When Ancestors Danced
Nestled in a large frame, amidst acrylic, oil, sand and wire are dinosaur toys remnant of Jurassic Park merchandise. Of the wide variety of eccentricities on display in Jhaveri Contemporary’s first Mohan Samant solo exhibition (October 11-November 17), this work, called ‘Medusa on the Moon’, best codifies his art.
Playful and irreverent, it’s as if the late Samant, once a member of the Progressive Artists Group, decided that the history of art doesn’t quite include the history of the world. As curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote writes in an essay on the artist, Samant’s work embodies “those avant-garde possibilities… between the 1960s and 1980s that Indian art did not
The ongoing solo show in Mumbai, titled ‘Masked Dance for the Ancestors’, includes 12 works, some on paper and others elaborate ‘3D’ canvases from 1970-’90s. They’re glimpses of a well-travelled artist who seems interested in everything. Samant (1924 – 2004) seems to have been particularly impressed by his travels to Rome and Egypt in the 1950s, before travelling to New York for a Rockefeller scholarship which saw him living in the city till the mid-‘60s. These travels and engagements compounded a cultured view developed by the virtue of growing up in a family involved in musical and literary pursuits.
The eponymous work, ‘Masked Dance for the Ancestors’, is a nearly 50’ x 50’ 1994 canvas featuring masks, wire drawings and poppet-like figures. In it, we see references to Nigerian kings and African arts and artefacts, which featured prominently in Samant’s collection. In ‘Medusa on the Moon’, we see references to Greek mythology making amends with something older, dinosaurs. The residual effect being one of extreme play, where layers of techniques and meanings come together in small explosions of joy and wonder upon its canvas.
“I first encountered Mohan’s work at the Jehangir Nicholson Foundation in 2014, and they left a deep impression,” says Priya Jhaveri, who discovered that Samant had intended some of his work for an exhibition celebrating 50 years of India’s independence in 1997. The show never happened and the works remained with the Samant family at the Rukmini Museum, Mumbai. The foundation presented his work at the Frieze Art Fair in New York earlier this year, and Bombay was the next logical step in reviving his legacy, she says.
1. REQUEST TO REMAIN VIRGIN
2. BLACK MAGICIAN
3. MEDUSA ON THE MOON