Celebrating modernists of India

You Can't Please All 1981 by Bhupen Khakhar 1934-2003
Bhupen Khakhar, India 1934-2003 / You Can’t Please All 1981 / Collection: Tate / © Estate of the artist / Image source

Two seminal Indian artists of the twentieth century have captured the international spotlight this year, as the subject of major retrospectives in art centres of the Western-art world. A few weeks ago Indian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi’s exhibition concluded at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, a monographic survey which opened the Met Breuer, The Met’s new venture taking over the New York space formerly occupied by the Whitney Museum of American Art. In the final week of the Mohamedi exhibition, a major retrospective for Bhupen Khakhar, a late-modernist whose impact on Indian art history could be compared to Mohamedi’s, opened in London at the Tate Modern. QAGOMA is fortunate to hold works by both artists as treasured features of the Asian art collection.

Both artists are considered radical figures in the context of Indian art. Mohamedi challenged the male-dominated establishment by eschewing the popularity of iconographic and colourful figuration being made at India at the time, offering a fastidious enquiry into abstraction that she made uniquely her own. While Khakhar, with his experimental approach to planar composition and figuration, made observations of the everyday with an unassuming wit, uncovering provocative themes and taboo subjects, in particular his homosexuality.

Though Mohamedi found little acclaim before her early death at the age of 53 in 1990, her work is now considered a grand contribution to international modernism, and prior to the recent Met Breuer show, the artist was included in documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany in 2007, and has been subject of smaller solo exhibitions in New York as well as at the Tate Liverpool in 2014. The recent exhibition was the result of a collaboration between the Met, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, whose Director, Roobina Karode, is considered one of the leading specialists on the works of Mohamedi. It included paintings, drawings and photographs, as well as collections of notes and diaries,that offer an insight to the mind of an artist relatively unnoticed during her lifetime, but has been written into art history as an immensely important figure.

Nasreen Mohamedi, India 1937-1990 / Untitled c.1975 / Collection: Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi / © Estate of the artist / Image source

The self-taught Khakhar on the other hand had a profoundly successful career, making a significant impact on the international stage by the 1980s, and attracting the attention of other artists, poets and authors. Famously he befriended Salman Rushdie who wrote him into the 1995 novel ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’ as the accountant, Khakhar’s vocation prior to becoming a professional artist. Khakhar returned the gesture by creating a portrait of Rushdie now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. However with the opening of ‘Bhupen Khakhar: You Can’t Please All’ at the Tate Modern, the jury is apparently is still out. While author Amit Chaudhuri painted a personal picture of Khakhar’s humble insights into Indian life in The Guardian, a following article by The Guardian arts writer Jonathan Jones failed to get beyond a comparison to ‘the kind of British painter it (the Tate) would never let through its doors’, fuelling an uproar of responses from the Indian arts community, with comments on The Guardian website from Rushdie himself, as well as a heated response from respected author and critic Geeta Kapur in The Wire.

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Bhupen Khakhar, India 1934-2003 / Portraits of my mother and my father going to Yatra 1971 / Oil on canvas / Purchased 1998. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Ar / © Estate of the artist

Khakhar’s Portraits of my mother and my father going to Yatra from 1971 is currently hanging in Gallery 6 in a display which groups some of the pioneering figures of modern and contemporary art in Asia. Painted rather early in his career, the work is a rare representation of Khakhar’s parents. In the background is the Residency Bungalow in Baroda which was Khakhar’s home at the time. The image of his mother was done from a photograph while that of his father was constructed from his imagination and the style of this painting is typical of Khakhar’s works of this period – the intersecting planes and bright colours he continued to apply is immediately apparent, while later works pursued a more expressive approach. Vivid blocks of flat colour are used to divide and compose the painted surface, to articulate particular areas of interest and to provide a simple but active visual structure onto which Khakhar paints his narrative.

The painting draws attention to the humble and intense relationships of love, desire, relationships and work that are characteristic of everyday life. It is contextualised in the current display with works by artists who have also made a major impact to the art history of Asia with similarly simple, yet poignant messages drawn from everyday symbolism, such as China’s Yu Youhan, Cambodian artist Svay Ken, Pakistan’s Aisha Khalid, and the beloved sculpture The skin speaks a language not its own by Bharti Kher, a leading Indian artist of a generation that took great influence from Khakhar.

Queensland Art GalleryGallery 6installation view
Installation view ‘Asian Art’, featuring The skin speaks a language not its own by Bharti Kher and Portraits of my mother and my father going to Yatra by Bhupen Khakhar.

The Gallery holds a significant body of photographic works by Nasreen Mohamedi. While they were never created to be exhibited, they are now a celebrated part of her career, capturing the poetry and ethereality at the core of her practice. Mohamedi’s father owned a photographic equipment shop in Bahrain, and this, together with travelling with the artist MF Husain (1915–2011) while he was filming in Rajasthan, inspired Mohamedi to employ the medium as part of her creative exploration. Her photographs are an insight into her broader formal interests while they show a nuanced perspective on the landscape and objects, of fleeting light, dense shadows, the undulating lines in nature, and the rigid geometry of buildings. These photographs made up a considerable section of the recent retrospective, and are valued as forming the material basis of Mohamedi’s formal investigation, an art that brings together the logic and rigour of abstraction and an aspiration toward the metaphysical.

Nasreen Mohamedi, India 1937-1990 / Untitled c.1968 / Gelatin silver photograph on paper / Purchased 2004. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art / © Estate of the artist
Nasreen Mohamedi, India 1937-1990 / Untitled c.1971 / Gelatin silver photograph on paper / Purchased 2004. The Queensland Government’s Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Ar / © Estate of the artist

The recent retrospectives of Mohamedi and Khakhar acknowledge the legacy such figures have made to international art, and reveal aspects of some of the vibrant modernist movements that occurred outside western art centres with celebrations of the careers of two very different Indian artists. One, a self-taught artist known for expressive figural works, who experienced a successful international career and was able to bring conversations about homosexuality to the forefront of Indian art. The other, a woman born in Karachi who travelled to study art as a teenager, known for quiet and deeply introspective works that never reached the acclaim they deserved during her lifetime, but who produced an art with the formal investigation and a revelation of aesthetic possibilities inherent in the world that rivalled any of the modernist mainstream thinking of the time.

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