Mrinalini Mukherjee (1949-2015) made her mark as a sculptor in the 1970s, consistently pushing the boundaries of sculpture and iconography in a career that spanned over four decades. Her radical interventions opened new avenues and paradigms in the Indian art scene through the use of particular mediums, and a vocabulary that sought to recalibrate the very ontology of sculpture. Mukherjee gained prominence through the use of materials such as fibre to make sculpture that captured the natural world. Her upbringing in a family of artists had sowed some of the seeds of her work during her childhood. Her father Benode Behari Mukherjee was a leading figure among modern Indian painters known for his landscape paintings, while her mother Leela Mansukhani was an artist who taught in Dehradun. Her childhood was split between the picturesque Doon Valley and Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan where her father taught. Her awareness of nature and the environment from an early age is found reflected throughout her oeuvre.
Phenomenal Nature: Mrinalini Mukherjee, curated by Shanay Jhaveri with installation design by Alejandro Stein, looks back at her long career. Even as she showed widely during her lifetime, it is only towards the latter part of her career that her work started to receive critical attention. She had her first retrospective in 2015 at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi but passed away soon after the inauguration. Since her death, her work has continued to gain wider recognition and the present exhibition is the first showcase of her work in the United States. Jhaveri states that planning for the retrospective started three years ago after the Nasreen Mohamedi retrospective at The Met Breuer in 2016. Jhaveri also points out that the retrospective took a lot of careful planning as Mukherjee’s artworks had to be sourced and loaned from multiple sites across India, from government buildings, hotels and private collectors.
Phenomenal Nature is the largest ever exhibition of Mukherjee’s work bringing 57 sculptures under one roof. The name of the exhibition is a play on phenomenology and the phenomenal, two aspects of nature at the very heart of Mukherjee’s lifelong engagement with the divine and the mystical. The forms she employed to create sculptures made of fibre came at a time when art in India had a syntax which was painting-driven and where sculptures were primarily conceived in metal and clay. She made sculpture with fibre, woven and dyed in various earthy hues, with a texture that is calibrated to human touch, a haptic connection, having an impact at a subconscious level. Appearing at first glance as ordinary garments and tapestries, these actually work through a spectacular reimagining of ancient iconography and natural motifs. Dynamic and fluid in character, Mukherjee’s fibre sculpture complicates the binary between modernity and tradition in ways that make her a pioneer occupying a unique space among post-Independence Indian artists.
The exhibition is for the most part chronologically ordered and focuses on some of the most important works of Mukherjee’s career, starting with her early work with fibre to later forays into ceramic and metal, and culminating in a union of all the three forms at the centre of the exhibition space. The first two pieces of the present exhibition, Squirrel (1972) and Waterfall (1975) are both three dimensional wall-hangings made from natural materials such as hemp, jute, cotton, and bamboo which directly invoke elements from the natural world. As the exhibition progresses, the works gain more complexity, intricacy, volume, and range in subject matter. Her fibre sculpture from the 1980s includes the antropomorphic Black Devi (1980), Rudra (1984), Basanti (1984), Apsara (1986), and Woman on Peacock (1991). As the names indicate, the sculptures are drawn from Indian temple iconography which she studied in her travels across India with her architect husband Ranjit Singh. These are vertically standing sculptures and some of the taller ones like Yakshi (1984) rise up to a height of seven feet and are required to be suspended from the ceiling.
The first ceramic work on display is Lotus Pond (1995) which is a group of thirteen terracotta pieces based on local earthenware pots made in kilns, evoking petals, blossoming flowers, lingams, orifices, amphibians and reptiles in shades of kaolin and burnt red sandstone. On the other hand, the Night Bloom series (1999-2000), grouped together and made of ceramic, are humanoid in form. Blackened seated deities capture a moment of movement, sensuality and mutation in a nod to the iconography of Hindu and Buddhist temples across South Asia. As she continued experimenting with mediums, her bronze metal sculptures from after 2000 are displayed together in a section separate from the others. The lustrous bronzes are alien-like, endoskeletal and primordial. They have sharp edges and a heaviness quite unlike her earlier work. Several of her works interweave fertility, sensuality and sexuality, as with one of the largest fibre sculptures on display, the Van Raja II (1991-1994), which depicts a godlike king with a prominent phallus. Similarly, the sculptures Adi Pushp II (1998-1999) and Aranyani (1996) mimic the vulva.
Mukherjee’s techniques were steeped in handicraft and artisanal workmanship as she had trained in mural design under KG Subramanyan at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in the early 1970s. As she began experimenting with woven and dyed fibres such as hemp through the 1970-80s, she started creating elaborate pieces that took months to make through laborious processes. Her repertoire of fibre sculpture moved beyond mere reproductions of traditional folk art and handicrafts to register a new form on contemporary Indian art. Her very position, as an artist sculptor with art school training and with her personal background born to illustrious artist parents, brings into the conflict the category of the artisanal with that of the sculptor as high modernist.
Mukherjee left detailed instructions on the installation and display of each of her sculptures. Jhaveri mentions that it was very important for him to display Mukherjee’s artworks in a manner that reflected her vision and her philosophy, steeped in symbolism and modern art. The design of the show incorporates these elements in both the space and display, crafting a non-linear journey much like the folds and twists of her sculptures which reveal a nesting of layers. The visibly laid pathway on the floor snakes around the space and takes the viewer along a route that curves and closes, opens to niches, corners and extensions letting the audience view the work from different angles and allowing for an intimate visual interaction with each piece and ensemble. The floor layout of the exhibitionwithrounded and curvaceous pathways is inspired by the gardens designed by the famous Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The sculptures with its deep earthen hues placed against grey curtains creates a contrast that allow them to be vivid in a space that has a muted colour scheme.
The retrospective at The Met Breuer has been a culmination of an ongoing series of conversations that has finally succeeded in bringing her work to this space, and will lead it to many more as it resonates across art worlds.