Originally conceived as a solo presentation by Mrinalini Mukherjee, Jhaveri Contemporary's proposal for Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms has expanded to include artists Simryn Gill and Anwar Jalal Shemza. Mukherjee's etchings from the late 1970s and early 1980s and Shemza's photograms (also from the early 1980s) have only recently come to light. Presented alongside these exciting discoveries are hand-printed photographs in colour by Gill and sculpture in bronze by Mukherjee. Taken together, the works in this display consider the abiding role of nature as an inspiration, a sanctuary as well as a resilient force, as it reclaims urban spaces in extended periods of lockdown.
Mrinalini Mukherjee was a singular figure— an iconoclast— whose work stood apart from the dominant commitments of figurative painting in India. Her practice displays a continued interest in reworking traditional sculptural materials, while dismantling the ways in which art, craft and modernism are discussed and appreciated both within and outside India.
Celebrated for her labour-intensive hemp sculpture, which could take her the better part of a year to complete, Mukherjee would experiment with works on paper "to keep her hands nimble". She painted landscapes using watercolour and took advantage of the printmaking facilities at Garhi studios where master printers held workshops. With titles such as River, Rain, Storm, Landscape, these wonderfully delicate and detailed etchings take the natural environment as their main subject. "The primary inspiration has been and still is nature," Mukherjee has said. "Nothing else can furnish my imagination in the same way."
After a sustained period of working with dyed and woven fibre and a brief period experimenting with ceramic, in 2001 Mukherjee turned her attention to bronze. Here, she committed herself to the traditional lost-wax technique, initially moulding directly in wax, and using foraged tools from a neighbourhood dental practice to finish the surface of her cast forms. Unlike her work in fibre and clay, the bronzes never assumed a figural aspect, likely because of the unexpected transmogrifications in the process of their making. Bearing titles such as Cluster and Matrix, these organic forms seem to belong to a prehistoric past - they are mysterious, sensual, often unsettlingly grotesque.
Around the time that Mukherjee was working on her prints in New Delhi, Anwar Jalal Shemza was working in a studio at the bottom of his garden in Stafford, England, dreaming of retiring to the foothills of Kashmir, Pakistan. Born in India in 1928, Shemza attended art school in Lahore and was soon recognised as a leading artist and literary figure. He moved to London in the 1950s to study at the Slade School of Fine Art where his art underwent a fundamental transformation. His subsequent work in painting, drawing, and printmaking rigorously deploys geometric and calligraphic forms to engage with dilemmas of identity, culture and place in the modern world.
From 1977 until his untimely death in 1985, Shemza was preoccupied with his Roots paintings, which he intended to show in a touring exhibition in Pakistan. Modest in scale, these works consist of an imagined plant form in the upper half of the picture, while the lower half depicts root forms. Shemza's sketchbooks suggest that these works involved extensive preparation and much forethought. At the same time, Shemza was experimenting with photograms – images made without a camera – using flowers, ferns and weeds from his garden.
Little is known about Shemza's photograms – they were recently discovered in his archives and are exhibited here for the first time. His references range from the botanical records of nineteenth-century figures like Anna Atkins, whose self published Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions of 1843 is widely considered the first photo book, to the works of early modernists such as László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes.
Through photographs, objects and installations, Simryn Gill considers how we experience a sense of place and how personal and cultural histories inform our present moment. Her work also suggests how culture becomes naturalised, an almost invisible part of our physical environment. Windows (2011, 2017) is the most recent of Gill's photographic series to be set in a ghostly mock-Tudor development of weekend homes in Port Dickson, Malaysia, never inhabited because of the vagaries of economic boom and bust cycles. Since the mid-1980s, when this development was built, its pre-fabricated concrete and brick structures have stood open to the intrusive powers of tropical nature. Indeed, the relentless reclamation of civilization and culture by nature is a recurring theme in Gill's work.
In Windows, Gill turns her attention to the light that penetrates gutted windows, as if it were able to cut its own way through the building blocks. The viewer's eye speeds through the darkness to the bright square at the back of the image where a glut of greenery is visible. These are images without vistas, faraway horizons or the distant sublime. They have something of the claustrophobia and rank fecundity of tropical vegetation. We are left to imagine the world through the window.