Critics’ Picks

Nelly Sethna, Untitled, ca. late 1960s–early 1970s, wool and cotton tapestry, 10' 3'' x 4' 6''.

Nelly Sethna, Untitled, ca. late 1960s–early 1970s, wool and cotton tapestry, 10' 3'' x 4' 6''.

Mumbai

Nelly Sethna

Chatterjee & Lal
Arthur Bunder Road, 1/18 Floor 1, Kamal Mansion
September 1–October 16, 2021

A portrait of Nelly Sethna at the Cranbrook Academy of Art welcomes us at Chatterjee & Lal gallery. Dressed in an elegant black Parsi Gara with golden embroidery, she smiles radiantly by a loom. In 1957, following a meeting with pioneering textile designer Marianne Strengell in Bombay, Sethna earned a scholarship to study at the renowned design school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where she became immersed in the ethos of Scandinavian modernism and Strengell’s experimental, textural approach to fiber arts.

Curated by Nancy Adajania, this research-driven retrospective is a first for the artist, bringing together three decades of her tapestry production with digital prints of site-specific installations and research material. The title of the show—“The Unpaved, Crusty, Earthy Road”—comes from a quote from Sethna and underscores her enduring fascination with nature as a source and guide for design, also evident in her palate of browns, burnt siennas, mauves, cobalt, and phthalo greens. Represented here by a vinyl print, Sethna’s untitled ceramic mural for Bombay’s Express Towers (designed in 1972 by fellow Cranbrook alum Joseph Allen Stein) mimics, in its arch-like forms, the waves of the Arabian Sea.

Sethna refused to silo these natural forms from the geometric structures of the built environment. One untitled wall hanging, woven in wool and cotton in late 1960s and early 1970s, was possibly inspired by architecture observed in New York City, where she attended the First World Congress of Craftsmen in 1964. The vertical tapestry is reminiscent of a skyscraper with a grove of trees, perhaps representing Central Park, in the foreground. 

Two bright, figurative tapestries created posthumously by her associate Roshan Mullan speak to Sethna’s collaborative ethic and her generous legacy. What she left behind, above all else perhaps, is a unique visual language, far from the nationalist aesthetics expected of artists in post-independence India. She drew instead from a range of rich, global sources across time, from Persepolis to Kashmir to Colombia. As the show’s title implies, Sethna always took the road less traveled.