonde, was an initiative that 'pitched into the heroic narrative

  1. Geeta Kapur, 'When Was Modernism in Indian Art?', Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher (ed.), Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004, p.66.

  2. See Robert Pincus-Witten, 'Eva Hesse: Post-Minimalism into Sublime', Artforum, November 1971.

  3. See Briony Fer, 'Drawing Drawings: Agnes Martin's Infinity', in Catherine de Zegher and Hendel Teichner (ed.), 3 x Abstraction: New Methods of Drawing by Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz, Agnes Martin, New York: The Drawing Center, 2005, p.185.

  4. Quoted by John Willett, 'Revolution and the Arts: Russia 1917-29, from Proletkult to Vkhutemas', Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917-33, London: Thames & Hudson, 1978, p.39.

  5. Nasreen Mohamedi in a diary entry from 1980, in Altaf (ed.), Nasreen in Retrospect, Mumbai: Ashraf Mohamedi Trust, 1995, p.97.

  6. Geeta Kapur during the conference on Mohamedi's work in Delhi on 24 January 2009, organised by CoLab Art & Architecture and the Office for Contemporary Art Norway.

  7. Gabriel Peluffo Linari, 'Autonomy, Nostalgia and Globalization: The Uncertainties of Critical Art', in G. Mosquera and J. Fisher (ed.), Over Here, op. cit., p.49.

  8. The expression 'graceful passage' was proposed by Geeta Kapur during the conference on Mohamedi's work in New Delhi on 24 January 2009.