Exhibition 1by Osman Yerebakan
Institute of Arab & Islamic Art
Opened May 4
Only a few months following the revoked prohibition of citizens of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries to enter the United States, and amidst gradually worsening political relationships with the Middle East, the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art opened its doors at a ground floor space in SoHo, in close vicinity to peer institutions such as Swiss Institute and Goethe-Institut’s Ludlow 38. The inaugural exhibition, simply titled Exhibition 1, bridges thematic and visual conversations between works by four Muslim-origin intergenerational artists whose works emanate from transcultural drift and endurance of diaspora experience. From the quartet, the names of Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi echo with the New York audience for the occasion of long due solo retrospectives at The Guggenheim and Met Breuer in recent years, while New York-based Indian artist Zarina Hashmi has been a stable figure in the city with her Minimalist, geometric prints since the ’70s. Saudi Arabian Dana Awartani, the youngest and most embellished of the group in terms of aesthetic concerns, is a newcomer, although she swiftly blends into her pioneers’ visual aura that meditates on the transcendental and unifying potential of geometric abstraction in Islamic art for contemplative or shared testimonies.
The tradition of determinedly meticulous geometric forms doubtlessly corresponds with aniconism that dominated Islamic art for centuries; however, conspicuous Arab and Persian influence on modern mathematics has had an immense role in synthesis of introspective narrative and systematic precision. Farmanfarmaian’s exuberant lines adorned with glimmering mirror bits, cross and align in joyous colors, simultaneously containing reflective and mysterious ambiance and an equally enigmatic nature of abstract patterns. Presenting the strongest body of the work in the exhibition—in which esoteric extents of nonfigurative art permit artists to deftly render their biographical trajectories—the ninety-three-year-old has clearly absorbed the socio-political climate of her changing surrounding en route. Hung adjacent to allow comparison are her drawings from the first chapter of her New York days, while studying and working in the city during the 1950s. They convey typical endeavors of then-booming Abstract Expressionism, most particularly of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie for maintaining a similar fascination with the city’s vibrant urban skeleton as a perceptive foreigner and embracing its angular architecture. Her return to Iran during the ’70s (later marred by the Islamic Revolution which led to a decade long exile back in New York) introduced her unparalleled potential of mosaic mirrors to imbue movement and transparency into her geometric forms with movement and transparency. Already inherent architectural elements in her patterns gained further resonance, letting paper unfold its optic magnitude in the reflective surfaces.
In contrast, Mohamedi’s austere and unembellished interpretation of the minimalist realm, during her short life, challenged an inherent color spectrum of Indian art and consequently expectations from the audience alike. Her devotion to extremely minimalist gestures and frugal appliance of ink and graphite on paper almost startle the viewer, shrouding autobiographical traces from the artist’s ephemeral lines and stark juxtapositions. Having struggled with a neurological condition that affected her control of her hand, Mohamedi’s extremely introverted drawings and photographs eventually unite as she handles both traditions so subtly; that her photographs of natural forms, such as shores, or architectural angles begin to reminisce her sophisticated and eloquent lines and vice versa. Fruit of the artist’s three-decade long efforts in isolation from the Indian or global art scene, her works on paper and photographs hail a utopian topography, almost another realm, unexplored and governed by spatial profusion. Mesmerizing conjugations of myriad lines—thick, narrow, sparse, or loose—either harmonize in immaculate gaps or clash to orchestrate endless grids that stem from her religious dedication to occupy the paper—a medium that she worked with in small scales but had full command of. Surprisingly evident in such adherence to abstraction are occasional shades Mohamedi implanted to some of her lines, attributing them architectural and animate possibilities; while in others, curves, triangles, and machine-like sketches evoke futuristic and industrial illusions.