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Breaking the mould: rise of the female voice in art

  • With significant retrospectives and women-led shows being organized by museums and galleries, the female voice in art is finally stronger than ever
  • The change has been a long time in the making, with women artists, who came after Amrita Sher-Gil in the 1950s-70s

A portrait of Mrinalini Mukherjee. Courtesy: Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation
A portrait of Mrinalini Mukherjee. Courtesy: Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation

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The third floor of The Met Breuer in New York is being prepared for a highly-anticipated new exhibition. Unusual anthropomorphic pieces crafted from hemp—in which the vegetal, human and animal coalesce—are all set to share space with huge bronze and ceramic works. Especially striking is the Vriksha Nata, or Arboreal Enactment, a set of three phallic structures, made with fibre in 1991-92, which seem unsettling, grotesque and sensual at the same time.

Fifty-seven such works form part of Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee (opening on 4 June), the first comprehensive display of the artist’s work in the US. Chronologically organized, the show starts with a piece titled Squirrel, which has been especially restored for Phenomenal Nature and has not been exhibited previously. Covering the trajectory of her practice—from being influenced by K.G. Subramanyan while studying at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and embarking on a long-standing engagement with fibre, to trysts with ceramic and bronze in the middle and latter parts of her career—the show concludes with Palmscape IX, completed in 2015, just a week before she died.

The exhibition is significant for two reasons: One, it reveals the creative process of this committed sculptor, who probed the divide between abstraction and figuration all her life, and ended up creating forms which were unusual, mysterious, commanding in their presence, sensual, and, at times, unsettlingly grotesque. Two, it brings to the fore a strong female voice from the annals of art history, in which women artists have been an under-represented category, alongside many others who have been neglected because they didn’t belong to a privileged class, race, religion or caste.

There are many reasons why the female voice in art has often been a marginalized one. In her piece “Painting Outside Patriarchy”, published in The Hindu Business Line in 2017, writer Rosalyn D’Mello talks about the starkly male-dominated modernist beginnings of the 1940s, when not just the artists but even the gatekeepers, such as the instructors at art schools, critics and art dealers, were predominantly male. Geeta Kapur, art historian, critic and curator, too laments this absence of women as contributors in her essay, An Indian Critic And The Bard’s Puzzle (2012). “Amrita Sher-Gil would have led the charge, so to speak, but having lived and died before her time—the right time for a declarative stance on modernity—there is no female presence at the turn of the 1940s when these male artists appear on the horizon with a modernist credo,” she writes.

In fact, according to D’Mello, the very perception of what qualified as art also came to be defined by men who considered stone and bronze “macho enough” mediums. She cites the example of Mukherjee, who won the British Council scholarship for culture in 1978, during which her experimentation with dyed hemp as a medium stirred the suspicion of male peers—she was daring to straddle art and craft.

The 1960s-70s were not a time when even the few shows by women artists would get enough prominence or funding. For instance, when Nalini Malani—today lauded for her politically and socially charged works themed around violence and loss—wanted to initiate a touring exhibition of all-women artists in the 1980s, she couldn’t get basic funding for the project for five years—no institute in the country believed in the need for an exhibition and catalogue of female art.

The numbers too reflect this lacuna. According to figures by the art research and advisory firm Artery India, around 612 Indian artists have participated in auctions in the last 32 years, out of which only 119 are female artists. “There were only a rare few Indian female artists with an active practice prior to the 1980s. And nearly all of them, to their credit, created a body of work that made a powerful statement,” says Arvind Vijaymohan, CEO, Artery India.

Many feel there is a need to correct this historical wrong, now more than ever before.

Change in the making

And those corrections seem to be taking place, slowly but steadily, within India and also internationally. In the last five-six years, there have been an increasing number of such significant retrospectives and major shows of Indian women artists across the globe. For instance, the Mukherjee exhibition comes close on the heels of yet another comprehensive showing of an Indian artist—the late Nasreen Mohamedi.

She remains a distinct figure in Indian modernism, having broken away from the dominant figurative-narrative practice to pioneer the trajectory of non-representational and non-objective art in the country. Her retrospective was one of the inaugural exhibitions at The Met Breuer in 2016. Organized in collaboration with the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi, the show featured 150 works, encapsulating three decades of the artist’s practice, and included some early oil paintings, collages, drawings in ink and graphite, watercolours and rare photographs.

