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 much appreciated professional artist and pedagogue. Dickinson remained attached to her native Amherst, Massachusetts, and never strayed further than Washington, where her father was a congressman. Mohamedi, whose father was in business, was educated abroad, traveled widely and lived in cosmopolitan cities. Dickinson occupies a secure position inside the ‘universal’ (read: Western) Modernist canon, whereas Mohamedi is being repeatedly rediscovered as a surprisingly ‘Westernised’ (read: universally likable) outsider from the Indian subcontinent.
I have no evidence that Nasreen Mohamedi studied Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and perhaps this is even beside the point. I will not try to prove any connection. Instead, I will use the poems as infrastructure, as a power grid to support an exploration of selected images.
Who was Nasreen Mohamedi? Pinpointing her in space and time is legitimate since it will allow us to go from a general appreciation of her work to the specific knowledge we need to situate its originality. She was born in 1937 in Karachi (then in British India, now in Pakistan) as the seventh child to Ashraf Mohamedi, a Muslim merchant, and his wife Zeynab, who died in 1942 when Mohamedi was only five years old. Those of her biographers who knew her personally have described this loss as a formative trauma.3 She was educated at St Martin’s School of Art in London in 1954—57, and then stayed with her family in the Gulf state of Bahrain until 1958, when she moved to Mumbai. In 1961 she had her first solo exhibition there. In 1961—63 she continued her studies in Paris.
She was going to get married in 1963, but the engagement was broken off. Another significant loss. Art historian Geeta Kapur writes: ‘Nasreen identified with the body of the beloved, evacuating it of every symbolic truth except a deeply embedded narcissism.’4 Does not Dickinson’s poetry from her most productive years in the early 1860s illustrate a similar mental state? Dickinson writes of ‘Martyr Painters’ who ‘never spoke’, and ‘a Death blow’ that ‘is a Life Blow to Some’.
In 1968 Mohamedi traveled to Iran and Turkey. Later, in 1981, she also went to Japan, and she visited Europe and America a number of times. In 1970 she moved from Mumbai to Delhi. In the 1970s and 80s she taught at the renowned art academy in Baroda. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, she became more and more reclusive and spent much time in her family’s house at Kihim on the Arabian Sea, just south of Mumbai. She died there in 1990.
Nasreen Mohamedi’s paintings, watercolours and drawings from the 1960s demonstrate her perceptive force and sense of visual economy, but they are still somewhat conventional in their delicate restraint. In retrospect, we interpret her muffled ink-and-turpentine washes and the controlled inflections of her pen as hints of things to come, but they do not quite prepare us for her later work at the drawing board. I will begin with an image at the intersection of these two periods: both freeflowing ink painting and incisive diagrammatic drawing. All Mohamedi’s mature works are untitled and undated — as if asking to be numbered, like Emily Dickinson’s poems. But before I address the image directly, one more contextual hurdle needs to be jumped. What about the ‘Indianness’ of Nasreen Mohamedi’s art? Where is the silver foil, the golden thread, the brocade? Is it fair to describe her pared-down visuality as ‘un-Indian’? Could it not just as credibly be labeled ‘Oriental’ and traced back to Sufi and Zen sensibilities, which we know influenced her?7
Mohamedi has been juxtaposed with Agnes Martin — in writing by Geeta Kapur and on olive green walls by Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack 8 — but I am not convinced that the comparison does justice to either of the artists. It comes across as too much of a strategic move: an attempt to claim a place for an Indian in a canon that operates through recognition, in the literal sense of what Western audiences recognise as similar to what they already know. I would even interpret this as ‘re-colonising’ a comparatively unknown artist. Yet Mohamedi was fully capable of using the colonisers’ discourse herself, bending it to meet the inner needs of her art.
Just look at her recently exhibited pocket diaries, with their aphoristic entries in English and their leisurely days and hours aristocratically blotted out in ink. On Wednesday 16 May of an unnamed year she writes ‘hypnotic contrasting rhythms’, and then proceeds to visually re-edit the entire two-week spread into an illustration of this note. On her diary pages Mohamedi stands in rebellious solitary defiance of linear calendar time and its anchorage in the epicentre of imperial domination — the Greenwich meridian. She reminds the reader and viewer (herself) that, whatever happens, she will remain in charge of her own presence in culture, space and time. ‘Be gentle but firm.’
The resemblance between Mohamedi’s and Martin’s visual concentration is not, I think, an example of the ‘non-sensuous similarity’ on which Walter Benjamin based his description of mimesis — a mental process increasingly dependent on a systemic intermediary, i.e. language.9 But is the parallel between Mohamedi and Martin even meaningful in a sensuous sense? Do their works show similarities on the infra-intellectual and supra-intellectual levels that ultimately decide our understanding of an artist’s personality? I find it difficult, if not impossible, to overlook the difference in tone and touch between these two artists. Therefore, and for more political reasons already given, I prefer to enjoy them separately.
