‘The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say “There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way”. Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy’1
Susan Sontag, In Plato’s Cave 1977
Although best known for her intricately detailed line drawings, Nasreen Mohamedi also maintained a photographic practice which has been exhibited internationally since her death in 1990. The photographs are visually arresting, taking as their subject both natural phenomena and architecture, and have a distinctive aesthetic in which the focus is on line through an emphasis on edges, limits and boundaries. However, Mohamedi never exhibited the photographs in her lifetime, refusing to sell them or even to give them to friends as gifts.2 In Nasreen Mohamedi at Tate Liverpool, these photographs are displayed within a specially constructed room alongside archive material, treated as documentation similar to artist letters and notes rather than exhibited art objects. Perhaps because of Mohamedi’s desire to keep the photographs private, there has been little discussion as yet on how knowledge of her photographic practice can suggest new readings of her inked lines.
Mohamedi’s introduction to photography was perhaps inevitable as her family ran a successful business manufacturing photographic equipment based in Bahrain, where her father and brothers lived. During a visit to her family she began to take photographs of the desert and architectural structures within, the mechanical nature of capturing images with the camera complementing her existing drawing practice which used precision tools such as an architect’s bow-pen. The photographs reveal a particular way of viewing the world, emphasising form and shapes through the framing of shots. As Susan Sontag noted in her treatise on photography, In Plato’s Cave, ‘Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are’.3 Mohamedi’s choices of crops highlight existing lines and abstract forms present within her subjects, from a conjunction of buildings’ edges to a sinuously curving line marked by the edge of the ocean.
There are various theories as to why Mohamedi had this aversion to her photographs being displayed; a contemporary and friend, fellow artist Nalini Malani has speculated that Mohamedi did not consider herself a suitably proficient photographer, and as a perfectionist refused to distribute them.4 This aversion could also suggest that the photographs were to some degree studies for drawings and that Mohamedi wished to avoid literal readings of the latter prompted by the photographs, emptying out content from the minimal line constructions. Previous exhibitions have displayed, for example, Mohamedi’s photographs of weaving looms alongside drawings in which the composition of lines recall the lattice of a loosely woven fabric. Sontag notes that ‘photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire’.5 Placing the real world, even in miniature, alongside the unique line drawings could tie the abstract lines to specific instances in the world, shifting them from the realm of universals to a representation of a particular moment. A desire to avoid this would suggest a significant difference in how Mohamedi viewed her photography and created lines respectively, perhaps relating to the degrees to which they relate to the external world.
Many of Mohamedi’s photographs provide a link to areas that were in great political upheaval at the time. Their focus on boundaries is strangely appropriate given that Mohamedi lived through several wars prompted by shifting territorial borders, some very close to home. She had moved from Karachito Mumbai four years prior to the 1947 partition of Indiain which these cities became respectively part of the new states of Pakistan and India at the end of British rule, and parts of her immediate family remained in Karachi within the newly formed Pakistan. The border between the two countries was immediately contentious, the first Kashmir War starting just weeks after partition. The Indian and Pakistani armies eventually settled upon what came to be known as the ‘line of control’, which remains the unofficial border in some areas to this day. A ceasefire was called by the UN in 1949, but relations between the two countries became strained over territory again in 1956, eventually culminating in the second Kashmir War of 1965.