“Mohamedi set the pace and spirit for the programme. I felt that Mukherjee would be the right artist to follow her, as they both occupy the furthest ends of the artistic spectrum in their visual idiom, particularly in relation to the breadth of the modernity projects cultivated and nurtured in and through Baroda (now Vadodara),” says Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South Asian Art in The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Then there was Malani's retrospective, The Rebellion Of The Dead, an exploration of the artist's 50 years of avant-garde practice. Part I was curated by Sophie Duplaix at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2017, while Part II was curated by Marcella Beccaria at the Castello di Rivoli, Turin, in 2018.

A panel image from Nilima Sheikh’s ‘Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind’
A panel image from Nilima Sheikh’s ‘Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind’

A little earlier, from April-September 2017, Vadodara-based Nilima Sheikh’s Terrain: Carrying Across, Leaving Behind was shown at Documenta 14, Kassel, Germany, and then at Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, and Gallery Espace, Delhi. In this poetic work, the artist composed a 16-panel tempera, with painted and stencilled images and quotations from works of poets like Lal Ded, Agha Shahid Ali and Mahmoud Darwish, alongside Punjabi and Gujarati folk songs. It highlighted the theme of “resilience in the face of displacement” which has dominated Sheikh’s practice over the years. Her landscapes contained references to accumulated memories of different kinds—personal, art histories, journeys across lands—and different kinds of histories of places like Kashmir, Punjab and Gujarat.

Equally seminal was Zarina: Paper Like Skin, which came to the Guggenheim, New York, in 2013 from the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. It “demonstrated Zarina’s (the artist prefers to use her first name) formalist immersion in the medium of paper and printmaking, as well as a commitment to minimalism,” states the Guggenheim essay on the show. Works such as Homes I Made/A Life In Nine Lines talked about her itinerant existence, moving across the globe from Aligarh, Bangkok and Delhi to Paris, Bonn, Los Angeles and New York. Also on showcase were seminal pieces such as Dividing Line, which dwelt on notions of relocation by drawing on memories of Partition, which displaced her family.

According to Jagdip Jagpal, director, India Art Fair, it is heartening to see many more women artists now getting their due recognition in the art world— and she believes it is incredibly important to maintain this momentum.

Today, museums and galleries, always on the lookout for fresh talent, have also realized that all-women shows have become popular and bring new audiences to their door. They see it as an opportunity to cultivate newer markets and are showing interest in supporting research and curation about a number of women artists who pioneered art movements alongside their male counterparts. “The examples are many—whether it is the Guggenheim championing the radical abstractionist Hilma af Klint at a recent exhibit in New York, or the KNMA currently playing host to a retrospective of Arpita Singh’s works closer home in Delhi,” says Jagpal.

‘Untitled’ (1981) by Arpita Singh. Courtesy the Artist and Talwar gallery, New Delhi and New York
‘Untitled’ (1981) by Arpita Singh. Courtesy the Artist and Talwar gallery, New Delhi and New York

Artists such as Singh, Sheikh, Zarina and Malani have also paved the way for younger contemporary art practitioners in the international arena. For one, there was a solo show by contemporary photographer Gauri Gill at the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in 2018, as well as one by the Brooklyn artist Chitra Ganesh at the Rubin Museum (2 February 2018-7 January 2019) in New York. “For the first time in May 2018, the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany presented works by six women artists from India—Vibha Galhotra, Bharti Kher, Prajakta Potnis, Reena Saini Kallat, Mithu Sen and Tejal Shah—in an exhibition titled Facing India,” says Jagpal.

This year has some promising new shows as well—both Gill and Shilpa Gupta have been chosen to be part of the main 58th Venice Biennale exhibition themed May You Live In Interesting Times, curated by Ralph Rugoff. And the Mukherjee retrospective will be followed by a show of works by Rina Banerjee at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia this winter. According to Jhaveri, this is a necessary corrective to received art histories in which these women artists and their contributions have not been fully or properly acknowledged.