Now back to the first image. Its method is one of a muted clash between levels of perception. On a strictly two-dimensional level there is the rhythmic calculation: the unevenly spaced horizontal parallels and the shorter diagonal ‘levers’ making connections between them that would usually be impossible. There is also a purposeful rudimentary three-dimensional level, where linear tricks create contradictions that cause the viewer to twist the surface into illusions of movement and distance. Yet the viewing experience begins and ends on a level of almost overbearing tonal excess. At first the brownish-grey wash appears to be smudging the drawing and dulling it down. If we force our gaze to linger for a moment, we witness how the film of diluted ink transforms the linear composition from painted-over diagram into ‘under-painting’: a skeleton that holds a fluid skin.
Mohamedi was to leave such double understanding behind her and put her trust in the accuracy and accountability of the line. Her key works on paper were produced from the late 1970s to the mid-80s, and are now attracting renewed interest, after being exhibited at the Drawing Center in New York in 2005 and at documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007.
I move on to another work from this period. Like the discreet connecting devices in the image just discussed, it shows that diagonals do not always mean what we expect them to mean. Diagonals were often banned from systematised versions of abstract 20th-century art. A classic example is the rectilinear universe of Piet Mondrian. Purists of different hues have considered diagonals too illustrative, too indicative of movement and direction and mood. Yes, they do have a tendency to be ‘sharp’ or ‘blunt’, to go ‘up’ or ‘down’, to point ‘left’ or ‘right’. But the diagonals that Mohamedi sets in motion across a modest sheet of paper defy such allegorical explications.
The construction of this particular image looks clear at first. The lines seem to radiate over the paper in a predetermined pattern adding up to a legible statement. But in Mohamedi’s linear drawings everything must be checked and double-checked. We should never be too certain that we have grasped the message she conveys and the logic she employs. These diagonals describe an uneasily sloping rhythmical movement through space, or a dimension that might be spatial but is not necessarily so. If there is a grid, and this is a matter of definition more than of intuition, it is composed of two mutually incompatible series. We find a succession of vertical lines whose intervals become narrower if we proceed from left to right. We also find a rush of variously tilted and stressed diagonals that dutifully cross the verticals but also perform a handful of other functions. They form their own series, falling in and out of pace with each other, attempting to link up but not quite succeeding before they are truncated when the paper ends. In a triumphant gesture towards the stiff verticals, three clusters of parallel diagonals burst in from the left, but they peter out before having reached across the paper. If we must, we can read them as consecutive horizons existing in an otherwise invisible curved space.
Mohamedi sows doubt in the viewer. Is this a diagram modified for pictorial purposes or a picture broken down into diagrammatic building blocks? Yet nothing in this ambiguous geometry is outside her command. This is not a line-up of pencil marks marching towards their grammatically correct destiny, but rather the visual equivalent of a philosophical poem that disobeys rules. The image is drawn, not generated. Everything is here because the hand of the artist put it in exactly this order, for a purpose that means something. Mohamedi, low at her drawing-board, did not yield to the temptation of inventing some vertical/diagonal rule and then ‘implementing’ it. The problems coming at her were larger than that; they were individual and therefore had to be individually solved.
The next image I have chosen for scrutiny is more abstract but also more pictorial. We have already learned that Mohamedi’s drawings are not what they first appear to be. They are not ‘minimalist’. That would not square with her goal of achieving the maximum. Nor are they ‘constructivist’. They are thought processes rather than foregone conclusions. On the other hand, to call her drawings ‘metaphorical’ or ‘associative’ would be to underestimate how dependent they are on methodological deliberations, such as the sudden appearance of diagonals or curves in an otherwise rectilinear microcosm. And ‘poetic’ is an unfortunate epithet whenever visuality is at stake, since it is so often used to cover up a soft-edged lack of identifiable meaning.
Mohamedi stretches the field of drawing towards its inner limits and cultivates it on its own conditions. Her drawings do not shy away from the tasks given to them by drawing itself, no matter how exacting they might be. Her hand must deposit the graphite and ink on the paper with steadiness and self-restraint. Her lines must always be aware of being lines, otherwise they would lose their ability to build meaning. Yet she does not banish recognisable shapes from her images. Even her most diagrammatic drawings make some gesture at representation.
This relatively low-key work may serve as an exercise in understanding Mohamedi’s ambition for drawing. We may be excused for thinking of it as an experimental musical score or a scientific graph legible only to a very narrow circle of specialists. Yet the messages this work transmits may in fact be received by any attentive viewer and do not presuppose any esoteric knowledge. There are horizontal parallel lines, evenly dispersed over most of the paper. Some air, some openness or emptiness is left at the top. Why? In a meticulously premeditated counterpoint of straight and curved lines, the parallels are forced to share the surface with a number of shallow curves and short tentative diagonals. When these shapes collide they create optical stirs that evoke triangles or schematic images of cones, but do not conform to the rules of geometry. Somehow their tops are all cut off or simply left unrepresented. Somehow they are shadows rather than shapes. Why?
