Nasreen Mohamedi’s Black and White photographs provide important insights into her carefully controlled pen and ink drawings, opines Sasha Altaf.

"...The very question of whether photography is or is not an art is essentially a misleading one. Although photography generates works that can be called art - it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure - photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made..." - Susan Sontag

Nasreen Mohamedi took photographs throughout her life (she died at the age of 53 in 1990) but never exhibited them. Her photographs are far from what one would usually call 'straight' photographs. This is because, for Mohamedi, photography operated within the same realm as her pen and ink drawings - she used the medium to track the uncharted possibilities of abstraction. Her subjects were diverse, ranging from landscape and architecture to the subtle delights of salt bubbles in the sea, lines in the sand on a wet beach, painted road crossings, and the shadows of objects.

Did Mohamedi deliberately take up the camera as a tool to foster an exchange between photography and her abstract drawings? Her photographs defy our desire to assign meaning to them. It is not possible to define her photos, but it is possible to describe them and make discoveries about her art in the process. Just as one sees Mohamedi's black-and-white drawings revealing her formalist concerns with space and line, one can witness these very elements constructing compositions through tricks of natural and artificial light in her photographs.

It is remarkable the way Mohamedi's photographs provide insight into her formalist aesthetic - an aesthetic that was fairly unusual in time. Among the first post-independence women artists, Mohamedi came into prominence in India around the late 1950s. It was a decade that saw the emergence of other female artists like Meera Mukherjee and Arpita Singh. Like them, Mohamedi was in search of a language that was emblematic of change, one that allowed for a deeper understanding of the transforming self. But while both Mukherjee and Singh became increasingly interested in politics and in the human form, by the 70's- one could see in Mohamedi's stark 'line drawings' an absence of colour and figurative references. Her visual language pushed her to the forefront of an emerging alternative modernism.

Mohamedi used pure abstraction to create a minimalist language -a language that echoed an inner matrix. We can see this in her photographs - through their highly selective processes of inclusion and exclusion. They reflect her interest in architectural spaces - the paved courtyard of Fatehpur Sikri, Kihim, urban streets, zebra crossings, storage tanks, and textile looms. But, in her photos, these are pared down to intertwining planes and grids, reduced to skeletal patterns of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. Real space is traversed, giving way to a geometrical system of order concerned with the relationship between shapes. She writes in her diaries of "the need to take from an outer environment and bring it an inner necessity...” [1] The photographs are about weightlessness, about merging, and about the breaking down of architectural forms, which enables the creation of a field of vision that one would need to look at 'pure form' with all its intricacies. Intricacies that make us conscious of the intimate relationship between abstraction and aesthetics, between the conceptual and the formal.

Her photographs evolved from a dense amalgamation of surfaces to intimate dose-ups of textured surfaces that gave out an almost-ethereal light. Her sympathies were serenely secular, poetic, and non-specific. One does not find meaning in her images, in a conventional sense, any more than one discovers recognizable images. Her photographs require from the viewer a predisposition to see what is and what is not present, to accept what is visible and available. There is no narrative. There is light, there are lines, and there are proportions. There is energy. One has to feel it and engage with the works’ unique dynamic - a dynamic that follows a rhythm that alternates between simple and complex strains.

"One creates dimensions out of solitude...Lines, circles, dots, traces, beatings on the beach, slow changes in rocks, weaving and polishing of pebbles... it all denotes change...everything moving - grains of sands, all change is inevitable - only the grasping of it is as difficult as important. One has to grasp this entirely and wholly - then there is growth, progress...” [2] Mohamedi re-creates these "dimensions" in her photographs. They are Spartan works, beautiful without the slightest adornment.

I believe that Mohamedi looked at photography as an instrument, as a means to an end. She took up the camera as a tool to pursue experimental agendas, which were often reflected in her pen and ink drawings. One cannot say if Mohamedi saw herself as a photographer; however, her ink drawings sometimes seem to possess an 'extra photographic' impulse that propels them into the world. It is for this reason that the subject of architecture occupies so much space in her work. The serializing impulse of the photographic line or form - the sense that it can repeat, be replicated, go on and on - allows its very expansion into the outward environment. The studied repetition of the line allows for a critical observation - the photograph, thanks to its possibilities of serial and spatial expansion, enables the temporalisation of the architectural form. The internal organization of line and light in her drawings is contiguous with their photographic representations. Mohamedi's exploration of built urban forms, her construction of a minimalist aesthetics by documenting abstracted photographic geometries, can thus be understood in the right perspective. She repeatedly recorded the architectural lines of the various urban settings she visited within India, Iran and Japan, however different their configuration in each city or site.

In a dialogue with Catherine de Zegher for the Drawing Center’s The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act, Avis Newman stated, “I would definitely identify drawing with the infinite space of sensation: both the sensations of the body and the sensations of the mind...” [3] Newman's ideas about the space of sensation, both corporeal and psychological, accord with Mohamedi's desire to immerse herself in work and to be held by/within a similarly intense space outside it. Her practice, whether in her drawings or photographs, was sustained by an abiding philosophy of line and form as a means of seeing the world self-reflexively. We find unfolding in her work an event akin to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's “things of the world” as well as what this singular artistic practice of ‘intervention’ candeliverintotheworld-akind of seeing, knowing, sensing...

What emerges from this view is Mohamedi's preoccupation with the relationship between architecture, form, line, natural forces of light, and the medium. These serve to index pictorial representations, bearing witness to her interests. In essence, her work - the pen and ink drawings, diaries, and photographs - attempt to register the mobilization of place and time while simultaneously grounding them. Acknowledging photography's critical relationship to this endeavour brings home the material exigencies of place, however seemingly transient they may be. Mohamedi challenges us to reassess commonly held assumptions of what constitutes a picture, helping us acquire a deeper understanding of the extraordinarily diverse and widespread uses of photography in the art world today.


[1] Quoted from Nasreen Diaries: An Introduction by Yashodhara Dahtda in Nasreen in Retrospect. Edited by Anal Bombay. 1995.Entries dated September 30, 1970.

[2] Quoted from Nasreen Diaries: An Introduction by Yashodhara Dahnia, in Nasreen in Retrospect. Edited by Ahaf. Bombay. 1995. Entries dated September 3, 1967 and May 1968.

[3] Conversation in Catherine de Zegher and Avis Newman's The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act. Tate Gallery, London and The Drawing Center, New York, 2003.
Published in Art India: The Art News Magazine of India, Volume XII, Issue I, 2007
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