An installation view of the ‘The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out—Navjot Altaf: A Life In Art’. Courtesy: The Guild-Alibaug
An installation view of the ‘The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out—Navjot Altaf: A Life In Art’. Courtesy: The Guild-Alibaug

Such retrospectives of women artists also allow for curatorial corrections and help place them in the context of larger movements. For instance, when we talk about political art, the history of the left-wing students’ movement in 1970s Mumbai, of which artists like Navjot Altaf were active participants, remains invisible. The recently held retrospective, The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out—Navjot Altaf: A Life In Art, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, (12 December 2018-25 January 2019), corrected this lacuna. “Since Navjot’s practice is not based on the unilinear production of masterpieces—singular artworks typically coming out of a patriarchal reading of the Renaissance—but is more process-oriented, hence I was looking for an exhibitionary form that would take into account the detours and disruptions in her feminist practice,” says cultural theorist Nancy Adajania, who curated the exhibition. Thus, it was not chronology, so much as encounters, engagements and arguments, both at the ideological and aesthetic levels, that informed the exhibition mise-en-scène. “My curatorial design was inspired by Eisenstein’s concept of polyphonic montage,” she says.

One of the reasons for this change is perhaps the rise in the number of women curators, who are shaking things up a little in the arena of exhibition-making. According to Jagpal, some of the largest art events in the country today are led by women. For instance, Pushpmala N., backed by years of avant-garde art practice, put together the first edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale (22 February-24 March); Anita Dube, who cast a spotlight on many unsung women artists at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, has passed on the baton to Shubigi Rao for the 2020 edition; and then there is Smriti Rajgarhia, who has lent a multidisciplinary approach to the Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa.

Hence, while male curators of an earlier generation found it difficult to fit artists such as Zarina, with her frequent references to Urdu poetry, and Arpita Singh, with her text-based works, into a box, their female counterparts have been trying to find fresh narratives within existing practices. A start was made by gallerist Renu Modi and curator Gayatri Sinha in 1997, when the duo approached the National Gallery of Modern Art to collaborate on the show, The Self And The World, featuring 150 works by 15 seminal women artists such as Sher-Gil, Mohamedi, Anjolie Ela Menon and Madhvi Parekh.

An archival image (from left) of Madhvi Parekh, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh and Nilima Sheikh; and a portrait of Mrinalini Mukherjee. Courtesy: Arpita Singh and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art
An archival image (from left) of Madhvi Parekh, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh and Nilima Sheikh; and a portrait of Mrinalini Mukherjee. Courtesy: Arpita Singh and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

One of the most prominent names in this context is, perhaps, Roobina Karode, director and chief curator, KNMA, who was one of the first few to organize retrospectives of women artists with shows such as Mohamedi’s A View To Infinity (2013), Malani’s You Can’t Keep Acid In A Paper Bag1964-2014 (2015) and the ongoing Arpita Singh: Six Decades Of Painting, on view till 30 June. These shows stemmed from a “certain wariness about the fact that a lot of women artists haven’t been given their due in the past, and that there is an urgent need to start a dialogue around their contribution,” she had told me in an earlier interview.


If more attention were paid to female thought perhaps we might reach something called progress.”

—Nalini Malani

Printed in a dramatic bold font, and spread across 12 double sheets, these words shout out to you. As you flit back and forth between the pages, it feels a bit like watching a montage of staccato images play out on screen. Published in the book Nalini Malani by the KNMA as part of the three-part retrospective, You Can’t Keep Acid In A Paper Bag 1964-2014, nothing could be a better statement of the artist’s practice—both in terms of engagement with the moving image and a commitment to the feminist approach.

In works such as the multiplayer channel video play, Mother India: Transactions In The Construction Of Pain (2005), Malani has focused on the silenced female voice in the multiple histories she has engaged with. She has also been very vocal about the rise of the woman’s voice in Indian art.

She believes the recently concluded Kochi Biennale could have been a great platform for Arpita Singh, Madhvi Parekh, Sheikh and her to look back at that moment in history when the four of them came together for their landmark watercolour group shows in 1987-89. “The Guerrilla Girls (feminist activist artists) were there. They started showing at the same time in the 1980s and are our contemporaries. But they were speaking of an American scenario. They can’t answer our questions, which are very indigenous to us. If the four of us had been able to present our points of view on the platform, there would have been an Indian context. It was an unfortunate miss,” says Malani, who is currently preparing for five solo exhibitions, all set to take place between 2020-22, at museums in Barcelona, Porto, Montreal, New York and Adelaide.

