Buried skeletons surface, bodies transmogrify beyond recognition, things fall apart in Mohan Samant’s works. The secret self with its fear of the other is outed. The effect of a fractured world and psyche is accentuated through formal arrangements – broken pictorial space, scattered figures, interrupted narratives and employment of a range of media from collage to objects to painting. The canvas moves from being intact and whole to being filled with narrative holes and erasures. It’s ironical that it’s through the abundance of sources and media that the effect of rupture and dislocation is amplified. Both the form and content of Samant’s works are marked by heterogeneity and multiplicity. The form could be best summed as pictorial assemblages comprising canvases with embedded shelves or niches holding objects; collages and wirework constructions. The narrative hosts strange meetings and encounters, from figures of Greek myths, Egyptian funerary wall drawings, Indian miniatures, African masks to toy objects.
A selection of Samant’s works were displayed in a show titled Masked Dance for the Ancestors at Jhaveri Contemporary, Mumbai, between the 11th of October to the 17th of November. The gallery had also shown his works at Frieze New York in May, 2018, for which it was awarded the Frieze Stand Prize. Samant (1924-2004) is considered as the “missing link in the evolutionary narrative of contemporary art in India” by critic Ranjit Hoskote. Samant was a member of the Progressive Artists’ Group and the Bombay Group. He moved to New York in 1968, where he shifted from his earlier textured impasto paintings and arrived at his hybrid work that deployed diverse materials and straddled the boundaries between painting, sculpture and architecture. Samant was a recluse and for a prolonged period between 1975 and 1994, he held no public solo exhibitions. A revival of the Modern period, saw the inclusion of his works in several international shows. Recently, his works were also part of The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for New India curated by Zehra Jumabhoy, held at Asia Society, New York, in 2018.
Samant moved to the US when abstract expressionism dominated the art scene, but he was more influenced by Pablo Picasso’s Cubism, from which he adopted the broken space and semi-abstract figuration, Henri Matisse’s colour field and Paul Klee’s linearism. These modernist influences were inflected and complicated through the use of motifs and imageries from non-western cultures like India, Egypt and Africa. This hybrid art should be seen through the prism of Samant’s floating post-colonial identity. Through hybridity, Samant subverted the narrative of western power and dominant cultures that excluded and made invisible several cultures from the dominant discourse and art canons. As pointed by culture theorist Homi Bhabha, the second-hand adoption of dominant cultures by the dominated may seem artificial and are more like a menace than a resemblance. This leads to its own kind of fissures and breaks, that were revealed formally as well as narratively in Samant’s work.