above: Nasreen’s studio in Baroda, photograph by Prakash Rao
below: catalogues/books with Nasreen’s work, including Drawing Space Contemporary Indian Drawing The above image of Nasreen’s studio is taken from the essay “Memories of Nasreen, A Conversation with Jeram Patel” by Grant Watson.
This essay is in the catalogue Drawing Space Contemporary Indian Drawing, published by the Institute of International Visual Arts in 2000. This exhibit was curated by Grant Watson and Suman Gopinath. The long excerpt below is from the same essay by Grant Watson. It is very interesting to me because in Watson’s conversation with artist Jeram Patel (who was a close friend of Mohamedi’s as well as a colleague) many of the same subjects arose that came up in my conversation with curator Roobina Karode. I am now particularly interested in thinking more about Nasreen’s studio and drawing practice in relationship to my own as well as her photographic practice. As I reread this essay I continue to compare the similarities and differences in my interests and practice to Mohamedi’s. Watson writes: “During her time at Baroda, Nasreen’s work took a radical shift in direction. She lost all traces of figuration, became increasingly concerned with line drawing and during the 1970’s and 1980’s distilled her practice down to the economical abstractions that typify her best-known works today. Jeram Patel described how, to make these later drawings, she sat at a tilted desk with adjustable arms, which looked like it could have been used by an architect or designer. Her tools included rulers, set squares, pencils, brushes, pens, ink and a compass that she had specially designed for her use. The whole operation was performed with a meticulous and exacting attention to detail. As in her earlier works, she would dilute the ink to different tonal levels and apply this to her pen with a brush. She mixed the ink lines with lighter, tightly controlled pencil ones. These drawings were an exercise in concentration and could take four or five days to complete, during which time Nasreen would often sit at her desk late into the night. Sometimes ink would spill on the paper undoing hours of work; always a perfectionist, she would place the unfinished drawing in a cabinet and begin again. Nasreen’s preoccupation was always with space, space as a metaphor, but also as a formal concern in her compositions. For her, physical space occupied by the body was a point of departure or a measuring referent. Beyond the body was the urban fabric of the city, the spaces created by walls, windows and intervals in architectural structures, through which people pass. Her drawings not only described this lived, physical environment but also an internal/mental space; for Nasreen, paper was only a surface on which to picture these different levels and dimensions. At the same time, her almost mathematical spacing of lines indicates a sophisticated handling of formal/aesthetic relations on the picture plane. She carefully weighed the intervals between the lines and released them on to the page with a rhythmic flow that alludes to musical notations. Next we looked at Nareen’s photographs. Jeram Patel described how, even without any formal training, she quickly adapted the medium to her own uses. Her photography stands as a sort of research project in itself, through which Nasreen was able to follow her spatial investigations. Central to this, according to Jeram Patel, was the investigation of light –light as the illuminating component which makes space available to visual perception, but also as a material in the photographic process. Light is captured both in its natural form – the brilliant Indian sun bleaching city walls to a flat whiteness – and artificially – spectacular dreamlike stadium lights at night. Then there is the trace left by a mechanical projector light, which burns into the photographic paper in her abstract compositions reminiscent of Man Ray.” Nasreen’s studio practice was highly disciplined and very rigorous. Nasreen essentially lived, worked, practiced meditation and as I learned from Roobina Karode even exhibited her work in her small spare home studio in Baroda. She also taught at the University and had many friendships and family relationships so she was no shut in. She also traveled extensively and I think she must have been inspired by her travels. I did not see any of her photographic work in person in India. However when I think of the photographs of Mohamedi’s I have seen in books many are from her travels: the street markings in Japan, the water towers in Kuwait, as well as the pictures in India from Fatehpur Sikri and Chandragargh. However her studio practice was paramount and sacrosanct as Roobina Karode and Jeram Patel and others have described it. She had a very simple environment she worked in as well as very refined tools for those perfected drawings she was creating in the last 20 years of her life. I do have this tremendous attraction and urge to the studio and drawing practice at this point in my life. I am excited to be moving back into my fresh clean studio with many of my photographs and discoveries from Delhi and still with Nasreen’s inspiration. I am also reorganizing my meditation space in my studio as this has been an integrated part of my life and art practice for some time. My studio is not as pared down as Nasreen’s and my studio practice is not as diligent but I am working on both these attributes of Mohamedi’s in my life and work. I will continue posting about this project on this blog, perhaps less frequently as this work in the studio is slow. I have future projects with other women artists and residencies in mind as well but want to continue to focus on this practice with Mohamedi for several months. One post I want to write soon will describe more about the residency at Sanskriti itself – the setup, the artists I met there etc.. I think this whole subject of residencies is an important one for many artists, writers, academics and cultural workers alike.