Although these conflicts were in the north of the country, quite far from where Mohamedi had settled following her return to India in 1963, she was certainly aware of the tension, writing in her diary on 20 September 1964, ‘War continues – I sit here and try and find a unity – not between religions but between people and people.’6 In 1965 the war would come closer as the Indian army crossed the international Indo-Pakistan border on the western front, not far from Mumbai. A ceasefire was agreed along with a return to the original lines by February 1966, however reports of breaches to this truce continued over the next year, with scattered acts of aggression on both sides until early 1967. Following this conflict, travel across the relatively-newly reinstated border would become harder, and some of Mohamedi’s rare dated works place her in Karachi in 1968, suggesting that she experienced first-hand how real symbolic lines could be. Despite being in Delhi, further away from the border, during the subsequent Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, Mohamedi noted the effect in her diaries, writing on Friday 3 December 1971, ‘EVE BLACKOUT. WAR BEGINS.’7
During the late 1960s Mohamedi visited her family in Bahrain and Kuwait repeatedly, travelling in another region dealing with boundary disputes and territorial upheaval. Bahrain gained independence from the British in 1971 and Kuwait had similarly gained independence the decade before, although neither with the same degree of conflict as the Indo-Pakistani wars. Mohamedi travelled around the Middle East taking photographs, seeming enthralled by the desolate desert landscapes. In these images the horizon is dominant, the boundary between the earth and sky – the two realms were perhaps more vivid in this context and she writes a poetic description of them in 1968 in Kuwait:
‘A tiny dot, a grain of sand / A dot / All leading to the same / A whole / Where mighty winds / blow night and day / To the crest of the moon / to the moon’8
In addition to images of traditional Arabic architecture and nature that she captured on film, she was also drawn to the region’s modernist designs, such as the famous Kuwaiti water towers designed by a Swedish engineering company and completed in 1976.
Growing up in post-independence India, Mohamedi was brought up in a pluralist cultural climate which encouraged a synthesis between east and west. Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernising agenda involved bridging dichotomies within Indian society by attempting to create a fusion between tradition and modernity, for example enlisting Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh, the capital of both Punjaband Haryana that was to be an example of a modern and secular city. Mohamedi took a number of photographs of the city which, as curator Grant Watson has discussed, became a site of unrest and conflict in contrast to its ideological roots. The sense of architectural balance in Mohamedi’s images supports the modernist philosophy of Le Corbusier that buildings in harmony would create or convey harmony to those within and around them. Watson notes that Mohamedi’s approach to these photographs mirrors her approach to photographing traditional Arabic architecture such as Fatehpur Sikri. These sixteenth century architectural structures were built to honour a Sufi saint and planned in accordance to Persian principles, relating to two of Mohamedi’s own interests; Sufism and Persian culture (particularly music and poetry). In her image of Fatehpur Sikri square the particular crop emphasises line and geometric form, also supporting what Watson describes as ‘a modernist idealism in the power of form to effect positive change’,9 and seeming to be of a piece with her images of internationally modernist Chandigarh.
Mohamedi’s formal approach to architectures from different and sometimes conflicting backgrounds offers a bridge between the two spheres of modernism and tradition, as Sontag notes:
‘In a world ruled by photographic images, all borders (‘framing’) seem arbitrary. Anything can be separated, can be made discontinuous, from anything else. all that is necessary is to frame the subject differently. (Conversely, anything can be made adjacent to anything else.)’10
Through framing diverse cultural and often contested landscapes through a similar focus on line and geometric forms, and with the consistent use of black and white film, a continuous line runs through all the images, trying – in Mohamedi’s words – to find a unity.
Despite this bridging action, each photographic image remains tied to the specific reality it has reproduced, the flawed external world where lines and borders translate into conflicts and trauma rather than harmony and balance. Perhaps these turbulent political times led Mohamedi to seek the unity her diaries reveal she sought within her drawn work, removed from the world rather than within it. She wrote in 1970 that she was, ‘reassured by Kandinsky – the need to take from an outer environment and bring it an inner necessity’, 11 two years earlier noting her quest for ‘Reality behind phenomena, a blazing reality’.12 This search for a truer ‘blazing’ reality existing ‘behind’ experiential phenomena suggests again a desire to create with her work something universal and timeless, somehow more vivid than the temporal reality of the external world.
Interpreting Mohamedi’s reticence in displaying her photographs in this way conflates the above theories; it was not just imperfect photographic technique that prompted her to conceal her photographic works, but the imperfection of a tumultuous world. Separating the mess of temporal and specific reality from the line drawings prevents any chance that these photographs – miniatures of reality – taint their idealised mechanised aesthetic and ambitions to perfect design. Mohamedi’s lines, removed from references in the external world, create an inner world of universal forms, where lines, instead of being divisive, offer utopian structures, functional networks, and harmonious balance. The focus of Mohamedi’s lens on shapes and lines reveals a new way to see the world, idealised, a hint at the blazing reality present within her drawings.