Mrinalini Mukherjee’s Dissident Vision

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Vriksh Nata (Arboreal Enactment), (3 pieces), 1991-92. Natural and dyed hemp, Left: 87 1/2 × 53 × 19 1/2 in (222 × 135 × 50 cm) , Centre: 93 1/2 × 46 × 27 in (237 × 117 × 69 cm), Right: 66 × 35 1/2 × 27 in (168 × 90 × 68 cm). Collection Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi © Mrinalini Mukherjee. Photo © Avinash Pasricha.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, Adi Pushp II, 1998–99. Dyed hemp 55 × 44 × 37 in (140 × 112 × 94 cm). Collection Amrita Jhaveri © Mrinalini Mukherjee. Photos © Randhir Singh, 2017.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, Nag Devta I, 1979. Natural and dyed hemp, 50 × 25 in (127 × 63.5 cm). Collection Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Photo courtesy MMF. © Mrinalini Mukherjee.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, Memorial II, 2006. Bronze, 28 × 22 × 20 in (71 × 56 × 51 cm). Collection Vadehra Art Gallery © Mrinalini Mukherjee. Photo © Randhir Singh, 2017.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, Palmscape VII, 2013. Bronze, 33 × 36 × 13 in (84 × 91 × 33 cm). Collection Aruna Advani Photos. © Pablo Bartholomew. Courtesy Nature Morte, 2013 © Mrinalini Mukherjee
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In Mrinalini Mukherjee’s posthumous solo exhibition at the Met Breuer, one is accosted by the work of an outlier. Large fibrous sculptures made from reams of painstakingly knotted dyed hemp are carefully hung like sentries on the museum floor. But from the get-go it is hard to tell what to make of Mukherjee’s figures. Evocative of Indian gods, human forms, reptiles, plants, and even gargoyles, these strange amalgamations that are as alluring as they are repulsive evade easy categorization.

Text: Bansie Vasvani
Images: Courtesy The Met Breuer, New York

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Vriksh Nata (Arboreal Enactment), (3 pieces), 1991-92. Natural and dyed hemp, Left: 87 1/2 × 53 × 19 1/2 in (222 × 135 × 50 cm) , Centre: 93 1/2 × 46 × 27 in (237 × 117 × 69 cm), Right: 66 × 35 1/2 × 27 in (168 × 90 × 68 cm). Collection Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi © Mrinalini Mukherjee. Photo © Avinash Pasricha.

 

How Mukherjee came to devise these odd-looking beings can be traced to her early exposure to art from her mother Leela, a sculptor, and her father Benode Behari Mukherjee, a key figure in the history of Indian modernism from West Bengal, whose murals are known for their cross-cultural roots. Later, at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, she would be influenced by her professor K.G. Subramanyan, who stressed the importance of drawing from indigenous traditions of art and craft. Unafraid to experiment with uncommon materials, Mukherjee began early on to carve a completely new trajectory by knotting and braiding fiber dyed in vibrant shades of green, purple, red, and yellow ochre. Even though there were many female international artists in the 60s and 70s who were using rope, embroidery, and fabric to make art, none had utilized hemp to make huge, bold, voluptuous forms with an elegance in their stance.

 

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Adi Pushp II, 1998–99. Dyed hemp 55 × 44 × 37 in (140 × 112 × 94 cm). Collection Amrita Jhaveri © Mrinalini Mukherjee. Photos © Randhir Singh, 2017.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, Nag Devta I, 1979. Natural and dyed hemp, 50 × 25 in (127 × 63.5 cm). Collection Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Photo courtesy MMF. © Mrinalini Mukherjee.

 

Mukherjee had an instinct for the inherent possibilities of her material and created modes of experiences without prescribing a single one. Inspiration from village icons and classic Hindu temple sculptures morphed into a highly personal vocabulary. Notions of fecundity and sexuality abound in large scale works from the 80s and 90s such as Woman on Peacock (1991), and Pushp, (Flower) (1993), among others. Here the depiction of a female mounting a male form, and the unhidden female genitalia in the midst of a blooming maroon flower push sexual iconography to the forefront. In Basanti (She of Spring) (1984), phalluses resembling vegetation spill out of a large human-scale shape cloaked in flowing yellow ochre robes. Straddling different worlds with ease, Mukherjee’s deft creation of semi-abstract shapes from folds and protrusions recall majestic figures even as they seem firmly grounded in the earth and nature.

The heft of Mukherjee’s work lies in her creation of an aesthetic that hovers between organic and human forms, and her ability to convey the inner tensions between these realms. This is best seen in her ceramic and bronze sculpture that she began making from the mid 90s when hemp and natural dyes were hard to come by. In Earth Bloom (1996), and Florescence II (1996), swirls of cream, brown, and burnt orange mounds resembling flowers and birds have erect phalluses shaped like stamen that jut out of the flora. What we see is how Mukherjee’s anthropomorphized shapes essentially fused the inseparability of external forms from the physical sensation felt in the body. This effect is also apparent in her bronze sculptures like Palmscape II (2013)—in which movement and volatility are palpable in the regal serpentine-like shape that is as much sexually charged as it is representative of fallen trees and unfurling leaves from the landscape around her.

 

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Memorial II, 2006. Bronze, 28 × 22 × 20 in (71 × 56 × 51 cm). Collection Vadehra Art Gallery © Mrinalini Mukherjee. Photo © Randhir Singh, 2017.
Mrinalini Mukherjee, Palmscape VII, 2013. Bronze, 33 × 36 × 13 in (84 × 91 × 33 cm). Collection Aruna Advani Photos. © Pablo Bartholomew. Courtesy Nature Morte, 2013 © Mrinalini Mukherjee

 

The sensation of inhabiting the works, especially in Mukherjee’s hemp sculptures, comes from the way they are made. Take Rudra (Deity of Terror) (1982). We look directly into the goddess’s startlingly ghoulish shape and are awed by the pull she exerts on us. The knotted surface evokes physical strength, and one is immediately drawn by the goddess’s power that is conjured through the weight and mass of her forms. Even Vanshri (Woman and Tree) (1994) and Devi (Goddess) (1982), wield an inner strength that is strikingly alluring. Although one could not walk around the three-dimensional sculptures which are mostly clustered in corners of the room for greater theatrical effect, there is no denying our physical connectedness to the materials and the shapes in the show.

What we come away with is the exposure to the work of an artist whose vision for non-traditional forms of beauty was one of a kind. Her premature death in 2015 just after the opening of her solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi cut short years of creativity. But this exhibition, curated by Shanay Jhaveri, assistant curator of South Asian art at The Met, brings us Mukherjee’s tangible shapes which transcend the limits of concrete.

 

 

Mrinalini Mukherjee: Phenomenal Nature
4 June – 29 September, 2019
The Met Breuer, New York

 

 


 

Bansie Vasvani is a curator and art critic with a focus on Asian and other non-Western art practices. She investigates contemporary art that mines issues of cultural identity, politics, immigration, and the commingling of varied cultural influences. Bansie travels frequently to Asia to study, research, and write critically. Currently she is working on showcasing art from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India at several institutions. Her work has appeared in Hyperallergic, ArtAsiaPacific, Art Review Asia, Artnet news, Art21 Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, Sculpture Magazine, Daily Serving, Aesthetica Magazine, and Modern Art Asia amongst many other publications. Bansie has a BA in English literature, Bombay University; an MA in English and American Literature, Northeastern University; ABD (all but dissertation) in English and American Literature, CUNY Graduate Center; and an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Christies Education, New York where she earned the Best Student Award.

 

 

 
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