The watercolour group show becomes an important prism through which one can see the factors that led to the rise of the female voice in Indian art. It came at a time when women artists were considered simply incapable of adapting to the changing times. “When Akbar Padamsee ran his Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW)—a multidisciplinary initiative involving artists, film-makers and a psychoanalyst—in 1969-72 at his Napean Sea Road apartment in Mumbai, Nalini Malani, then in her 20s, was the only female member,” writes D’Mello.

In 1979, Malani visited the newly-opened A.I.R. Gallery in New York, the first all-female artist cooperative gallery in the US, where she was introduced to Ana Mendieta, Nancy Spero and May Stevens. On her return, Malani came up with an ambitious idea for a touring all-women exhibition in India.

Malani made an extensive list of female artists from diverse fields, including graphic art. And with the help of sculptor Piloo Pochkhanawala, they wrote to various organizations for support for five years—but got none. “In the meanwhile, Piloo Pochkhanawala passed away, and Arpita said let’s just have the show together. We decided on watercolour as a medium for homogeneity. Also, because we could travel easily with them. We went everywhere by train, second class, along with our kids,” she says. There were five shows, held 1987 onwards, mostly at non-commercial public venues.

According to Sheikh, the idea was new for the time and it did get attention, but most of it was from female critics. “There was no active hostility, but there was a perplexity about why four women were showing together, and a rather patronizing or condescending response. But I think it did start an understanding of what women in art getting together could possibly mean,” she says.

Art through the gender lens

At the peak of her career, Georgia O’Keeffe refused to lend her work to the show Women Artists: 1550 To 1950, in Los Angeles. Her argument was that she saw herself as “one of the best painters”, not just as a woman painter. Closer home, photographer Dayanita Singh abhors the tag of a woman artist. Mukherjee and Mohamedi, too, resisted such categorical delineations .

Is there, then, a sense of feeling stifled when you are viewed only through certain categories? “Looking at women artists from a feminist perspective is not undermining their practices, provided it is not seen through the lens of gender alone, or with a limited objective. It requires a good grasp of what specific artistic practices do, what meanings they produce and for whom,” says Navjot Altaf, who became the first living artist invited for a retrospective by the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, since it opened to the public in 1996.

Ranjit Hoskote, cultural theorist and poet, concurs with Altaf and believes it becomes important to emphasize this aspect, especially since many practitioners are making their way against the grain of patriarchy. “It’s true that no one says ‘men artists’, but that’s exactly the point. Especially for a certain generation of pioneering artists, it is productive to situate them in a history of gender politics,” he says. He recalls a conversation with Sheikh—that when she started writing on art as a young person, some people would suggest that Gulammohammed Sheikh (her husband) had written it. “Such an automatic refusal to credit women with agency and authorship is typical of a condescending patriarchy,” he says. From being acknowledged for their own work to finding representation in galleries—it has been a challenge.

However, instead of confining one’s view just to gender, it becomes extremely critical to place their practice in a wider context of “trans-culturality and trans-regionality” as well. What were the reasons, for one, that it was in the 1990s that Mohamedi gained far-reaching international exposure, after Suman Gopinath included some of the works in Drawing Space: Contemporary Indian Drawing, co-curating it with London-based curator and researcher Grant Watson? The surge in recognition for the artist happened, perhaps, because her work was legible in an Euro-American context, when the West was revisiting concepts in abstraction and minimalism.

Why, then, did it take far longer for some of the others to gain that global momentum? Take Arpita Singh, for instance. “Hers is a complex, visionary body of work, which lays bare the structural violence of society at a national and global level, creating both collision and collusion between word and image,” observes Adajania. And, yet, it is overlooked in the biennale circuit because it resists easy assimilation into what is still an Euro-American canonC

‘Untitled’ (1969), a woodcut printed in burnt umber on handmade paper. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Installation Views by Brian Forrest
‘Untitled’ (1969), a woodcut printed in burnt umber on handmade paper. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Installation Views by Brian Forrest

A similar question is being put to Allegra Pesenti, associate director, Grunwald Centre for the Graphic Arts, Los Angeles, who curated Zarina’s show at the Hammer Museum. The New York-based artist was in her 70s when the first museum survey was held by the institution in 2012. She had taught at various institutions and had a loyal following of artists in India, yet she remained very much under the radar until the Hammer exhibition. “Zarina was hard to pin down. She was considered an alien in America, even though she was an American citizen. She needed a visa to get into India, her country of birth, even though she was chosen to represent India at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011,” says Pesenti. Her exposure to a larger public through the exhibition at the Hammer Museum certainly placed her artistic skills within the discourse of modernism, but this belated approval was also due to the more global and ‘mobile’ art world of the current times, when artists living and working in countries other than their own are the norm.

