Transcendence, 7 blocks and an unfinished circle
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled / via alchetron.com
Walking seven blocks in the rain for Nasreen Mohamedi and soaking in New York, I understood why grids are important to deal with the precariousness of life. For Mohamedi, this precarity, albeit not hinged on wealth or family, came from the form of her work. Working in categorical geometric forms, measures and grids, Mohamedi created an inverse palimpsest map for modernism in art. Her precarity lay in the process of providing a kind of a “back to the future” sense to Art, where there is no past. Mohamedi generated a form of art that was indiscernible from its own morphogenesis and archive, positing herself as her own grafter.
Walking through the Mohamedi show at the MET Breuer was like reading Parmenides for the first time in a philosophy class; you have absolutely no axis to enter its languages, but you have to persist and go through it. Working tediously with “techne” or technique – here sombrely wedded to handwork – the exhibit generated an astounding effect of new languages, images, and mathematical affect. Embossing motifs of the geometrical, the architectural and of parallel lines, Mohamedi worked closely with the “private language” of codes in art.
The exhibit, staccatoed by pieces about her personal life – dreary erased diaries, notes, and underlinings in her books – embellished into forms of despair and loss, lost loves, alienating homes, and also her ailing body. The exhibit also emerged through other strangely assembled commodities, and a complex amalgamation of sociological tropes, such as the feminine, the Muslim, the South Asian, and the spiritual, which attempted to provide her locales and habitations. Her work constantly tried to negotiate these locales through an irreverent transcendence, like a physicist’s “quark”, seen only in its effect, and not in its origins.
Geeta Kapur, in her write up, provides Nasreen Mohamedi a sovereign ontological location as an artist, who works within “non-formalistic modernity, in which drawing becomes a means for investigating space and personal discoveries, which then extend into the photographic.” She also moves her quest to an epistemological ground, calibrated between the finite and the infinite, and to the point of not having drawn a perfect circle. Besides this, Mohamedi did not follow suit on another ground: she never went to New York, a city that she could have been drawn to for its art and grid-like structure.
My thoughts about her not coming to New York were clarified through an event at the MOMA on the Lahore Biennale. Insistent on categorising art from South Asia as “Pakistani” or “Indian” art, I realised that America is vying for South Asian art. I did not understand how art got recalibrated into fetish categories of “Indian”, “Pakistani”, “South Asian”, “Muslim” and “post 9/11”. Artists from Pakistan come to bear the burden, where all work and dialogue gets over determined by the events of 9/11. A parallel narrative had emerged, “how can Muslims be artists?” I don’t know who really is a Muslim, but it seems that the Americans seem to know pretty well. The director of the MOMA exclaimed to the director of the Lahore Biennale, when he had mentioned growing up religious and being exposed to newer ideas in art school, “well you have come a long way…” Patronising would be a small scratch to this moment.
Maybe this is why Mohamedi did not come to New York earlier, and maybe her sovereignty lay in this act of not being defined as a “female, Muslim, South Asian artist”. Maybe now she has been found and discovered in the categories that she scratched away from the axes of her drawing, and from the forms of transcendence that was her art. Maybe this was her unfinished circle.
Sarover Zaidi is an anthropologist and has worked on public health in rural India.
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