The first few weeks of 2015 brought with it Mrinalini Mukherjee’s magnificent solo retrospective ‘Transfigurations’ at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. Curated by Peter Nagy, the show gathered together 97 works, from her earliest fibre and hemp sculptures to her later forays into ceramic and bronze. It was a presentation that affirmed Mukherjee’s greatness as an artist. By eschewing a conventional chronological approach, or clustering works by medium, the exhibition was a thoroughly experiential affair, drawing attention to the thematic and aesthetic rigour with which Mukherjee worked throughout her lifetime. Her very physical, laboriously knotted, braided and folded hemp-fibre sculptures, some looming over two-metres tall, were awe-inspiring. Mukherjee worked instinctively and intuitively, and repeatedly cited nature as her primary source of inspiration, using vernacular materials and artisanal techniques that lie outside the dominant vocabulary of Western modernism, dismantling the barrier that has been erected between art and craft. Process-driven, her organic, complex arboreal forms are also ardently sexual and exuberantly erotic. ‘Transfigurations’ only reiterated the need for Mukherjee’s practice to be better known; she was unforgivably not included in the ICA Boston’s recent survey exhibition ‘Fiber: Sculpture 1960 – present’. Tragically, Mukherjee was hospitalized on the eve of the opening of ‘Transfigurations’, and devastatingly, passed away a week later.
Another South-Asian artist, Anwar Jalal Shemza, who passed away 30 years ago, is the subject of belated interest with a new, long-overdue monograph Anwar Jalal Shemza (Ridinghouse, 2015), deftly edited by Iftikar Dadi, and with an elegant solo display at Tate Britain which runs till autumn 2016. Shemza – who was an established artist in Pakistan before he moved to England in the late 1950s to study at the Slade School of Fine Art, and where he continued to live till the end of his life – is part of a group of overlooked diasporic artists who were practitioners of a transnational modernism.
The assuming of a transnational optic when building an exhibition or reflecting on the practice of an artist is easier said than done. It does not imply simply factoring in international travel or transculturation, but rather calls for a finer consideration of a dynamic set of responses to modernity that chips away at a universalist modernist canon while raising questions about the aesthetic and political exigency of certain works of art and design that have been produced both within and across national contexts. The dense, but expertly curated exhibition (by Dennis Carr) ‘Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia’ at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston amply rises to the occasion by making manifest the effaced lines of contact between the West and Asia in the 16th and 17th century. This exhibition takes us back to when the great landmasses of the world, the Asias, the Americas and Europe were first interconnected through trade and communication, and the nearly 100 objects Carr has brought together speak of and to that newly globalized world. Aesthetic borrowing, transmissions and appropriations become apparent, showing influences from across the Pacific and Atlantic. Among the stunning textiles, pieces of porcelain, furniture, ceramics gathered from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador is an outstanding 18th century desk and book case that was made in Puebla, Mexico, its outside showing a mixture of Hispanic and Moorish design, while the inside is covered in Chinoiserie, gold over red paint, depicting Asian characters in a European style.
‘Every Object Tells A Story: Oliver Hoare’s Cabinet of Curiosities’, organized by the dealer Oliver Hoare in London, also delighted with many wonderful and rare objects, but its tone was slightly different from Carr’s exhibition. Here, it was not the geopolitics of a bygone era that was the preoccupation, but rather it is the collector and dealer who were at the heart of Hoare’s presentation and the accompanying catalogue which recounts in thrilling detail the tale of how each of these curious objects were found and passed from one hand to another. From ancient alabaster Egyptian butt plugs to a voluptuous fired-earthen female idol from the Balkans, dating back to the 5th–4th millennium BCE, to Hellenistic Afghani gold jewellery from the 2nd century, the sheer breadth of material was dizzying. Celebrating and accounting for the dedication and contributions of a host of South Asian collectors, now forgotten, was the subject of Dr. Pratapaditya Pal’s welcome and thorough new book In Pursuit of the Past: collecting Old Art in Modern India circa 1875 – 1950 (Marg Publications, 2015). The book coincides with a renewed interest on the subcontinent in collecting classical Indian sculpture and miniatures, and what Pal’s book does is readdress the balance between the well documented collections of classical art outside India and those equally important but lesser known collections within the country itself.
