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.
The spatial indicators in Samant’s works are ambiguous. You don’t know whether it’s an interior or an exterior zone. The first thing that you notice is the spread of abstract colour forms in the background that serves as the only context. Only then do you notice the flitting, semi-abstract drawn and wire figures and objects in the recesses. By incorporating objects, recesses and wire drawings, the picture plane is disturbed and an illusion of a broken space is created, besides stepping in the realm of three-dimensionality. His cut out figures that are connected to the canvas through thin wires seem erased figures or outlines as if they are roving ghosts floating in air, passing by or wandering through the landscape, as evident in Celebration of the Dead. This movement creates an effect of an animated stage. As Barbara Bertieri writes in Notes on Mohan’s Art, “People are characters in a play, and they are moving, acting, living in a colourful, fantastic environment where picture planes are behind them, in front of them.” In Three Women, dense overlapping constructions of different colours and shapes are made by paper cut outs. These shapes in the form of body parts hover between figuration and abstraction, and denote the multiple shadowy and spectral selves within a single character.
The menace is palpable in Samant’s works. A variety of apparitions haunt his works. Repressed histories are brought to the surface, and the undead return. Is Samant mapping the trauma and horror of the post-colonial self? Sometimes, he also borrows elements and tropes from gothic horror fiction, like the creepy, evil doll and buried skeletons. One of the features of gothic horror fiction is that it unfolds layers of narratives within narratives, which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, compares to the gothic trope of live burial.