Crafting Geometry: Abstract Art from South and West Asia presents an unprecedented intergenerational dialogue between contemporary artists from across South and West Asia (and their respective diasporas) who explore the enduring language of geometry in their work. Strategically pushing beyond the reductive language and serial logic characteristic of Minimal practices in the West, these artists simultaneously challenge geometry’s association with spirituality and divine order within Islamic and South Asian thought and aesthetics.
Artists like Rasheed Araeen, Steven Naifeh, Tarik Currimbhoy and Anish Kapoor use strong often bright color, dynamic structure and complex pattern to enliven basic geometries, tantamount among them the orthogonal grid, a structure privileged within histories of Twentieth century abstraction. In Araeen’s signature floor pieces, the strategic placement of a diagonal across the faces of the skeletal cubes that constitute them introduces a zigzagging pattern and rhythm into the grid’s otherwise static structure. Similarly, in some of Naifeh’s composite paintings, the grid structure is rotated resulting in a destabilizing tilt and a pattern of overlaps that create a more complex and dynamic array. Currimbhoy’s metal sculptures make similarly subtle manipulations to the circle, a primary geometric shape in South Asian symbologies. In one, a circle twists in on itself, while in the other it is weighed down and elongated to suggest a pendulum, its weight almost corporeal. Kapoor’s concavity also evokes the body, both through its deep, almost blood, red color and the distorted reflections of oneself one encounters within it.
Building on the work of pioneers like Araeen and Kapoor, Rana Begum and Sahand Hesamiyan push things further by introducing additional layers of complexity into the language of geometry. In Begum’s wall-based metal works, color does not remain bound by a shape’s outline but radiates gently onto the surrounding white walls, cradling the form in a ghostly halo or diffusing into the space between repeated elements to subtly explore the interaction of colors. While Hesamiyan also works in metal he does not simply replicate basic geometries. His intricately patterned sculptures—defined by prismatic surfaces, repeating shapes and intersecting lines—distill the structure of muqarnas, and other complex architectonic motifs that commonly adorn the interiors of Islamic architecture, down into otherworldly structures, both futuristic and spiritual.
In contrast to the structural and phenomenological investigations of these artists, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian and Lubna Chowdhary foreground geometry’s material basis, embedding it back into older artisanal traditions. Inspired by her exhaustive research into the vernacular and folk arts of Iran, Farmanfarmaian’s investigation of geometry was realized through her long-standing collaborations with master craftsmen of aineh-kari, or mosaicwork composed of shards of mirror and reverse painted glass set into plaster. Inverting the tenets of gestalt psychology, which strongly influenced western Minimalists like Robert Morris, Farmanfarmaian’s geometric shapes disintegrate into kaleidoscopic fields of tiny mirrored and painted surfaces shattering the body of the viewer reflected in them. Chowdhary’s practice returns geometry to a craft it was closely associated with historically: ceramic tilework, which embellished the interiors of Islamic architecture with repetitive geometric patterns. However, her approach is decidedly untraditional, driven by intuition and whimsy, opening the language of geometry beyond ornament and pattern to the aesthetics of the modern city, to natural and industrial landscapes, and to the comic and the grotesque.
Though also evoking traditional craftwork, Prabhavathi Meppayil, Kamrooz Aram and Nima Nabavi contributions are more restrained, emphasizing the role the hand plays in the expression of geometric forms. What first appears as a white monochrome is revealed, upon closer inspection, as a near invisible grid of rectangular impressions, carefully produced by Meppayil using a thinnam, a small steel tool used by goldsmiths in India to make patterns on bangles. Aram’s meditative works on both canvas and paper, which consist of lines, dashes and nuqta-like squares painted freehand, uncannily synthesize the compositional logic of Russian Constructivism and the forms and gestures of Persian calligraphy. And, finally, in Nabavi’s dizzying pen drawing, geometry emerges gradually out of a daily, labor-intensive practice of mark-making, as the mind-numbingly precise repetition of many thousands of ruled lines produces a dense form that is both somewhat unpredictable and unexpectedly alive, a geometry that takes shapes through its act of becoming.
Together these varied artistic approaches position the production and reception of geometric form as both a vital endeavor in the twenty-first century, and as practices and experiences that are essentially embodied. Geometry is both cognitive and corporeal. Through their art, geometry emerges not as a fixed or given set of forms and meanings but as a potent and dynamic language for exploring abstraction, one that continues to be carefully crafted, both conceptually and physically.
Murtaza Vali An independent critic and curator based in Brooklyn, USA and Sharjah, UAE