Another historical show that was a revelation was ‘La Toilette: The Birth of Privacy’ at the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. With a 100 drawings, paintings and etchings the show cuts across centuries demonstrating how notions of privacy in the West were developed and transformed. The exhibition takes on an unexpected relevance when viewed from the vantage point of our contemporary context where privacy is elusive and hard fought. The female body is at the centre of the exhibition, glimpsed at in various states of undress, noblewomen, mistress, prostitutes all find favour, and the differing ways in which they are depicted are a great indicator of how specific ideas about female body and femininity have formed and congealed. A certain voyeurism is implicit when walking through the exhibition and viewing women engross themselves in some of the most private and intimate of acts. Works of especial note included Georges de La Tour’s Woman Catching a Flea (1640) in which a young woman is shown by candlelight, half her bosom on display as she tries to remove a flea on her stomach; Eugene Lomont’s stunning Young Woman at Her Toilette (1889) and Pierre Bonnard’s Nude in Bath Water (1940). The other interesting subtext to the exhibition was hygiene, and the changing social mores that have impacted social notions of cleanliness with the introduction of water and modern technologies.
Lucy Raven’s Curtains (2014), which I saw at this years Oberhausen Film Festival as a standalone to its 3D-themed progamme is work a borne of our very present moment. Clocking in at 50 minutes, and meant to be experienced as an site-specific installation, Curtains is built up of 3D still photographs documenting post production facilities in Beijing, Bombay, London, Vancouver and Toronto where material that needs to be transferred from 2D to 3D is outsourced from Hollywood. To be viewed with anaglyph 3D glasses, the red and blue plates of the still photographs start off a separate scrolling from right to left and left to right coming together for a few seconds, and generating a complete stereoscopic image. Curtains challenges our sense of perception by literally and figuratively pulling the curtain back on the production and experience of 3D. Rarely, does one encounter such skilful and intelligent work. The other rewarding experience I had at the cinema this year came courtesy the curator Federico Windhausen and his travelling programme of works by the German- Argentinian experimental filmmaker and performer Marie Louise Alemann, who sadly died earlier this year. Not as well known internationally as her peers Claudio Caldini and Narcisa Hirsch, Windhausen’s programme is a necessary corrective in introducing Alemann to a wider audience and confirming her place within a history of experimental cinema. From all the films that Windhausen showed it was La Noche Bengali from 1980 that bowled me over. Sensual, enigmatic and entrancing.
In terms of music, it was Mariah’s album Utakata No Hibi from 1983 – officially reissued this year on Palto Flats – which came as a pleasant surprise. Circulating amongst Japan’s vinyl geek underground for sometime, Utakata No Hibi proffers another instance of transnational exchange. Folkish Armenian lyrics are mixed with 80s Japanese synth pop, Asian and Middle Eastern melodies are evocatively intermixed all contributing to deliver seven otherworldly, enthralling tracks. Totally wondrous. Similarly captivating was the Spring Summer 2016 menswear collection by the young English / Jamaican designer Grace Wales Bonner presented at London’s ICA. Titled ‘Malik’, Wales Bonner looked to the life story of Mailk Ambar, a 17th century former Ethiopian slave who was brought to India and eventually ascended to command an army before becoming the Sultanate of one the South Indian Sultanates. Wales Bonner’s clothes are emphatically not costumes; she evokes an entire history of cross-cultural exchange subtly by incorporating period and ethnic details, and fashioning the actual pieces out of linen, velvet and denim. The clothes – which were shown by black and South Asian models – not only address gender, but also stereotypical representations of non-western cultures. Meticulously researched, what makes these expertly tailored clothes objects of desire is not only their innate elegance, but the intellect behind them. A zine Everything’s for Real: Volume 2 made by Wales Bonner was also launched at the ICA. I cannot wait to see what she does next.
Finally, I would like to begin 2016 by reflecting on a passage from Maggie Nelson’s terrific and moving book The Argonauts (2015):
‘In response to a journalist who asked him to “summarize himself in a nutshell”, John Cage once said: “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.” He knew his name was stuck to him, or he was stuck to it. Still, he urges out of it. The Argo’s parts may get replaced, but it’s still called the Argo. We may become more used to jumping into flight, but that doesn’t mean we have done with all perches. We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. We ought to, but we don’t – or at least, we don’t quite as readily. But the more you do, the more quickly you can recognize the feeling when it comes around again, and hopefully you won’t need to stare as long.’