Fugitive Abstraction: Zarina, Mohamedi, and Lala Rukh

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This dissertation attends to the important but largely unexamined history of abstraction across postcolonial South Asia during the second half of the twentieth century. It focuses on a loose constellation of artists on whom little scholarship exists—Zarina (1937-2020), Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), and Lala Rukh (1948-2017)—women who were working across postcolonial Pakistan, India, the western Indian Ocean, and its diasporas. Fugitive Abstraction investigates the artists’ shared approach to aesthetic form that links the traumatic partition of the Indian subcontinent with decolonization and the diasporic dislocations that resulted, foregrounding themes of translation, fugitivity, hapticality, and opacity. Instead of situating these artists’ practices within Euro-American postwar abstraction, a category they are often subsumed under, I demonstrate instead how they negotiated the fraught inheritance of colonial modernism by reframing early modern art and architectural aesthetics as a site of postcolonial feminist reclamation. These artists drew indigenous aesthetics—Mughal, Buddhist and Hindu architecture, Indo-Persian miniature painting techniques, and Urdu poetry—together with Post-Minimalist, process-based material experiments in photo-montage, collage, printmaking, drawing and sculpture. “Fugitive,” in the dissertation title, brings the methodologies of Black studies together with postcolonial and translation theory, as well as feminist and queer theory, to analyze a form of abstraction in these artists’ works that is a transgression of nationalist reconfigurations of postcolonial representation—of the post-independence nation-state, the sanctity of territorial boundaries, and the gendered narratives of home and homeland. Ultimately, I argue that these underrepresented artists refuse the representational, territorial and imaginal boundaries of the nation-states of India and Pakistan, offering us an example of migratory, minoritarian aesthetics that precede discourses of globalization in the 1990s and the concurrent rise of majoritarian nationalism and ethno-racialized communal violence across South Asia.

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345 pages
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Abstraction; Art; Decolonization; Diaspora; Postcolonial; Translation
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Dadi, Iftikhar
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Melas, Natalie
Ghosh, Durba
Hassan, Salah
Degree Discipline
History of Art, Archaeology, and Visual Studies
Degree Name
Ph. D., History of Art, Archaeology, and Visual Studies
Degree Level
Doctor of Philosophy
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dissertation or thesis
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