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Soaring graph of Nasreen Mohamedi, abstractionist par excellence

Her untitled work at Pundole's auction in April 2024 fetched a whopping Rs 11 cr, shattering the previous record

Soaring graph of Nasreen Mohamedi, abstractionist par excellence

With some superlative auction results for Indian modern and contemporary art in the first four months of this year, the art market is looking good, healthier than before, and poised for even greater innings once the next bout of auction fever strikes in September-October.

There have been several great takeaways from the auctions of Indian modern and contemporary art held by AstaGuru, Christie’s, Pundole’s, Saffronart, and Sotheby’s between March and April this year. That has given opportunities to art lovers like me to discover newer talking points and analyse how works of the great masters are progressing over their previous record prices at auctions.

In this column this week, I would like to share what I have learnt about the seminal abstractionist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose works are climbing the ladder of popularity at auctions, which is feeding into curiosity about her and her art in what can be called a long overdue attention that she deserved in her lifetime. The biggest hook for this write-up on Mohamedi is the fact that at the recently concluded Pundole’s Fine Art Sale on April 25 in Mumbai, her Untitled work sold for Rs 11 crore, setting the world auction record for the artist.

Rising Curiosity About Nasreen Mohamedi

Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), a towering figure among art practitioners, first came into popular limelight when in 2015-2016, two important museums of the world, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, and the Met Breuer in New York, hosted her solo exhibition, titled ‘Nasreen Mohamedi: Waiting is a Part of Intense Living’. It was held at the Madrid museum from September 22, 2015, to January 11, 2016, while the Met Breuer — a short-lived space of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (commonly known as the Met) — launched itself with two exhibitions on March 18, 2016, one of which was the solo on Mohamedi; it was on view in New York through June 5, 2016. The exhibition was organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia with the collaboration of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art of New Delhi.

That seminal exhibition brought global focus on this important abstractionist from the early years of independent India, who was a junior contemporary of art stalwarts like V. S. Gaitonde, M. F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta; according to information available in public domain, she was mentored by Gaitonde and Jeram Patel.

Mohamedi’s minimalist abstractionism, through the Met Breuer exhibition, found an instant connect with the western audiences, for, in her art they saw parallels with the art of American great, Agnes Martin (1912-2004). The Met Breuer exhibition ushered in a wave of inquisitiveness about Mohamedi’s art, that went a long way in fuelling prices of her works at auctions post 2016. Since then, a highly important exhibition of her works, ‘Nasreen Mohamedi: The Vastness, Again & Again’, has been organised in Mumbai by the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, January 31 to May 28, 2023.

Mohamedi at the Auctions

In the past decade or so, her works at auctions have achieved superlative results. To recollect, her latest work at the Pundole’s auction this past April fetched Rs 11 crore against the pre-auction estimate of Rs 3 crore – Rs 5 crore; a world record for the artist’s work. Earlier, on March 18, 2024, another of her Untitled works from 1969, achieved more than double its estimate, and the highest price till then. It sold for $482,600 / approx. Rs 4.02 crore at a Sotheby’s auction, against an estimate of $150,000 - $200,000. Even earlier, on March 16, 2020, another of her abstractionist works, Untitled, had sold for $437,500 (approx. Rs 3.5 crore) at a Sotheby’s auction, against an estimate of $200,000 - $300,000.

At Saffronart’s Spring Live Auction on March 13 this year, her Untitled pen and pencil work on paper sold for Rs 96 lakh ($117,073) against an estimate of Rs 50 lakh – Rs 60 lakh ($60,980 - $73,715). On September 8, 2016, coinciding with her international exhibitions in Madrid and New York, an Untitled oil on canvas of Mohamedi’s had sold for Rs 2.40 crore at Saffronart’s Live Evening Sale in New Delhi.

I cannot produce data from Christie’s auctions as their website experienced a technology security issue recently and they are able to share only minimal information right now.

Knowing Nasreen

So, who was Nasreen Mohamedi? One of the major figures of Indian modern art of the 20th century, Mohamedi was born in 1937 in Karachi but grew up in then Bombay where her family moved in 1944. She was born in a wealthy family, as her father owned business in India and abroad. One of eight siblings, her youngest brother Altaf [Mohamedi, 1942-2005] was also a well-known artist, as is his wife, Navjot Altaf, who continues to live and practice in Mumbai.

Nasreen Mohamedi studied at St. Martin’s School of the Arts, London, from 1954-57. Later, in 1960s, she lived for a few years in Paris, where she worked at a printmaking workshop too. Upon her return to India, she joined the Bhulabhai Desai Institute for the Arts in Bombay, but in 1972, she joined MS University, Baroda, where she taught art till her death in 1990. In the last decade of her life, she suffered from Huntington’s Chorea, a neurological disorder.

Mohamedi was friends with or knew great stalwarts of Indian painting such as Gaitonde, Jeram Patel, M. F. Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, and Arpita Singh to name a few, yet created a distinctive style of her own, marked by minimalist abstraction, defined by lines and grids, repeating geometric patterns, and meaningful vacant spaces separating repeating patterns. Her work was totally devoid of representation, and she gave voice to silence in nature, the blank spaces, the pause between two notes of music, the breath between two frenetic dance steps, the still air between two gushes of breeze.

Mohamedi did not live long enough to see the rising wave of accolades her work is continuing to receive. Hopefully, more exhibitions of her works within India in the years to come will acquaint current Indian art lovers with her distinctive oeuvre.

(The writer is New Delhi-based senior journalist, columnist and commentator on art, books, market, society, and more. She can be reached at [email protected])

Archana Khare-Ghose
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