The notation system chosen for this work, that of the repeated linear mark made to reverberate through minimal but non-trivial additions and subtractions, prevents us from registering these triangular presences and voids as bodies of certain dimensions or as effects of certain causes. We are left with disturbances of horizontal predictability — rippled surfaces, unstable densities, dissonant silence — and we cannot put our finger on the exact point where we gave in to the hypnotic power of drawing. Mohamedi’s graphite and ink traces turn the yellowing paper into a psychic substance that numbs our attention to everything but her own inner life as she wants us to envisage it. Does this relatively featureless work not hint at a cunningly masked narcissism? When confronted with pared-down visual earnestness of this kind, I begin to suspect that her versatile graphic restraint may also be read as a supremely composed gesture of withdrawal into unforgiving self-obsession.
Nasreen Mohamedi would occasionally allow her art to become dramatic, even theatrical, but she would never betray her ethics of making the maximum of the minimum, nor compromise her purified vision of drawing. The next image, believed to date from 1982, prefigures the drawings of the mid-to-late 1980s. She is already moving away from covering whole surfaces with gridded patterns that I am tempted to read, from today’s perspective, as Deleuzian ‘images of thought’.14 Eventually she will offer singular constellations of rectilinear and curved shapes as melancholy ‘objects’ against an empty background. In some of her later works Mohamedi uses graph paper as a straightforward reminder of the technical origins of linear drawing. Here, however, it is an inalienable part of the image. The horizontal printed lines are reinforced in graphite with decreasing intensity until the eye is left with nothing but units of measurement. Recruiting them to simulate infinity is a calculatedly paradoxical move that delivers the desired result: an image forever poised between denouncing its all-toovisible constructive principles and celebrating the freedom of mental movement that only principled construction can bring about.
The eye must actively remind itself that the seven shapes (the ‘islands’ or ‘droplets’ or ‘discs’) that straddle the central vertical of the composition are in fact just drawn ellipses. They have been arranged and outlined to perform a classical manoeuvre for the representation of several circular objects, equidistant from each other and receding into uncomplicated three-dimensional space. Such conventionality is so rare in Mohamedi’s art that I find it difficult to accept. So I switch to an alternative and less metaphysical reading, in which the seven shapes remain ellipses of diminishing size, stacked in a pile like a cartoonist’s unused thought bubbles.
Mohamedi photographed actively from the 1950s until her last years. The resulting images are extraordinarily articulate and full of pictorial meaning. Now, after her death, the photographs are widely appreciated, but she herself never exhibited them. To her they were ‘studies’ in the non-pedagogical sense favoured by art historians. Like some of the finest self-contained drawings by Jacopo Pontormo, Antoine Watteau or Adolf von Menzel, her photographs were more than preparatory sketches but less than finished works. A view, taken in 1971 from the old Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri in northern India, is a fine example of Mohamedi’s use of photography. This horizonless fragment of 16th-century architecture — the angular furrow through which clear water would have flown into the now dried-out pool and the ceremonial bridge deprived of its shimmering reflection — was no doubt cut from a wider shot. That was her practice. The image is an idiosyncratically geometrical composition, reminiscent of some drawings from the same period, but its three-dimensional substratum has not been flattened into illegibility. For Mohamedi the photograph appears to be positioned between what she sees and what she draws. She treated it as an intermediary, meant to ease her through the movements of thinking and doing that constitute art-making. In this sense, photography was less fundamental to her than drawing, and her photographs less radical than her drawings.
Another black-and-white photograph, from 1972, offers a spirited diagonal vision of wool threads in a loom. This, I feel, might be a case of nature imitating art rather than the inverse. Does the photograph not look very much like a Mohamedi drawing? Does it not convey the artist’s pleasure in transporting her own two-dimensional achievements into a new medium? Rather than documenting a fleeting observation that might crystallize into drawing, it celebrates the memory of victories already won in graphite on paper.
Mohamedi’s late drawings move away from the elaborately unstable grid that embodied visual thinking in her work from the 1970s and early 80s. Their shapes now stand out from the surface in desolate refinement. For example, the sparse assemblies of triangular and semi-circular attitudes in a series of three drawings from 1987 are vaguely reminiscent of the ‘postmodern’ paper architecture so much in vogue at the time. They are portraits of solitary figures and their attempts at intercourse. Taken separately, the elements look taut and vigorous enough, but they only connect with each other in a reticent little dance of sexless attraction and repulsion. Yet they represent Nasreen Mohamedi’s courage to abstain from moves that brought her success at an earlier stage. It is as if, to prevent the decline of her art, she discards anything that begins to feel like a crutch. Although these drawn objects cast no shadows, the poet’s presentiment is visibly growing in them. Their sprightliness makes nightfall — itself a passing phenomenon — seem more imminent and real, though perhaps not unambiguously threatening. Emily Dickinson could rarely deny herself an allusion to that final passage from solitude of life to solitude of death. What we know of Nasreen Mohamedi tells us that she, too, would rarely draw a line without thinking of how it must end.