Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Meghaa Ballakrishnen

Johns Hopkins University


Nasreen Mohamedi’s Sources: Islamic Metaphysics and Avant-Garde Abstraction

Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), a South Asian artist, worked regularly through the 1960s and 1970s on small sheets of paper to produce “miniatures” in ink and graphite. Intimately labored compositions with floating planes and charged vectors composed with rulers, T squares, and compasses, these pictures carefully calibrate a denial of their support to produce a sense of movement and transcendence. Mohamedi conceives of this practice as the entwined product of two distinct inheritances. On the one hand, Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist canvases from the years 1915-1919, with their floating planes of non-objective colour. On the other, the optical theory of Ibn al-Haytham, who advocated, in the tenth century, spare geometric means to depict for perception the plentitude of objects known to consciousness. Focusing on formative drawings and watercolours from the year 1960, I hope to recover the critical synthesis of these sources in Mohamedi’s abstraction, and how they led her to conceive of an adequate formal and conceptual vocabulary. The paper will speculatively consider the (so far misunderstood) intimacy between Islamic metaphysics and early 20th century avant-garde abstraction, an intimacy Mohamedi so astutely recognized, through close readings of artworks. It will further suggest that this intimacy, for Mohamedi, productively problematizes the relationship between ground and figure – the material space on which a painting sits and the plane which its formal vocabulary is come to or made to occupy—to allegorize a struggle between embodiment and transcendence.


Meghaa Ballakrishnen is a PhD candidate in the department of History of Art and the 2019-2020 Prize Teaching Fellow in the Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Johns Hopkins University, where she works on the relationship between twentieth-century Indian painting, prewar European modernism, and postcolonial feminist practice.