“We need to provide a nuanced reading, instead of reaching for sweeping binaries of gender which are unproductive. In India, you have to look at everything through an intersectional lens. When you talk about gender, you also have to look at caste, class, regional history, and only then do you get the full picture,” says Adajania.

The last word belongs to Karode, who believes that the change has been a long time in the making—women artists, who came after Sher-Gil in the 1950s-70s, are being feted for disrupting the norms of the times. They took risks that saw a move from the woman painted as an object towards women as subjects. These artists presented the world from their vantage points and painted subjects which were often undesirable, unpalatable and difficult to view. “They are now leading the forefront. They are eminent artists, strong women who have instilled the female voice in the contemporary art world,”says Karode.


Imposing presence

A new retrospective at The Met Breuer looks at Mrinalini Mukherjee’s unique vocabulary

Edited excerpts from an interview with Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South Asian art in The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, about Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee

It is said that with the exception of Bhupen Khakhar and Mrinalini Mukherjee, very few artists have tackled sexuality in such an overt way. What makes Mukherjee’s vocabulary so unique?

What makes her evocation of sexuality compelling is the emphasis on potentiality and not the culmination of pleasure. It was not the ecstasy of climax that Mukherjee sought to capture in her undulating, swelling, surging, heaving, rippling presences; theirs was another eroticism that reached exaggerated proportions. The preoccupation was with interplay and signifying states of unison and division, ascension and dissension.

‘Vriksha Nata’ (1991-92). Collection of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Photograph by Avinash Pasricha
‘Vriksha Nata’ (1991-92). Collection of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Photograph by Avinash Pasricha

Her most overtly erotic works are the free-standing pieces inaugurated with Pushp in 1993, which was inspired by a burgeoning magnolia flower, where the evocation of female genitalia is unmistakable. In earlier works like Nag Devta, from 1979, Mukherjee’s interest in sexual difference is evident, this piece is abounding with fecundity and vitality, combining male and female sexual attributes in a single form. By using an intuitive, labour-intensive process of working with her hands, Mukherjee created unusual forms which are commanding in presence and scale and resist naturalism.

If you could talk about her early influences?

She was the daughter of two artists—Benode Behari Mukherjee and Leela Mukherjee—and it is to a childhood divided between the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas and the flat, rugged landscape of Santiniketan, West Bengal, that her appreciation for nature can be traced. K.G. Subramanyan did, of course, have an influence on Mukherjee’s thinking, as he encouraged students to engage with the entire spectrum of historically Indian artistic and craft traditions, and encouraged her use of unconventional materials.

Mukherjee’s attraction to fibre was, above all, a personal choice. In 1972, she relocated to Nizamuddin East in New Delhi, and fully invested her energies in situating her woven forms as sculpture. At this time, she also formed a close friendship with the artist and critic Jagdish Swaminathan, whose interest in the auratic image influenced her practice as she moved into the realm of the metaphoric, while still retaining the ideological direction of Subramanyan’s art-crafts relation. It must be noted that Mukherjee almost certainly chose to work in bronze from having watched her mother, Leela, model and cast small sculptures in bronze.

‘Adi Pushp II’, dyed hemp (1998-99), by Mrinalini Mukherjee . Collection of Amrita Jhaveri, Photograph by Randhir Singh (2017)
‘Adi Pushp II’, dyed hemp (1998-99), by Mrinalini Mukherjee . Collection of Amrita Jhaveri, Photograph by Randhir Singh (2017)

What were the revelations about her process?

The one thing I discovered was that Mukherjee was very fastidious about how she wanted her works to be displayed and installed. She drew up, with the assistance of her ex-husband, the architect Ranjit Singh, very detailed “installation instructions” when she could herself not be present. Also, as some parts of her work would need to be contoured into their original shape, having been folded into themselves during packing and shipping, precise measurements were provided.

These instruction sheets are a fascinating insight into Mukherjee’s working process, and also demonstrate her awareness of the implications of space and architecture on how audiences would perceive and experience her sculptures.

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