Mumbai

Nasreen Mohamedi, untitled, ca. 1970, vintage photographic print, 11 × 14".

Nasreen Mohamedi, untitled, ca. 1970, vintage photographic print, 11 × 14".

Nasreen Mohamedi

Nasreen Mohamedi never exhibited her photographs during her lifetime. “Autobiography of a Line,” curated by Sasha Altaf, was one of the largest posthumous showings of her photographic works since her death in 1990, along with a few prints and paper cutouts. Her interest in photography may have emerged from her family’s photographic-equipment business in Bahrain. Whether her use of the camera was a casual by-product of her travels or a self-conscious project remains unknown. Mohamedi could well have made these images as studies for the ink-and-graphite works on paper for which she became best known. Her black-and-white or sometimes sepia-tone images are intimate, tender studies of landscapes, objects, and architecture. Tightly framed, they largely abstract the identity of their subjects, leaving mere lines and shapes, forms and shadows. But their sensitivity to texture and to the processes of creation imbues them with symbolism and associations.

Stretching across the central wall of the gallery were untitled and mostly undated vintage prints. In one undated image from a series of weaving-loom studies, Mohamedi zooms into a weave in progress. She concentrates on its texture and occasional anomalies, such as a dark geometric glitch that disrupts the uniform plane of the warp and weft. The artist draws a visual roughness out of her subject’s soft materiality. Such subtle juxtapositions often emerge in Mohamedi’s stark yet often delicate images.

In Mohamedi’s work, the line represents acceptance of both order and chaos. Born in Karachi, in what is now Pakistan, in 1937, she was raised in post-partition Bombay and as an adult witnessed the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani Wars of 1965 and 1971. Her lines can also be read as borders, an interpretation bolstered by the frequent mention of war in her journals. But her imagery also evokes nature and its processes, evident in studies of shorelines from around 1970. In one we see ridged patterns on sand formed by waves, and in another we see a close, mildly blurry image of what could be balls of sand, like those produced by bubbler crabs.

Mohamedi’s experiments with image-development techniques and printmaking extend our understanding of her practice. She was drawn to symmetry, rhythm, and capturing her subjects at the right time of day. In one image, angular shadows of what look like terra-cotta roof tiles form a wavelike pattern. Repetition was a mainstay of her meticulous drawing practice, and her photographs show the same eye for reiterated arrangements of shapes, planes, and tonal shifts.

Several motifs, such as the obtuse angle, repeat in her works. One encountered it in a screen print and then again in a triptych as a cutout on black paper. The form recalls Mohamedi’s photographs of roads: Zebra crossings and lane markers stand out starkly against the worn-out, patched, and cracked lanes. Mohamedi’s photographs evince a modernist impulse in their embrace and sometimes, one might say, extraction of geometry from the postindependence Indian city and its forms of development and order. No people enter the frame—not even her own shadow. While her propensity for close-up views partly accounts for this, she also seemed to consciously capture places at times when they were deserted.

A curious work was hung on the verso of a freestanding wall: an etching with blind embossing and debossing. Three rhomboid shapes along with an incomplete fourth were embossed on its surface. There remains something profoundly opaque about the intentions behind such works. Some are dense and layered, others sparse, and some, like this one, even seem unfinished. However, Mohamedi maintained a fidelity to the line even in its absence—a commitment to the experience of balance through forms.